Rome on the rise in England?

AugustineCanterburyIf you didn't know better, you would think that The Times of London is trying to tell us something. While religion writer Ruth Gledhill has been slaving away trying to cover the behind-closed-door negotiations among the Anglican primates in Tanzania, she has also been serving up print and online reports about another major religion story or two, stories that hinge on a high-profile role for the Church of Rome in England.

The Anglican powers that be are buzzing about Gledhill's article focusing on longstanding talks to promote unity between Rome and Canterbury. That's interesting, but there is nothing all that new there. More on that subject in a moment.

No, the story that interests me is this one, which ran in The Times a few days earlier under the headline "Catholics set to pass Anglicans as leading UK church." Here's the key piece of information, the pesky fact in this story:

Average Sunday attendance of both churches stood even at nearly one million in 2005, according to the latest statistics available for England and Wales, but the attendance at Mass is expected to soar.

A Church of England spokesman said: "I don't think you can talk in terms of decline in the Church of England. It is fairly clear that with small fluctuations the worshipping population of the Church of England is 1.7 million a month. That is actually a stable figure."

Note that the article is discussing worship attendence. The state Church of England rarely mentions membership statistics -- 27 million is one estimate -- because so many people in Great Britain are nominal members. Church statistics claim that about 1.2 million people attend church each week. Attendance plunged in the second half of the 20th Century.

Meanwhile, the Roman church has had its own problems with numbers and statistics. Nevertheless, it would be a huge shift in British life if, once again, the Catholic Church was the dominant body Sunday after Sunday. Gledhill makes it clear that this is not because the Roman church has found a way to defeat the growing secularism in England.

Roman Catholicism is set to become the dominant religion in Britain for the first time since the Reformation because of massive migration from Catholic countries across the world. Catholic parishes will swell by hundreds of thousands over the next few years after managing years of decline, according to a new report, as both legal and illegal migrants enter the country. It says that the influx of migrants could be the Catholic community's "greatest threat" or its "greatest opportunity."

Here's the question for me: If Anglicanism needs more people in its pews, is the Roman crisis that (no surprise here ) the Vatican needs more men at its British altars?

It is in this context that the much ballyhooed Gledhill story about "unity" between Canterbury and Rome makes some sense. While the Anglican primates have struggled to find unity in their own communion, it seems to me that Gledhill is convinced that some Anglicans are continuing to talk about new ties to Rome -- after a split in the Church of England. This is not a new topic.

No one thinks that Rome and Canterbury are going to be able to agree on -- for starters -- the issue of the ordination of women. The Anglican establishment could never back down there. No way.

But what if, in the context of a new Anglican-Rite Roman Church, the Vatican was willing to compromise on mandatory celibacy for priests? Thus, Gledhill writes concerning the tense gathering in Tanzania:

Were this week's discussions to lead to a split between liberals and conservatives, many of the former objections in Rome to a reunion with Anglican conservatives would disappear. Many of those Anglicans who object most strongly to gay ordination also oppose the ordination of women priests.

Rome has already shown itself willing to be flexible on the subject of celibacy when it received dozens of married priests from the Church of England into the Catholic priesthood after they left over the issue of women's ordination.

This is interesting to think about, while continuing to read about the warfare behind closed doors at the highest levels of the Anglican Communion. Where will the Anglican right go for Communion -- with a large C -- if the establishment Anglican left is triumphant?

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