Anglican Church Burning the Last Bridges to Unity


In London last December, there was great jubilation as the name of Rev. Libby Lane was announced as the first female bishop in the Church of England. Lane’s appointment came quickly after July’s vote in the Church's general synod, which finally authorized the ordination of women as bishops, with the hearty approval of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

Over the last four decades, Anglican-Catholic relations have become increasingly strained, as member churches of the Anglican Communion adopted an increasingly progressive agenda. In 1975, the Episcopal Church of the USA was the first to approve women priests; then, one by one, other member churches agreed first that women could be priests, and then bishops. The Church of England — the mother church of the Worldwide Anglican Communion — was among the last to agree to the innovations, with women’s ordination to the priesthood approved in 1992 and women bishops just last year.

Historically minded Anglicans like to maintain that their church is one of three branches of the historic Catholic Church — the other two being Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Most Anglican clergymen will explain politely that they are “Catholic, just not Roman Catholic.” However, when Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox insisted that women’s ordination was impossible, the Anglicans’ conveniently forgot that they were a branch of the ancient Catholic Church. 


Catholic Teaching Clarified

At each stage of the Anglican progress towards women’s ordination, the Catholic Church clarified her teaching.

In 1976 — the same year that the Episcopal Church voted to ordain women — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the "Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood." The key teaching was that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women as priests, due to the Church’s determination to remain faithful to its constant Tradition, its fidelity to Christ’s will and the iconic value of male representation, which is linked to the “sacramental nature” of the priesthood. 

Likewise, in 1994, the same year the Church of England voted to ordain women, Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed the teaching given by his predecessor, Blessed Paul VI.

In his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul II wrote, “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance … I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

After repeated questioning, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, affirmed twice in writing that Pope St John Paul II’s teaching was definitive, and when Pope Francis was asked about women’s ordination, he said bluntly, “That door is closed.”


Who Cares?

If Anglicans proudly claim to be part of the ancient Catholic Church, why have they thumbed their noses at the Eastern-Orthodox and Roman-Catholic authorities over this matter? Many Anglicans consider their beliefs, worship practices, devotions and moral judgments to be Catholic. Anglo-Catholics pray the Rosary, go on pilgrimages, respect the Pope, follow Catholic devotions and believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

Catholics are right to ask, “Why is there such a contradiction? Why do Anglicans claim to be Catholic and yet repeatedly vote to ordain women as priests and bishops?”

My eyes were opened on this matter as a young priest in the Church of England. It was the late 1980s, and the Anglicans were debating the question of women’s ordination. My own spiritual journey was taking me closer to the Catholic Church, and I had entered the debate with my colleagues. Together, we were asking the questions and searching for the way forward.

In conversation with a female theology student, I said, “I’m cautious about women’s ordination because the Catholic Church has said it would be a serious obstacle to unity. If we claim to be Catholic, how can we simply disregard the Catholic opinion on this?”

The young woman exploded in anger, “You don’t understand! I’m not a Catholic, and I don’t want to be!”

To understand the situation from the Anglican point of view, one has to understand more about the Anglican religion.


No Real Desire for Unity

Traditionally, there have been three main streams within the Anglican Church: the liberals, the evangelicals and the Anglo-Catholics. All three have no real desire for unity with the Catholic Church, but for different reasons.

The “liberals” are essentially mainstream Protestants. They hold to modernistic understandings of Scripture and the Church. With a largely secularist, do-gooding agenda, these Anglicans are happy to wear Catholic clothing for church and speak a kind of Catholic language of spirituality, but their underlying doctrine and moral teaching is mainstream, relativistic, progressive Protestantism.

While they may make polite ecumenical noises in the direction of Rome, they believe the Catholic faith to be hopelessly out of date, misogynistic, authoritarian and in need of reform. In other words, they have an essentially Protestant mentality.

The “evangelicals” are unapologetic about their Protestant mentality. Ranging from biblical fundamentalists to charismatics and up-to-date, techno-savvy preachers, these Anglicans subscribe to a sort of watered-down Calvinism. They reject a Catholic understanding of the sacraments and take a utilitarian understanding of ordination and church governance. A few of them are opposed to women’s ordination on scriptural grounds, but they would see their agreement with Catholicism on this matter as anomalous.

The more extreme of them regard Catholics as targets for conversion. The more moderate regard Catholics with a benign but condescending kindness. Catholics may be their brothers and sisters in Christ, but they certainly don’t want to become Catholics and see no need for further ecumenical discussions.

The Anglo-Catholics are the most bewildering. In all outward aspects and attitudes, they would seem to be in favor of union with Rome. They are not. They believe they are already Catholic and see no need for further union. They remain suspicious of papal authority yet honestly believe that they are Catholic, “but in the Church of England.” Beneath this smoothly appealing attitude, there often lurk other issues. There may be irregular marriages that need to be examined, or they may have profound disagreements with other Catholic teaching that keeps them from swimming the Tiber. Despite their “Catholic” credentials, they decide just how Catholic they wish to be.


Ways Forward

Nevertheless, from within the three groups, there is a constant stream of clergy and laity who come singly and in groups to seek full communion with the Catholic Church. The Anglican ordinariates, an answer to Pope Benedict XVI’s invitation, form one new bridge that has been built for Anglicans to come into full communion; and while formal hopes for reunion between Rome and Canterbury seem to be dashed, year by year, an increasing number of pilgrims make the journey home to Rome.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a former minister in the

Church of England who was ordained a Catholic priest in 2006.

His latest book is Slubgrip Instructs — a readable book for Lent.

Be in touch at