Coming Home to Rome?

After years of discussion Traditional Anglican Communion has written directly to Pope Benedict XVI requesting full, corporate communion with the Holy See.

After years of internal discussion, the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), a breakaway group of Anglicans, has written directly to Pope Benedict XVI requesting full, corporate communion with the Holy See. In a short statement issued Oct. 16, the hierarchy of the Traditional Anglican Communion said it had “unanimously agreed to the text of a letter to the See of Rome seeking full, corporate, sacramental union.”

The leaders of the assembly, which claims to have 400,000 members worldwide, signed the letter at a plenary meeting in Portsmouth, England, in early October.

“The letter was cordially received at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” the statement went on, adding that the group would not publicly comment “until the Holy See has considered the letter and responded.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did not comment on the letter but has confirmed it has received it. If the Holy See approves the request, the organization, which is based in Australia, could become the largest Anglican assembly to return to the Church since the Reformation.

The letter is the fruit of 14 years of consultations within the Traditional Anglican Communion’s leadership. The organization pursued unity with Rome soon after it left the Worldwide Anglican Communion due to its decision to ordain women priests in 1991. It views that decision as the “ultimate schismatic act” that irrevocably fractured the 1966 Common Declaration between Rome and Canterbury.

A worldwide association of orthodox Anglican churches, the Traditional Anglican Communion describes itself as working to maintain the faith and resist the secularization of the church.

But in spite of the church’s claims that it has no doctrinal differences with Rome that would impede full communion, the Vatican has been unsure how to deal with such an unprecedented request. It is extremely rare for entire Anglican communities to seek corporate communion with the Catholic Church.

The request has therefore left Church officials with mixed opinions. On one side are those who are most concerned about preserving unity within the Worldwide Anglican Communion, and who do not wish to be seen proselytizing large numbers of disenchanted Anglicans — even, it seems, if they have already broken away.

They are also cautious about welcoming a large group en masse.

“Every decision should be individual,” one official told the Register Oct. 30 on condition of anonymity. “We don’t usually take them as a group, as it’s important to know that each person genuinely wants to come into communion.”

He admitted the Vatican is in dialogue with the group, but stressed it is more the responsibility of local Catholic bishops’ conferences to decide if the matter should be taken further.

“It’s very important this question is raised in that forum,” he said, “because it’s not a question that requires a definitive universal decision.”

Another hindrance is the background of the Traditional Anglican Communion’s primate, Archbishop John Hepworth. The official said that because Hepworth is a former Catholic priest, there are “all sorts of canonical restrictions that have yet to be resolved.”

Irish Parishes

Other officials, mostly within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, take a more optimistic view.

The department has taken charge of relations with the Traditional Anglican Communion. It’s still not clear how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will proceed with this request, but the Anglican church is aware that the department is most sympathetic to its intentions, which is why its leadership sent the letter directly to the congregation.

Meanwhile, the Irish Catholic newspaper reported in mid-October that three ‘Church of Ireland’ parishes loosely aligned to the Traditional Anglican Communion would soon be joining the Catholic Church. The report claimed 300 parishioners would soon be welcomed by Pope Benedict XVI following the agreement made in Portsmouth.

However, the group to which the newspaper was referring, the Church of Ireland (Traditional Rite), denied the story.

The group’s head, the Rev. John McCarthy, told the Register Oct. 30 that his church “is not joining anybody; we remain Anglicans,” and said he was not party to the Traditional Anglican Communion signing in Portsmouth as he was in the United States at the time.

His group, which has 30 members rather than 300, also does not claim to belong to the Anglican Church of Ireland, having broken away in 1992 after the decision to ordain women priests.

The Irish Catholic, meanwhile, stands by the story, saying that McCarthy’s assembly “insisted they are very much part” of the Church of Ireland.

Whatever the outcome, some light has been shed on the argument that Catholic-Anglican relations would suffer should the Traditional Anglican Communion be allowed to reunite with Rome.

The general reaction within the Anglican Communion to the Irish story was one of indifference. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s spokesman declined to comment on the matter, partly because neither the Traditional Anglican Communion nor the Church of Ireland (Traditional Rite) is in the Anglican Communion, and partly because it is seen as an internal matter for Ireland.

Another senior Episcopal spokesman, who asked not to be named, indicated there would be little problem if parishes belonging to McCarthy’s assembly wanted to be received into the Church because they are looked upon as the Anglican equivalent of Lefebvrists, those who belong to the Society of St. Pius X.

“If they were genuinely Church of Ireland parishes, it would have sent up alarms,” he said.

But no matter how superficial some of these obstacles appear to be, it is still likely to be some time before the Traditional Anglican Communion reaches its goal.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.