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October 21, 2009
Column #1,469a
Catholics Welcome Anglicans Back Home
By Mike McManus

In a move as bold as Henry VIII removing English churches from the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI invited traditional Anglican bishops, clergy and congregations to come home to Rome, joining the Catholic Church, while maintaining many distinctive Anglican traditions, including married priests.

Cardinal William Levada, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, announced in Rome that Anglicans would be able to "enter into full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony."

At the same time as Levada' press conference, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols responded positively to the initiative in a London press conference despite the fact Williams was clearly stunned by the initiative.

The London Times headlined the story: "Vatican Moves to Poach Traditional Anglicans" who, it said "are dismayed by growing acceptance of gays and women priests and bishops."

POACH?  Not exactly.  The Traditional Anglican Communion, a breakaway group with up to 20 bishops worldwide, headed by Australian Archbishop John Hepworth, has been asking to come into the Catholic Church for two years. In addition, Bishop Andrew Burnham of Ebbsfleet, England, and Bishop Keith Newton of Richborough, England, visited Rome last Easter asking Cardinal William Levada to consider letting them in, as have others.

Archbishop Hepworth issued a statement this week: "We are profoundly moved by the generosity of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.  He hopes that we can `find in this canonical structure the opportunity to preserve those Anglican traditions precious to us and consistent with the Catholic faith.'  May I firstly state that this is an act of great goodness....It more than matches the dreams we dared to include in our petition of two years ago."

Bishop John Broadhurst, who chairs a number of traditionalist parishes in England, Forward in Faith UK, responded similarly, "It has been the frequently expressed hope and fervent desire of Anglican Catholics to be enabled by some means to enter into full communion with the See of Peter whilst retaining in its integrity every aspect of their Anglican inheritance which is not at variance with the teaching of the Catholic Church."

What is unclear at this point is how many Anglican bishops, clergy and churches will accept Benedict's offer.  Relatively few, if any, will do so in the United States.

       As I have reported, there has been a titanic struggle between The Episcopal Church which voted to allow an openly gay priest, Gene Robinson, to be elevated as Bishop of New Hampshire - and its more orthodox congregations who viewed that step as unbiblical.

       About 700 churches with 100,000 members have left the Episcopal Church to become Anglican churches, often under the protection of orthodox African or South American provinces or dioceses.  In fact, four entire dioceses, voted to leave, leaving only a handful of congregations behind, in diverse parts of the U.S. - Pittsburgh, Ft. Worth, Quincy, IL and San Joaquin, CA. That is unprecedented.

       Bishop Martyn Minns, creator of CANA, Convocation of Anglicans in North America, that now has 90 former Episcopal churches, told the New York Times that the Vatican's initiative demonstrates "that the divisions in the Anglican Communion are very serious." However, he said, "I don't want to be a Roman Catholic. There was a Reformation, you remember."

       Conservative Anglican Churches in Great Britain have no similar escape option, and will be attracted by the Pope's offer.

       Practical issues will then surface.  Will Diocese X or church Y be able to leave The Church of England with their church properties? 

       The U.S. experience suggests there will be a bitter legal battle.  So far, one church in South Carolina and a dozen in Virginia have won legal battles to keep their property, some of which date back to colonial times before The Episcopal Church was organized. All are being appealed, however.  Dozens of other churches have lost, and had to leave without property.

       At present there are 60 churches fighting lawsuits.  David Virtue, a well-informed reporter, ( estimates that $50 million in legal fees will be spent by both sides.

       It is possible that the Church of England will let its unhappy congregations leave with their property, since many are costly to keep in repair and few people attend on a weekly basis.

       What then might be the impact?  If hundreds of churches leave with their married priests, Catholic priests in England, Canada, Australia, etc might well ask Rome, "Why can't we marry as well?" 

       It would appear that the Roman Catholic Church may have to reconsider its celibacy rule as the church opens its doors to many more non-celibate clergy.


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