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Catholic invitation

October 20, 2009

The Vatican has announced the creation of a new structure that will allow whole Anglican congregations to convert to Catholicism. The move reveals a power struggle between the Catholic and Anglican churches.

Believers wait for Pope Benedict XVI
The Anglican church could be split by the Vatican's moveImage: AP

A new Catholic structure, called Personal Ordinariates, will allow Anglicans, including married clergymen, to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while "preserving elements of the distinctive and rich Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony," Cardinal William Levada said at a Vatican news conference on Tuesday.

Levada, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, claimed the new canonical structure is a response to the many requests that have come to the Vatican over the years from Anglicans wishing to see a full mending of the split between Catholicism and Anglicanism.

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI hopes to win over conservative ProtestantsImage: AP

But the move is seen by many as a deliberate attempt to entice conservative Anglicans disaffected with the more liberal policies of the Anglican church, including the ordination of women and homosexuals as priests and bishops.

"The Anglo-Catholics have been waiting for this for decades," Colin Blakely, editor of the Church of England newspaper told Deutsche Welle.

The Vatican's new decree potentially undermines the authority of the leader of the Anglican church. "They put the Archbishop of Canterbury in quite a humiliating position," Blakely remarked.

Heavy atmosphere

A joint press conference was held at the Catholic church headquarters in London in response to the Vatican announcement, hoping to ease concerns that relations between the heads of the 1.1-billion member Catholic Church and the 77-million Anglican communion would be affected by the Vatican's move.

The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Catholic archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols sat side by side in a show of unity.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
The move was seen as a slap in the face for the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan WilliamsImage: AP

"There was a heavy atmosphere at first because people didn't know what to expect," Toby Cohen, who covered the press conference for the Church of England newspaper, told Deutsche Welle, "Rowan Williams sat there with a slightly bruised expression. Then it slowly became clear what a deep power struggle had been unfolding between the two churches."

Both churches were keen to emphasize their fundamental unity, but the venue of the press conference and the realization, made clear during the question and answer session, that Williams had only learnt of the Vatican's plan two weeks ago revealed that the move amounted to a significant power shift.

The announcement comes only a week after an Anglican revision committee into the issue of women in the clergy. The committee's decision, to allow congregations to appeal to a higher bishop if they were assigned a female vicar, was seen as a significant concession to traditionalists.

The Catholic church has now handed those traditionalists an additional weapon in the Anglican internal debate - Anglican clergyman opposed to modernizing can now threaten to take up the Catholic church's invitation. "The Vatican has added an entirely different ingredient. It has changed the power balance in the Church of England," commented Cohen.

Reasonable and necessary response

An official Vatican statement called the Apostolic Constitution "a reasonable and even necessary response to a world-wide phenomenon". It was referring to the reaction of many Anglican congregations, particularly in the United States, to the modernization of the Protestant church.

"Some segments of the Anglican Communion have departed from the common biblical teaching on human sexuality … by the ordination of openly homosexual clergy and the blessing of homosexual partnerships, " the statement read. "At the same time, as the Anglican Communion faces these new and difficult challenges, the Catholic Church remains fully committed to continuing ecumenical engagement with the Anglican Communion."

There have indeed been a number of individual conversions from Anglicanism to Catholicism in the past forty years, but this marks the first time since the 16th century Reformation that entire Protestant communities will be able to reunite with Rome.

Catholic bishops in Britain have previously warned that attempts to draw in former Anglicans appeared to take advantage of the divisions within the Anglican Church.

But Levada denied that relations would be harmed, pointing to the joint statement issued by Rowan Williams and Vincent Nichols. "Those Anglicans who have approached the Holy See have made clear their desire for full, visible unity in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church," he said. "At the same time, they have told us of the importance of their Anglican traditions of spirituality and worship for their faith journey."

Mass exodus unlikely

But it seems likely that conversions will be limited to clergy rather than laity, and that talk of mass conversions of thousands of reactionary Protestants is mainly sensationalist.

Anglican communities in the USA already have the option of joining an independent, more conservative Anglo-Catholic body. On top of this, Anglican clergymen, particularly married ones, will find it difficult to ignore the potential pay cut a conversion to Catholicism would entail. "It is not clear yet how such details will be worked out in the new structure. Some Catholic priests earn about a tenth of Anglican vicars," Cohen said, "That will be a factor."

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Michael Lawton