Vatican’s Come-Hither to Anglicans: A Theological Scandal

The Vatican’s new scheme to lure unhappy conservative Anglicans into the fold might have caught the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams off guard, but Catholics are not surprised by anything Rome does to shore up its market share. Conservative clergy, whose opposition to the ordination of women and LGBTQ people motivated them to split from the Anglican Communion, are now welcome to switch to Catholicism.

Let history record this theological scandal for what it is. Touted by Rome as a step forward in ecumenical relations with a cousin communion, it is in fact the joining of two camps united in their rejection of women and queer people as unworthy of religious leadership.

A forthcoming Apostolic Constitution will spell out the details: Anglicans against ordination of women and LGBTQ people (like Bishop Gene Robinson, for example) are in full communion with Rome. Why bother, then, with individual conversion requirements or superfluous paperwork? These Anglicans can even make the transition as congregations or whole dioceses if they choose. They will be Catholics, but like the Eastern Rite Catholics they will do it their way. They can bring their own smells and bells and their Book of Common Prayer; even their own priests and bishops who will head the “Personal Ordinariates” which will function like dioceses. Come as you are, welcome to discriminate to your heart’s content in the name of God.

Rome changes not one whit on the arrival of the dissident Anglicans. It keeps in place its celibate clergy while welcoming married Anglican men with gusto. I predict more than a little consternation in the Roman ranks on that score. Current policy allows Lutheran and Episcopal married priests to jump the fence with the family in tow. Yet Roman Catholic men who wish to marry, never mind Roman Catholic women who might even agree to celibacy, are prohibited from being ordained. No Roman Catholic official seems to be able to say in a straightforward way why this is the case. They mumble something about tradition and certain distinctions. But the rhetoric is increasingly thin as they defend the indefensible against their own practice. It is not pretty.

Rome maintains its liturgy and theology wholly intact. Theological education stays the same, with the addition of small formation groups for Anglican candidates for the priesthood who can appreciate their own “patrimony” while also getting a good dose of Roman thought. In no way does the Vatican engage the issues that led to the English Reformation in the sixteenth century. Rather, Rome pretends to be flexible and modern about all this, gracious and accommodating like a fox. When the property fights begin, I predict the niceties will give way to some serious struggles and we will see just how accommodating Rome can’t be.

Denominations are businesses, after all, and as such they pay as much attention to the bottom line as to their teachings. Maybe more so. In this case, the low-hanging fruit is British Anglicans who have not figured out how to reorganize themselves in light of their denomination’s changes. Early word from the US group led by the Rev. Martyn Minns of Virginia is that they are in fine shape, thank you, setting up their own structures so they will not need to convert.

One wonders how long they can resist Rome’s charms. Imagine the real estate opportunities as US Roman Catholic churches close and conservative Anglicans need buildings. Think of the brilliant solution to the priest shortage as guaranteed-to-toe-the-line Anglican priests replace the Roman boys as they die off and/or think for themselves. Conjure the sight of high mass with a raft of altar servers and incense so abundant it makes parishioners forget there ever was a Vatican II. For the more “Catholic” among the Anglican dissidents, it is a marriage made in heaven. But the more evangelical of the conservative Anglicans may well consider it their worst nightmare.

What is to prevent other denominations from following Rome’s lead? For example, what if the Anglican Communion set up a Catholic wing where those Roman Catholics who believe in the ordination of women and same-sex loving clergy could be Anglicans of the Roman Catholic Rite? The Mennonites might create a Catholic rite for those who follow them on peace issues, resulting in Catholic Mennonites. I doubt it. It is more likely that Rome might decide that one does not even have to be Christian; that discrimination against women and gays is enough of a common bond to create some Catholics of the Muslim rite, for example. The permutations are endless but the result is the same: a perversion of everything the ecumenical movement has stood for in the last hundred years. Ecumenical Christians have tried to learn about one another’s traditions and find positive places of agreement—not little pockets of shared prejudice.

I feel sorry for Rowan Williams if he did not know what he was up against when he engaged in bilateral relations with Rome, only to be subject to its treachery. Beleaguered on all sides in his own communion, he now presides over the potential exodus of some of his members who will find in the new dispensation a comfortable place to live out their outmoded ideas of humanity. I only hope Williams and company are consoled by the fact that they are in good company among ecumenical colleagues who respect one another’s traditions, understand the dynamics of internal struggles, and resist the temptation to profit from one another’s problems. Rome, on the other hand, is in a class—however low—by itself.