VATICAN CITY — Could the current crisis in the Anglican Communion actually be a moment of grace to build bridges between the Episcopalian and Catholic churches?

After the negative consequences that followed the ordination of Rev. Gene Robinson as the first openly practicing homosexual bishop in the Anglican Communion, the eyes of some Episcopalians are looking toward Rome for guidance and possible answers.

“We've lately seen an upsurge in Episcopalians coming over to us,” said Father Christopher Phillips, pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement parish in San Antonio.

And the Curia appears open to welcoming them.

“[This crisis] is probably an invitation to extend a hand and enable them to overcome problems and difficulties they are facing now,” said Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson, a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

But how could the Church do this and do it sensitively? One tried-and-tested possibility is to increase awareness of a generous but little-known arrangement offered by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

Called a “pastoral provision,” the arrangement allows Anglican clergy and lay people to retain their Anglican heritage and traditions but enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.

It was primarily “a means by which married, former Episcopalian pastors could become Catholic priests quicker,” said Father William Stetson, assistant to Cardinal Bernard Law, the Holy See's delegate for overseeing the arrangement.

But it has gone further than that, enabling six whole Episcopalian parishes in the United States to enter into communion with Rome but retain their Anglican liturgy, or what they call an “Anglican-use” liturgy based on the Book of Common Prayer.

The parish of Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio was one of the first such parishes to use the Anglican-use liturgy in 1983. Begun by 18 converts under the authority of diocesan bishops, the parish is not territorial but rather a “personal parish” with no restrictions on any Catholic to participate in its parish life and worship.

“[The pastoral provision] makes the transition to the Catholic faith easier,” Father Phillips said.

He said the community is “constantly growing,” with more than 400 families.

“We've just renovated the church-run school and had to double the church building in size so that all the parishioners could be accommodated,” he said.

Father Phillips stressed that the parish's “Anglican-use Latin rite,” whose origins can be traced back to Rome, actually serves to “enrich” the Church.

“We were practicing an English liturgy long before the Roman Catholic Church,” he said. “So we have something to offer.”

African Anglicans

However, it is not only a number of angry Episcopalians in the United States who are looking elsewhere to nourish their spiritual lives. Arguably more pronounced is the disillusionment felt among members of the Anglican Communion in Africa.

The day after Robinson's ordination, the archbishop of Nairobi severed ties with the Episcopalian province of New Hampshire, followed by the entire Anglican Church of Kenya and Nigeria.

However, they have retained their links with the archbishop of Canterbury despite the archbishop continuing to remain in communion with the New Hampshire province.

This has led some Church leaders to speculate about the relation-

ship between these African dioceses and Canterbury. Could it diminish to the point at which whole dioceses might consider joining the Catholic Church?

This might precipitate a new “Anglican rite,” which, were enough requests to come forward, would “in principle” be considered, said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in a recent Register interview.

Ghanaian Cardinal Turkson pointed out that in his country it is already possible “to borrow, for example, the Anglican style of celebrating vespers and do it in our Catholic church.”

However, in order to formalize such a large-scale conversion, there is the problem of jurisdiction. If a whole diocese led by its archbishop chose to enter into full communion, it would overlap with the already-existing Catholic diocesan boundaries.

One possible solution would be to incorporate it into an existing diocese. Another would be to set up a personal prelature, which would be based on people rather than geography but under the existing hierarchical authority of the Latin rite.

“If a whole diocese converted, the transition would be easy,” Father Phillips said. “Of course, for misguided ecumenists it would be something of a headache, but for the Catholic Church as a whole, it would be wonderful.”

Applying a pastoral provision to such a context, however, is not much favored by Father Stetson. “The situation is quite different in Africa,” he said. “I don't think there is an easy solution to this in the short term.”

Even in England and Wales, Catholic bishops refused 10 years ago to endorse such a move in their own dioceses, voicing concerns that it might undermine the progress made so far in ecumenical relations.

Yet the need to reach out to disillusioned members of the Anglican Communion remains very real.

“I've seen some [Episcopalians] angry and actually crying. They just don't know what to do,” said Father Phillips, who was received into the Church in 1983. “Their religion has been gradually turned into some Gnostic cult, or actually something worse. They simply can't stay where they are, so where can they go?”

“[The pastoral provision] is providing a solution,” he said. “This is what the Holy Father has permitted; he's said that this is what we're supposed to give them. It respects the beauty of the liturgy, has its own dignity and ethos and at the same time brings back some of the patrimony of the Church.”

When asked whether advocating the provision at this time might be seen by some as exploitative, Father Phillips countered: “How is it exploiting them? How compassionate is it to leave them bleeding in a ditch and not to pick them up and help them? These people desperately need a spiritual home, and Roman Catholicism is their spiritual home, having broken away from it in the 16th century.”

While cautious about the timing of pushing the pastoral provision, Cardinal Turkson was supportive.

“It should not lead an Anglican into thinking that we're exploiting a difficult situation that they've had,” he cautioned. “That would be furthest away in the minds of any of us.”

“But if this serves to bring us closer together,” said Cardinal Turkson, “we just have to recognize again the hand of God in history, give thanks to him and let that occasion fashion a unity among Christians for which we always pray.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.