Captain Benedict to the Rescue

In all the media frenzy over last month’s announcement by the Vatican of a new structure for the reception of Anglicans into full communion, one commenter said it was like the Titanic pulling up to a stricken ship to rescue the survivors.

Another adjusted the analogy and said that, in fact, the Anglican Church was the mortally wounded Titanic and the Catholic Church was the Carpathia, whose captain heard the call and raced to the rescue.

These two weren’t the first to use the analogy of the Barque of Peter being like a lifeboat.

St. John Bosco had a famous vision of two columns, one bearing an image of Our Lady Help of Christians and the other a huge host. An inscription on the host’s column identified it as the “Salvation of Believers.” Between the two columns sailed a great warship with the Successor of St. Peter at the helm. Through a great sea battle, it sailed, giving strength and shelter to a multitude of lesser allied ships.

As a former Anglican priest, I couldn’t help but remember St. John Bosco’s vision as, almost beyond all imagining, Pope Benedict XVI set forth his radical plan to reconcile all Anglicans who are willing.

The new “personal ordinariate” allows historic Anglicans to come into full communion with the bishop of Rome individually and corporately. They will be able to retain a Vatican-approved, Anglican-style liturgy.

Their married priests will have the possibility of being ordained as Catholic priests. They will even have their own parallel structure of governance. An “ordinary” — a former Anglican priest or bishop — will have a non-geographical jurisdiction over them.

The details have still to be worked out, but the arrangement will be similar to the structure of ministry for the military or to the Eastern-rite Churches, which also have their own liturgies, hierarchy and traditions.

The reason the Anglicans are not granted the same status as the Eastern-rite Churches is that their liturgy was once Catholic and they departed from full communion.

The success of this new arrangement will depend on the willingness of Catholic bishops to accommodate the new structures, but it will depend even more on the response of the Anglicans. This is where it gets complicated.

Catholics should understand that the Anglican Communion is not a unified, centralized religion like Catholicism. Instead, it is a confederation of contradictions. There are evangelical Protestant Anglicans, liberal Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics. Of the three, only the Anglo-Catholics will be interested in reconciliation with Rome.

In addition to these three groupings, the worldwide Anglican Communion is split into autonomous national provinces. Every country has its own Anglican (or Episcopal) Church with its own rules, bylaws and hierarchy.

To complicate things further, the Anglican Communion has been in schismatic mode for the last 40 years. There are now more than 125 different “continuing” Anglican churches. These are groups of believers who follow the Anglican traditions but have split from the mainstream churches (or from other schisms) over theological, liturgical, financial or moral matters.

Some of these churches are impressive outfits with well-educated clergy and growing congregations. Others are shadowy affairs with no more than a “bishop,” a website and a few eccentric people meeting in a shed, garage or attic.

The existence of all the Anglican “continuing” churches means the world of Anglicanism is more divided and bewildering than most Catholics realize.

Therefore, reconciliation with the Catholic Church will be a bit like the game of pickup sticks. The sticks have all been tossed on the table, and the Vatican will have to pick each one up carefully and return it to the can of unity without disturbing all the other sticks. This will require delicate diplomacy and careful handling.

Finally, the success of this venture will really come down to the cooperation (or lack of it) from the Anglican and Episcopal Churches worldwide.

Anglicans should be realistic. Their worldwide communion is breaking apart. The evangelicals are going their own way with new global alliances that challenge the authority of the old Anglo-American establishment. That establishment is increasingly dominated by a strident, politically correct liberal group whose people would rather see the destruction of the Anglican Communion than compromise on their feminist-homosexualist agenda.

At the same time, the Anglo-Catholics want desperately to “come home to Rome.”

There will be many practical problems in the implementation of the Vatican’s dream, but they can be overcome. One of the main problems will be material. The new Anglican-use Catholic parishes will need buildings to worship in, and the people will want to keep the ones they already know and love.

The Anglican-Episcopal response should be sane, generous and realistic. The powers that be should realize that the old Anglican via media (middle road), which tried to please everybody, simply doesn’t work anymore. In many parts of the world, members will find themselves burdened with too many church buildings, decreasing numbers of parishioners and an aging clergy. They should realize that it would be a win-win situation to hand some of the churches to the people who want them and can fill them. Some of those congregations will be evangelicals. Others will be Anglo-Catholics.

The Anglicans should make plans now to avoid drawn-out legal battles and release the buildings, allowing those of their flock who want to leave to do so with a suitable part of their inheritance.

The next five to 10 years will reveal the success or failure of Captain Benedict’s bold rescue plan. The result rests not on his dream of unity or the detail of his plan, but on the willingness of our Anglican brothers and sisters to reach out from the stormy seas and grab hold of the lifeline.

Father Dwight Longenecker, chaplain at St. Joseph’s Catholic School

in Greenville, South Carolina, is online at