Round up the usual suspects (updated)

As my GetReligion colleagues and the media (particularly the Brits, of course) have again and noted this week, again portrayed Pope Benedict's move to create a personal ordinariate for conservative Anglicans as a bold move to poach members from the world's third-largest denomination. Terry had praise for a story in the New York Times which noted that accepting Anglican priests into the Catholic Church was by no means without precedent.

If you want a look at the history, here's how it came down. What Pope Benedict seems to be doing is institutionalizing the process already in existence in the Roman Catholic Church and given a more explicit papal seal of approval by Pope John Paul II.

More interesting, and less explored, is the effects it will have on relations between the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams -- or on the Church of England itself, currently in turmoil over the issue of women bishops. For an article with some good gossipy quotes from a former AOC, read this one by Ruth Gledhill. My reaction -- nice house, Lord Carey of Clifton!

Enter, stage right, in a commentary in today's New York Times the church historian, and fiction writer A.N. Wilson. Interesting chap, Mr. Wilson. The last time I remember reading about him, many years ago, he'd lost his faith. But, more recently he announced in an editorial in the Daily Mail that he had returned to Christian faith. Although it's not directly related to the topic, it adds a fascinating note to a rich and complex brew.

Wilson points out that the Papal embrace of dissidents will allow large groups of Anglicans to cross the Tiber, if their priests are "retrained and reordinained." I'm not clear that the Vatican has been explicit on that point, although Catholic convert Fr. George Rutler is proclaming it as Gospel. The news clip above is as remarkable for what it doesn't say as for what it does.

UPDATE: Yeah, I know, this post has been up a bit more than a hour or so. But this commentary, sent to us by a reader in the Washington Post was too good to pass up. In pondering potential changes in Catholic doctrine and ecclesiology as a result of the outreach to Anglicans, commentator David Gibson asserted that Benedict, in making concessions to traditionalists, is actually inauguarating a form of liberalism (change) in the Catholic Church:

...with the latest accommodation to Anglicans, Benedict has signaled that the standards for what it means to be Catholic -- such as the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Mass as celebrated by a validly ordained priest -- are changing or, some might argue, falling. The Vatican is in effect saying that disagreements over gay priests and female bishops are the main issues dividing Catholics and Anglicans, rather than, say, the sacraments and the papacy and infallible dogmas on the Virgin Mary, to name just a few past points of contention.

I don't get it. What do Rutler, Wilson and Gibson know that the rest of us don't? Anglicans have been battering down the door for more than a century trying to get Rome to recognize Anglican orders or a view of the eucharist that is much closer to Catholicism than to most Reformation denominations. In case no one has noticed, Rome hasn't budged. Is it really possible that Roman Catholicism under a pope with years of experience as doctrinal defender will, within a year or two, make de facto changes that make the church look quite different?

Back to England, where some sort of change is already a given. These paragraphs in Wilson's commentary are sure to set the cat among the pidgeons:

There is talk in England of as many as 1,000 clergy members taking this offer. Even allowing for the numerical exaggeration, which always occurs when enemies of liberalism congregate, this is a huge potential figure. Let us say 500 Anglican priests and perhaps 10 bishops joined the new arrangement. Let us suppose they took with them plausible congregations. This would deliver a body blow not just to the Church of England, but to that whole intricately constructed and only semi-definable phenomenon, the British Establishment.

Ah, there's the rub. Over at the Reuters blog FaithWorld, editor Tom Heneghan has detailed the reasons why the new model might present challenges for some Anglicans. But it could be most appealing to British Anglo-Catholic conservatives appalled by the fruit of the decision to ordain women, first as priests, and now as bishops.

For Wilson, the perfect storm means the end of the Church of England -- and an opportunity for the country to embrace its secular identity. That's a good thing, he argues.

How will it all work? Will the English Catholics, always hard pressed for cash, be in a position to take over the running of our medieval churches? What will happen to the cathedrals? As fewer and fewer real Christians exist in England, will the church buildings be taken over by some secular conservation group like the National Trust? Probably. And for the 55 million or so Britons who don't regularly attend services -- some 90 percent of the population -- it is all rather unimportant.

But it is nevertheless a landmark. The Church of England has been the religious expression of that independent national identity which signaled the rise of Britain as a significant world power. Hatched by Henry VIII and nurtured by his daughter Elizabeth I, the Church of England was an expression of that combination of tolerance and arrogance that marked the English governing class. It sat light to doctrine, and tried to accommodate many. But while that seemed a gentle thing to do, it did so because it actually laid claim to governing and controlling all.

I had to grin when I read "sat light to doctrine" -- that's a good way of summing up more than 500 years of controversy and muddle, or, in a more positive note, "via media."

Clearly, we can't tell if Wlison's dire prediction is correct. It's a compelling one. And it's rather too bad that the media hasn't spent more time examining the actual effect this is going to have on the country where Anglicanism was born. Is the sun truly setting on this last vestige of empire? Brew up some tea, put out some biscuits and think about it. Or perhaps you'd like something stronger. And then please get back to us.

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