Leader: On the road to Rome

21 October 2009

THE PROVISION of a Roman Catholic haven for traditionalist Anglicans, announced on Tuesday by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was described as an ecumenical gesture. It may be so, but it does not resemble any ecumenical move we recognise. The lack of consultation, the shortness of notice (for English and Welsh RC bishops, as well as for Dr Williams), and the reference to its being a “necessary” response to the “abandon­ment” of tradition by Anglicans, the embarrassment to Dr Williams as a co-signatory to a statement that talked of “the Cath­olic Church and the Anglican tradition” (our italics) — all point, instead, to a move made in spite of ecumenical dialogue rather than because of it. Nor does it resolve the largest stumbling block to closer unity, the refusal of Rome to recognise Anglican orders. Nor — despite Newman’s example — will an influx of dis­affected Anglicans into the RC Church necessarily improve that dialogue in future. It is easy to put an cheerful gloss on the news: church­going is a voluntary activity, after all, and it is good that wor­shippers should belong to a Church with which they broadly agree rather than one that pains them. This does not disguise the fact, none the less, that the move exposes a flaw in the Anglican project.

For Anglicanism to work in the absence of authoritarian sanctions requires tolerance of, and respect for, the many ways in which believers interpret the central tenets of Christianity. Without this tolerance, as history has shown repeatedly, separa­tions are hard to avoid. Given the drift towards interrogation and confrontation within the Communion (the production of the Anglican Covenant is part of this process), the hierarchy has rejected quasi-separations — parallel jurisdictions, alternative oversight, and the like. But suddenly this proposal is on the table, and from a Church that supposedly brooks no interference with its pattern of authority. The ordinariates in question appear to be nothing less than parallel jurisdictions set up to protect the integrity of the majority as well as the minority, but this time over the issue of priestly celibacy rather than women bishops.

The General Synod can, in theory, halt the exodus by revisiting the idea of parallel jurisdictions for traditionalists at its sessions next February. In practice, however, it is not good at responding to ultimatums, especially from a constituency some of whose members appear to have had an active hand in brokering this deal with Rome. An all-Anglican solution would allow the possibility of continuing traffic between the different jurisdictions, but the evidence of this week is that a significant number of traditionalists are willing to sacrifice this, and the validity of their existing orders, in favour of a quick fix with Rome. If the Synod is to be asked again to accommodate those opposed to women bishops, it will need to hear from them that the effort will be worth while.

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