There has been very big news out of Rome, this past week, for all English-speaking Christians—regardless of denomination, as I have realized from much e-mail. (The reader may recall that I am myself a Roman convert, from Anglicanism, and thus a natural recipient of such mail.)
The North American media have downplayed it, and focused coverage on the pettiest controversial points: “Is the Pope a homophobe?” “Was the Archbishop of Canterbury blindsided?” “Does this mean Catholic priests can now marry?” and other such questions, to each of which the answer is, very obviously, no. (In England, it was rather more front-page.)
What happened? In a sentence, the Vatican announced arrangements by which traditionalist Anglican congregations, in all the English-speaking countries, may apply and be received into communion with the Roman “universal” or Catholic church. (The word “catholic” means universal.)
One crucial point: that this was not an instance of the Vatican “poaching.” For many years, since the Anglican communion started coming to pieces over the issue of female ordination in the 1970s, traditional Anglicans have been appealing to Rome for just what Rome finally offered: to be in full communion while also being allowed to keep their distinctive liturgical forms (founded in the magnificent Book of Common Prayer), and to “grandfather” several of their received customs, such as married priests.
This is not a “merger.” Nothing is immediately changed for practising Catholics.
Indirectly, however, the reception of these traditional Anglicans will create very exciting possibilities for all English-speaking Catholics on the “liturgical” front: for the traditional Anglicans retain, in intensely beautiful English, a liturgy that is actually more “catholic” in spirit and form than the rather crass and now dated “contemporary translations” Rome mistakenly approved at the end of the 1960s, in the depths of the post-Vatican II meltdown. Those old Anglicans can help us recover our own more reverent liturgical traditions.
And of course, the announcement creates a precedent, that may well prove significant for other congregations of Protestant “traditionalists” now appealing to Rome. But the view down that road is unforeseeable.
This is also, incidentally, the opposite of a hostile takeover. That many “mainstream” Anglicans, who bought (often sleepily) into the various post-modern “reforms” in their church, may have their noses out of joint is unfortunate but unavoidable. It was they, not the traditionalists, who set about reversing Christian teachings and customs going right back to Christ. And many of them, who now regret what they did as they harvest the squalid consequences, will also in the course of time “cross back over the Tiber”—for the only alternative is continuing to drift away from Christianity entirely.
The same comment goes for moans (from places like the New York Times) about how this sabotages ecumenical negotiations between Romans and Anglican/Episcopalians going back to the 1960s. Those talks were like the “roadmap to peace” in the Middle East, i.e. a joke of ever-increasing staleness. They were for all practical purposes obviated the moment Canterbury started abandoning all her surviving catholic traditions, thus herself moving farther away from Rome.
The real schism-healing ecumenical conversation is anyway not happening in the north of Europe, but in the east, between Catholics and Orthodox. After that comes the American conversation, between Catholics and Evangelicals. “Mainstream Protestantism” no longer comes into this, for it is now dying out.
For the longer run, it is ever more obvious that the conflict will not be between Catholics and Protestants, as it was for centuries after the Reformation. The real conflict today is becoming more and more like that in the late Roman Empire—between Christians and lions—as an increasingly self-confident atheist force within society, controlling the courts, seeks ever stricter ways to suppress any kind of religious expression, through ever more intrusive and absurd “human rights” jackbooting.
This, paradoxically—or rather, not paradoxically at all in view of 2,000 years of Christian history—is in turn fuelling Christian unity, via the notion that we might as well hang together, since we are all going to hang. It is an idea well expressed in this remark I received from a thoughtful Baptist gentleman about the announcement in Rome:
“I have wondered what it would look like if we all could come back together in one church. It would invite persecution, I would think. Ultimately, that is an upside.”
Again, I must stress to my non-Christian readers that the faithful Christians among them do think differently, about most things, and so the categories into which secular questions are sorted do not apply to religious questions. We don’t think humans are in control of the universe. We think God is, and that what is interesting about it will unfold, not because we have a plan, but because He does.
And that goes for all Christians, not only Catholics—for whom the pope in Rome is the legitimate heir of Peter, but therefore also the mere servant of a Lord whose directions are the final ones.