It looks as though history is being made. Anglicans have been offered something that seals the ending of the 400-year rift that began with the English Reformation under Henry VIII. Those that seek to reunite with Rome can have their own “personal ordinariate,” retaining Anglican traditions and liturgical styles, and the clergy – including married ones – can become Catholic priests.
The announcement was made by Cardinal William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on October 21. It came as a result of negotiations with representatives of groups within the Anglican Communion that have long looked “Romeward” as they sought a solution to the problems presented by the ordination of women in the Church of England and the gradual abandonment of orthodox Christian moral teachings.
This saga effectively began with the decision of Church of England General Synod in London in 1992 to ordain women. A number of leading Anglican clergy left and, of these, a good many went on to become Catholic priests.
One such was Fr. Peter Geldard, who had been the leading spokesman for the Anglican group opposed to the ordination of women, frequently appearing on TV and radio. A while ago, I interviewed him for “This Rock” magazine, and I remember him telling me that when the Synod vote took place “you could say the scales fell from my eyes. I saw the Church of England in a different light.”
He knew that he could not remain. Becoming a Roman Catholic meant taking a step which offered, humanly speaking, an uncertain future. He began attending Mass as an ordinary layman in the local Catholic parish – which he knew well from ecumenical gatherings – and it was only slowly that the possibility of ordination as a Catholic priest took concrete form.
He is now Catholic chaplain to the University of Kent at Canterbury, busy with students from all over the world. I asked him if he missed the publicity and the limelight that had surrounded him as a prominent Anglican spokesman in the media. “Good gracious no. All I ever wanted to be was a Catholic priest – and now I am one.”
Among the Anglicans who remained, there was much confusion and the formation of various groups, including “Forward in Faith” that sought to give expression to traditional ideas and doctrine. Their crunch would come, and they knew it, with the creation of women bishops. This would remove even the possibility of a small corner of Anglicanism that could retain some semblance of traditional orthodox ideas on priesthood and valid orders.
Rome listened and pondered. Meanwhile the experience of Anglicans who had crossed the Tiber sent strong and positive messages. In the almost two decades that have elapsed since 1992, they have greatly enriched the life and work of the Catholic Church in Britain: among them are many who sought ordination and are working as priests in a range of fields – including one who is now a Bishop – and some distinguished leading lay figures, including Rt. Hon. Ann Widdecombe MP and Rt. Hon. John Gummer MP.
It is not clear how many Anglicans will now respond to the new initiative from Rome. One point of view is that “those who really want to come over have already done so.” Other commentators believe that the creation of a specific “personal ordinariate,” which offers all the certainty of Rome with the cultural trimmings of Anglicanism, presents an option that is hard to refuse.
Certainly, it is now clear that something extraordinary has happened: the Church of England, as it has been known for generations, is disappearing. In its place something new is emerging, with women presiding at various sorts of services, no unified commitment to any coherent body of Christian teaching on doctrine or morals, and a slow but inexorable lessening of bonds to all the rituals and traditions that once bound Anglicanism to the British people and made it part of the fabric of life and the identity of the nation.
And so it could be the Catholic Church which offers a lifeline to the remnants of the old traditional Anglicanism, and ensures that something of the best of its culture and heritage survives – and this in the same era that sees the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, England’s most notable convert from Anglicanism, and also a projected state visit to Britain by a Pope.