Rome’s Via Media
Ever since the Bull Apostolicae Curae issued by Leo XIII in 1896, the Church of England has been in no doubt regarding Rome’s view on ordinations conducted with the Anglican rite, which Cranmer introduced in 1550. They are, declared Pope Leo, ‘absolutely null and utterly void’. And so absolutely and utterly worthless were they that he implored those who sought orders to return to Rome where they would find ‘the true aids for salvation’.
This was reiterated as recently as just a year ago, when Cardinal Dias quite rudely implied that the Church of England is suffering from spiritual Alzheimer's and ecclesial Parkinson's. And Cardinal Kasper, speaking with ‘the frankness which friendship allows’, declared that Rome’s recognition of Anglican orders was ‘definitively blocked’.
But Pope Benedict has retracted the ‘definitively’, set aside the ‘absolutely’ and dispensed with the ‘utterly’. The tedious ecumenists have been blown out of the water: their time has run out. It seems, after all, that there is to be accommodation of Anglican orders within the Roman Catholic Church. And Cranmer is of the opinion that this is one of the most significant shifts in post-Reformation Christendom.
There is no doubt that the timing of the Pope’s Apostolic Constitution with its ‘Personal Ordinariate’ incursion into the Anglo-Catholic or ‘High Anglican’ wing of the Church of England is unfortunate. That the Archbishop of Canterbury was given just a few weeks’ notice appears a little rude, not to say quite disrespectful. And yet there is a sense in which Dr Williams has been quite naïve; indeed, had he been possessing of half the antennae of His Holiness, he would have seen this coming years ago.
There has long been profound concern among Anglo-Catholics that the ‘liberal’ wing of the Church was on the ascendancy. The fine scholarship of Anglican historians and theologians was being subsumed to such ephemeral obsessions as the ordination of homosexuals and women. It is wholly consistent with the Church of England’s belief about itself – that it is part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church – that the ordination of women to the episcopate effectively and definitively blocks a possible recognition of Anglican Orders by the Roman Catholic Church. Since there are so many traditionalists within the Anglican Communion who accord with this, it is difficult to ignore the subtle but evident allusion to the call of Pope Leo XIII that they should return to Rome where they would find ‘the true aids for salvation’.
And yet there remain some very great and significant differences between the Anglican and Catholic churches, including the very office of the Papacy, Rome’s assertion of authority, its belief in the insufficiency of Scripture, and the enormity of the claim to Papal infallibility.
And yet perhaps about 700,000 Anglicans out of 80 million worldwide are now considering the Pope’s invitation to swim the Tiber; not to convert, as such, but to dwell under their own tabernacle within the Roman Catholic Church with the ability to retain some distinct Anglican practices.
There is a sense in which Pope Benedict has graciously offered to sustain the Catholic wing of the Church of England, about which the Archbishop of Canterbury appears not to care very much at all. The Vatican has said that it is simply responding to approaches by Anglicans in search of a spiritual home, and so they have obliged. And what can be wrong with starving children being fed by the friendly neighbours next door if their own parents refuse to nourish them as their health and wellbeing require?
The problem is that the move has damaged the foundation of Anglican identity: it has upset the balance of Hooker’s ‘Catholic and Reformed’ via media. Indeed, the Pope’s invitation can only have the effect of making the Church of England more Protestant, which, in the present age, simply means more liberal, secular and relativist: there are very few parishes now which have much time at all for the XXXIX Articles or the historic character inherited from the days of Queen Elizabeth I. The Catholic tradition is important to the identity of the Church of England, and it is worth fighting to preserve.
So, what is to be done?
There has already been a little spluttering of objection: the Archbishop of Canterbury has delivered a not-so-veiled rebuke for having little warning, and his predecessor Lord Carey has indicated that he is appalled by the untimely discourtesy. He said: "I think, in this day and age, this was inexcusable that Rome decided to do this without consultation."
But Cranmer is a rather more intrigued by the legal implications: he is persuaded that the path to Rome will be rocky for any Anglican province or diocese, and they may not find in the Roman Catholic Church quite the spiritual haven that they expect. There may be dispensation to use The Book of Common Prayer, but it is very doubtful the extent to which a distinct and genuine ‘Anglican identity’ might be preserved within the Roman Catholic Church. There are very many Anglo-Catholics indeed for whom their Anglicanism consists of far more than Cranmer’s masterpiece. In addition, Anglican clergy are unlikely to take their entire congregations with them, and risk losing their houses and church buildings. There will be no financial compensation, as there was for disgruntled clergy following the decision to ordain women priests, not least because the Church cannot afford it.
And let us not forget the considerable implications that the ‘church within a church’ model presents for the Roman Catholic Church. The incorporation of highly-educated and conservatively-Catholic-minded (even Tory) Anglican vicars and bishops could create some uncomfortable competition for the more liberal (and Labour) Roman Catholic priests and bishops in England and Wales. And why should they maintain an enforced celibacy when the Anglican ministers may marry? There can be no doubt that married clergy coming in from the Anglican Church will raise yet again the issue of clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church.
Cranmer wonders if the arrival of the Catholic-Anglicans might not be a Trojan horse of unintended reformation within the Roman Catholic Church.
And he is yet to examine the Apostolic Constitution and the extent to which it will confer or claim jurisdiction, and precisely over what such conferred or claimed jurisdiction will be. While this is not quite an hegemonous power grab, it has certainly taken a detour around the Archbishop of Canterbury, and has thereby arguably humiliated the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The first Elizabethan era was concerned to retain the Church of England's Catholic identity: it would be ironic if it were to be wholly lost during the second.
While Cranmer has no doubt that His Holiness will be familiar with the provisions of the Act of Settlement 1701 - and doubtless also highly attuned to the increasingly widespread belief that it is time for it to be repealed - any jurisdiction claimed by Rome within this Realm may yet be fraught with some intractable religio-political complexities.