A unified Church? Pope gives hope to Anglo-Catholics

The Pope’s decision to allow Anglicans into the Catholic Church may be the first step on the way to a unified church. EPA/Alessandro Di Meo

In his first message on becoming Pope, Benedict XVI said the impelling duty of the successor of Peter was “to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers”.

“Concrete gestures that enter hearts and stir consciences” were essential in “inspiring in everyone that inner conversion that is the prerequisite for all ecumenical progress.”

The Pope’s Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, which allows members of the Anglican communion to be collectively welcomed into the Catholic Church in full communion, is a concrete gesture to pursue this goal.

The expansion of the new Catholic Church structure occured last week through the launch of an ordinariate for Anglicans in Australia, receiving them into full communion with the Catholic Church while allowing them to keep some of their customs.

A new communion

The Catholic Church has entered into official dialogue with numerous Christian churches, many of them with Eastern origin. This dialogue has led, in some instances, to churches entering or re-entering into full communion with the Catholic Church, through agreement between the Pope and their leaders.

These churches have affirmed their basic identity and beliefs as the same as the Catholic Church. But they have also brought their traditions, liturgical practices and experiences with them.

This may seem odd to those who view the Catholic Church as a power-hungry monolith. However, the Catholic Church is composed of many different local churches who share a fundamental unity in faith and creed through the Holy Spirit, particularly under the office of St Peter (the Pope).

Anglicans welcome but…

The Pope’s gesture to Anglicans in Anglicanorum Coetibus is both similar and different to these ecumenical dialogues. It is similar in that it allows Anglicans to corporately enter into union with the Catholic Church. However, it is different in that it concerns individuals and groups entering into communion (not the whole Anglican Church through official agreement).

According to the Pope, his move to welcome these Anglicans collectively is motivated by “groups of Anglicans” having petitioned the Catholic Church to enter “into full Catholic communion individually as well as corporately.”

What is different, then, in terms of Anglican-Catholic relations – and what has caused controversy – is how Anglicans are being welcomed into the Catholic Church. Rather than being received as individuals (as has been the practice), Anglicans are being welcomed collectively into the Catholic Church.

Some question the necessity for the Ordinariate, begging the question: should the churches be united now in a fragmentary way or should we wait for the whole church?

First steps

The move has been interpreted as undermining the Anglican Communion, rather than engaging in genuine ecumenical dialogue. The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, however disagreed with this interpretation by explaining that the Pope’s action was a response to a situation where groups of Anglicans wished to become Catholic now.

In this way, Dr. Williams argued that the Pope’s Constitution was a kind of product of ecumenical dialogue, which recognised that elements of the Anglican heritage could be held in common by Anglicans and Catholics. Or, as the Pope expressed it, Anglican communion could be “a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared”.

Anglican people, groups and traditions could become part of the Catholic Church to enrich the Church; where being fully Anglican and fully Catholic merge. The benefit of an “ordinariate” is that it allows for a collective approach, rather than an individual one, which maintains Anglican traditions, relationships and histories and seemingly makes the process of unity easier.

Too soon?

It is an interesting moment in Anglican-Catholic relations. Many of the prejudices and tribalisms of the past have receded.

Genuine dialogue and understanding has been able to grow, particularly through official dialogues in which important issues have been explored and agreed upon. However, there have also been the headlining-grabbing issues – women’s ordination, teaching on sexuality – that have highlighted divisions.

In the midst of these issues, the first Anglican “ordinariate” in Australia has been viewed as meaning many “traditionalists” will seek admittance to avoid recent Anglican Church decisions.

But by no means will this be the intention of everyone who joins. Moreover, we should be equally clear that to become part of the ordinariate is not and should not be about signing up to a political agenda – about women or homosexuality or another issue – or affirming unreasonable discontent.

These issues are important, but first and foremost the ordinariate is about affirming the ‘catholic’ nature of the church. The Anglican Church itself has always valued this catholic nature. This catholic nature has traditionally been defined as a universality of local churches guided by God, visibly signified by unity around the office of St Peter.

It is “catholicity” – which God (not humans) makes possible through grace-filled love – that Anglicans and Catholics affirm together, while continuing to dialogue about its practice.

Thus, unless one defines “Anglican” as “not-Catholic”, the ordinariate can be a path for any Anglican-Catholic sensibility. In fact, it provides a path for those seeking a catholic ecclesiology – that is, Church structure and communion – which is usually the real desire of those seeking out the Catholic Church.

Unknown consequences

Nevertheless, while the Pope’s enthusiasm for ecumenical initiatives is commendable, many of the details still have to be worked out and some of the implications are challenging.

A major implication concerns the Anglican Communion itself. There are obviously splits and tensions within the communion. The Pope’s initiative may offer a solution to some, while inadvertently causing dilemmas for others.

The ecclesiology and communion of the Anglican Church is at a pivotal point and many Anglicans of goodwill are soul-searching. Remaining with the Anglican Church or moving to the Catholic Church is not an easy decision; one that requires individual reflection on the nature of the Church and one’s own situation.

There are also implications for how the Catholic Church can support the individual consciences of those in the Anglican Communion in this discernment.

Unity and change

Nevertheless, as both the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury recognise, there are many Anglicans now ready for unity. The Pope wishes to pastorally respond to this readiness and help facilitate union.

But Anglicans are moving toward unity at different paces. This presents a larger pastoral issue: people are at different points of the journey of conversion and ecumenical unity. These differences can be exacerbated when groups convert, rather than individuals.

On the other side, the creation of ordinariates still needs to be understood by many ordinary Catholics. While Catholics want unity, understanding of this papal initiative and the need for a spirit of welcome and hospitality both need to be cultivated.

The Anglican ordinariate is a sign of the possibilities for unity. As the Pope stated, unity is the priority for the Church, because unity is the expression of God’s true love.

Yet, like all relationships, this unity will require mutual understanding, dialogue, cooperation, hospitality, generousity and spiritual maturity – in other words, a genuine desire to be selfless brothers and sisters in Christ, beyond any pettiness – to make it work.