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The Pope's Anglican Plan: Welcome Mat or Hostile Takeover?

5 years ago
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If you are going to pick a fight with anyone, it's not a bad move to choose an opponent who is already weakened. And, for good measure, make him an Anglican whose sense of Christian charity and British manners will make him reluctant to counterpunch, at least in public.

From that point of view, then, Pope Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia did well by choosing Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion, as the man to tweak with a provocative initiative to lure away a good chunk of Williams' flock.

The plan, unveiled Tuesday at the Vatican, would allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church without renouncing their Anglican traditions and beliefs. It would offer a tempting sanctuary to traditionalist Anglicans who have been upset with the acceptance of women bishops by the Church of England and openly gay clergy by the Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion.

The plan represents an extraordinary concession by Rome. Even married clergy could bring their wives along and remain priests (though married bishops could not be Catholic bishops, just ordinary clerics). Those are perks Rome has never made for other groups, and does not seem inclined to provide for members of its own flock who would like to adopt traditions like a married clergy.

In common parlance many would call such a move "sheep-stealing." The Times of London was even more direct:
"Vatican moves to poach traditional Anglicans," ran its headline.

To make matters worse for Williams, the alliance between Rome and Anglican conservatives resulted from secret negotiations among several English bishops and the Vatican, and Williams was only informed of the imminent move two weeks ago. It was presented to him by a papal representative as a fait accompli, and Williams had no chance to forestall the Vatican move.

A "fairly brutal public humiliation of Rowan Williams," wrote The Guardian's Andrew Brown, who took a funereal tone for his title, "The end of the Anglican Communion," adding, for good measure: "Pope Benedict tells Rowan Williams: so long and thanks for all the priests."

"Poor Rowan. He's been well and truly done over. By all sides," The Times quoted an ex-Anglican, who is now Catholic, as saying.

Williams even sat at a London press conference with his Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, to announce the Vatican move and put the best face on what seemed a difficult day. Williams sought to depict the plan as "nothing new," a claim that was met with much skepticism. Observers noted how Williams reddened as it was left to Nichols to explain how the archbishop of Canterbury remained relevant.

So why did Williams, head of a storied and global church, submit to such a public spectacle?

Part of the reason is that he has high regard for ecumenical dialogue and wants to pursue good relations with Roman Catholicism, with which he himself has a great affinity. Besides, it was recently announced that Pope Benedict XVI will visit Great Britain next year, an already delicate matter given Catholicism's troubled history in England.

But Williams also had little choice. Since his election as archbishop of Canterbury in 2003, Williams -- widely considered one of the most penetrating intellects in Christendom, as well as a gracious soul -- has struggled to keep an increasingly fractious church together. The archbishop of Canterbury has none of the unilateral authority that a pope enjoys in Catholicism, and is more a "first among equals" who must convince rather than command the leaders of the 37 other autonomous provinces of the Communion.

And with American Episcopalians ordaining an openly gay bishop in 2004, and his own Church of England voting to allow women as bishops (women had already been allowed to be priests), he has had a lot of convincing to do.

Anglican provinces in the Southern Hemisphere, where the church has already far surpassed in numbers the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States, tend to be much more conservative, especially on matters of sexuality and roles for women. Some of those churches threatened to split off on their own -- taking their property as well as people with them -- if Williams and the other primates did not read the Episcopal Church out of the Anglican Communion or take other steps to enforce orthodoxy. On the other hand, the Episcopal Church, which has great wealth despite its small size (just 2.2 million adherents), was equally unhappy with its treatment by Williams.

With his influence already suffering, Williams was in no position to talk tough with Rome since he could have provoked even more anger in his own ranks.

But another reason for Williams' seeming acquiescence could have been his realization that Rome actually did him a favor.

"[A]lthough the Archbishop of Canterbury will grieve at the departure of people he is ecclesiologically sympathetic to, he will probably conclude that uniting his Church will now be easier," the English Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh wrote at the blog of America magazine. Williams has described conservative "Anglo-Catholics" as a "necessary abrasion," and, as Ivereigh put it, "he knows that too much scratching at sore spots has left Anglicanism weak and divided."

By the same token, Williams, and others, know that Tuesday's move by the Vatican was also about internal Catholic politics. Since he was elected pope in 2005, Benedict XVI has been slowly but deliberately pushing the Catholic Church in a more rightward direction, and many would see his embrace of conservative Anglicans, who are in some respects more Catholic than the pope in their views, as a way to both "grow" the Catholic Church and make it more conservative at the same time.

Yet as the saints like to say, be careful what you pray for. The Anglicans who may come to Rome -- dozens of bishops and perhaps hundreds of clergy, as well as entire parishes in the U.S. are predicted to make the switch -- have much in common with the Vatican. But one thing they have never shared is the tradition of papal primacy, which has been the bright dividing line since Henry VIII broke from Rome in 1538 over the pope's refusal to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his first wife.

Those Anglo-Catholics may love the pontiff today, but what about tomorrow when he tries to make them do something they don't want?

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