There has been quite a bit of discussion in Anglican blogdom and more recently in the media about the announcement by the Vatican of a new Apostolic Constitution that will create something called “personal ordinariates” for disaffected Anglicans who wish to enter into full communion with the See of Peter.  I thought it would be helpful, given some emails I’ve received, for me to explain what this might mean give my opinion of the matter.

There are several things to keep in mind up front:

  • For those of us in the United States, this is not so much a new thing as it is the strengthening of something which was already in place, namely the Pastoral Provision which was established in the 80’s by Pope John Paul II.  The Pastoral Provision allowed for married Episcopal Priests to join the Roman Catholic Church and enter a process that could end in their (re)ordination as Roman Catholic Priests in spite of their married status.  As I understand it, the difficulty of this process varied somewhat from diocese to diocese depending upon the openness of the local Latin Rite Bishop.  There are a few congregations that have resulted from this provision, and they use a liturgy known as the “Anglican Use” which has been published in book form as the Book of Divine Worship here in the United States.  The shift for those folks in the Anglican Use here in the United States has been described by the priest at Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church (an Anglican Use Parish) as being a bit like moving from an apartment into a house, and I think that’s a fair description.
  • In the United States, this announcement will mean the formalization of a structure for the Anglican Use, and most importantly, the establishment of “ordinaries,” or people–either priests or Bishops–who will be designated by the Pope to exercise jurisdiction over Anglican Use congregations and priests.  In other words, the Anglican Use will now have it’s own structure and process toward ordination independent of local Roman Catholic diocesan structures.
  • According to the Vatican, the decision to go down this road stemmed from a desire to respond pastorally to requests from groups such as “the Traditional Anglican Communion,” a group with origins within Anglicanism–though who knows how many of their clergy or lay people at this point have ever actually been part of a congregation in the Anglican Communion–which is mostly active outside the United States and embraces that tradition of Anglican worship known as “Anglo-Catholic.”  It is probable that the stated 400,000 members of the TAC will be the largest single group to take part in this process.
  • From within the Anglican Communion itself, this announcement is likely to have the most impact in England for several reasons.  First, as has already been mentioned, the Pastoral Provision has been available in the United States for decades–not so in England.  In addition, the Church of England is conflicted at the moment over the precise role of female Bishops.  It seems like a foregone conclusion that there will be female Bishops in the Church of England–the current discussion is over what role they will play, and how robust any concessions made to those who dissent from female bishops will be.  It so happens that the most opposition to women’s ordination in the Church of England has come from within the Anglo-Catholic party, and it is from this group that any transitions to Rome are thought to be likely.
  • There are two things that makes the situation of the Anglo-Papalists in England interesting.  First of all, the question has been raised as to exactly what elements of Anglicanism they would be taking with them into the Roman Catholic Church as many of them do not use the Book of Common Prayer for the Holy Eucharist (instead following the Anglican Missal).  Additionally, it has been suggested that at least a large minority of Anglo-Papalist clergy in the C of E happen to be homosexual.  If this is true–and I have no personal experience to go on–the question comes to mind about how such priests might be welcomed through this provision, given the ways in which the Roman Catholic Church has chosen to respond to the sex abuse crisis by clamping down on self-identified homosexual seminarians.
  • In the media, the issue that has possibly received the most attention has been the fact that this process allows for married Roman Catholic priests.  As I said, the pastoral provision already allows for this.  My understanding is (and I’m willing to be corrected by someone who may know more) that a married man seeking ordination as a Roman Catholic priest under the pastoral provision must first demonstrate that he has the ability to care for his wife and family without assistance from the Church.  Secondly, unlike the allowance for married clergy among the Eastern Catholic churches (which follow the same traditions as the Eastern Orthodox), this allowance within the Anglican Use is temporary and will only apply to the first generation of converts precisely because this is the “Anglican Use” of the “Latin Rite,” and the Roman Catholic Church views the discipline of mandatory clerical celibacy to be intrinsically important to the Latin Rite–therefore, any future seminarians from Anglican Use congregations will likely be expected to follow the same requirements as any other RCC seminarian.

All of this is to say that I don’t believe that the announcement from the Vatican is major news–at least not as major as the initial decision of Pope John Paul II to establish the pastoral provision in the first place–nor do I think it will cause a major shift in the Anglican Communion.  There are hardly scores of Anglicans who have been chomping at the bit to swim the Tiber, and those that are interested enough to take advantage of this new structure, likely would have went in that direction eventually anyway.  Additionally, I would argue that those Anglicans who are most prone to agree with the Roman Catholic Church on social issues are also more likely to have theological disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church.  As several African Anglican primates have made clear in their responses to the announcement, they simply don’t see how this applies to them, nor do they see how an Anglican could become a Roman Catholic because of the theological differences over the nature of the ministry, tradition and teaching authority, the Holy Eucharist etc…

That being said, part of me thinks that members of various small sectarian groups may be better off in the long run if they take advantage of this opportunity to become part of the RCC, since being part of a larger body may temper radical tendencies that could emerge among isolated religious bodies.  I also believe that the spread of even a portion of the Anglican ethos could be a very good thing and may result in an easier ability to build a bridge between the traditions in the future.