People have asked me what I think about Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Constitution permitting Anglicans lay and ordained to join themselves to the Roman Catholic Church while maintaining at least some of the liturgical and theological inheritance of the Anglican Tradition. Since I’m a pretty resolutely catholic-minded theologian, and an extremely resolutely Anglican-Episcopalian, there’s a lot to say about this move.
First, though, let’s get over the “winning”/“losing” game of numbers and political maneuvering. Christians should have learned at the foot of the cross that “winning” and “losing” in temporal terms don’t have anything to do with the truth of the gospel. Benedict, I am very confident, is not trying to “poach” Anglicans, and Rowan Williams isn’t in an ecclesiological arm-wrestling match to constrain Tiber-leaning clergy and congregations. If I understand Williams aright, he consistently aims at articulating the most precise and truthful ecclesiology he can, regardless of who likes it or doesn’t. (I’m willing to grant that he may not always succeed, or that he may sometimes succumb to tailoring his arguments to fit one audience or another, but even when he lapses he’s a sharper theologian than all but a newborn’s handful of his detractors. Few things trouble me more than self-congratulatory theological hooligans who paint their faces with the colours of their favoured partisan, then hoot and jeer if they don’t “win” in any given church showdown.)
If we can set aside considerations of who profits from this decision, a number of salient points come to mind. First, the Roman Catholic Church will appeal to only a portion of the Anglicans who are fervently constructing alternative provisions, crossing boundaries, etc. A great proportion of “orthodox” Anglicans adhere much more closely to the Reformed side of the volatile Anglican amalgam, and having Benedict offer them a side aisle at St Peter’s isn’t going to impress them very much. For Reformed “orthodox” Anglicans, the Pope’s gesture will function mostly as a cudgel with which to browbeat “established” Anglicans (by which I mean the Anglicans and Episcopalians who are riding out the tedious, painful, frustrating process of arriving at some sort of durable conciliar resolution of the current state of affairs). Note that many of the leaders of the “orthodox” have said, in effect, “What a nice gesture! No thanks.”
Second, in a very narrow way, I think this is a lovely and kind gesture by Benedict to those who really do love the treasure of Anglican identity, but who crave the stability (and male leadership?) of the Church of Rome. Although the Catholic stream wholly within Anglicanism is more prominent as a recent fictive invention than as a historical datum, it is nonetheless a very powerful invention. A deep swath of Episcopalians and Anglicans have found the retrieval of Catholic elements in their heritage to heal and strengthen them with ancient, traditional wisdom — to correct, on their terms, the Anglican reactivity against anything that smacked of Rome (Laud, Newman, etc.). For such people, the possibility of an Anglican Roman conjunction will be a sweet gift indeed.
But third, I fear that that is a small proportion of the people who will thus be affected. Let’s start by enumerating Roman Catholic clergy who now see that their Anglo-Roman colleagues can serve God as priests without observing Rome’s strictures on clerical celibacy. Faithful servants of the church who have renounced the blessings of marital intimacy and parental joy and pride will work elbow to elbow with newcomers who have vibrant marriages and lovely children (or troubled marriages and troubling children — I reckon the effect will be similar whichever the case). Moreover, since Anglicans/Episcopalians have taken a very indulgent tack relative to divorce and remarriage, a certain number of “orthodox” clergy will either be incorporated into Roman orders despite their divorce(s), or will be excluded from serving on that basis. And that will surely enter the deliberations of some such clergy to an extent that overshadows unalloyed ecclesiological integrity. Likewise Anglican/Episcopal bishops: some who might be sympathetic to adopting Anglo-Roman identity will hesitate if it means renouncing their episcopal status. Some too will graciously submit to what Rome requires of them — and God bless them for their integrity — but the question of marriage will muddy the waters when it comes to implementing this Apostolic Constitution.
At the same time, the expectation that clergy abstain from all sexual intimacy has made a (somewhat) safe space among Roman Catholic clergy for gay men who, after all, are not renouncing any more than their straight colleagues. (I’m not saying that everyone upholds this restraint, but that it applies equally to all affections.) Again, introducing connubially-blessed (straight) clergy to the equation risks triggering disruptive consequences.
But the casuistry and pastoral provisions that come into play with this Constitution also heighten the pressure for Rome to deal constructively with its androcracy. Women have been serving and in some cases holding the Roman Catholic church together for hundreds of years, and as they observe special considerations being applied to this group or that, some among them will vent an intensified frustration with their liminality (at best) and exclusion (often) in Roman leadership. I can’t imagine Rome needs more headaches on this score, but the inclusion of married straight male clergy will likely increase some women’s sense of being relegated to a less than fully human status.
I don’t see this move as making a strong effect on the issues of sexuality or Covenanted ecclesiology in the Anglican/Episcopal camp. Most people are so deeply committed one way or the other, or they are so tired and disheartened by the on-going brouhaha, that this just won’t make the least difference to them. I’m terrible at estimating numbers, but I’d be surprised if very many people take up Benedict’s offer; by now, I suspect that the two factions envision different paths to prevailing over their adversaries and want that brass ring more than they want whatever blessings might arise from a more irenic resolution (or side-stepping) of the conflict.
Ironically, it may be that the best audience for Benedict’s provision would be “progressive” Anglo-Catholic clergy and congregations. As prayerbook and hymnal revision steer the Episcopal Church more firmly toward finger-wagging didacticism in liturgy and the “anything that rhymes with ‘social justice’” school of hymnody, the opportunity to be as liberal as many US Roman Catholics, but as liturgically traditional and fulsome as they wanna be, might appeal to some — but they aren’t the ones Benedict wants, and (again) at this point they’re pretty firmly situated in their Anglican/Episcopal identity.
As a number of my theological and clerical colleagues have joined themselves to the Roman Catholic Church as a bulwark against error, I’ve sometimes joked that I might become a Roman Catholic so I might be excommunicated by a hierarchy that knows and cares about doctrine; or that I might become a Roman Catholic because only a system with a clear structure of authority can make dissent meaningful (whereas the US Episcopal Church seems sometimes to have forgotten that Right You Are (If You Think You Are) is a play by Pirandello, not a theological axiom).
So to sum up: this Constitution will be a blessing to some, a thorn in the side of many, and — quite possibly — not nearly so big a deal as it looks at the moment. I myself try to take the most generous view, that it provides a way for more people honestly to join in praising and worshiping God, and undoes a tiny bit of a hostility among some earnest disciples. It does not strengthen a conservative party (if more than just a few “orthodox” Anglo-Romans move over, it weakens the “traditional” voice in Anglican/Episcopalian deliberations). It ought not be perceived as strengthening a liberal party, since the dominant rhetoric of inclusiveness depends for its coherence on it incorporating conservative dissenters as gracefully as it incorporates anyone else. Benedict’s Apostolic Constitution makes an awkward move, for now, and I can’t assess it until its effects on many interested parties become clearer, but I take it that Benedict acted out of genuine charity; he has made a small crack in the dividing wall of hostility; and if love and grace prevailed among all concerned, I would think this might make a promising start.
On the other hand, that’s a pretty big “if.”