Anglicans Hesitate on the Path to Rome


by Damian Thompsom


Find Damian’s excellent blog here

At least one Church of England “flying bishop” is ready to convert to Catholicism, and so are thousands of Anglicans. What is stopping them? According to a highly placed source, they simply cannot face the hostility of the current bishops of England and Wales.

There are four provincial episcopal visitors, to give them their proper name, and my information is that one or perhaps two of them want to be Roman Catholics, sacrificing their status as bishops in the process.

There is tremendous enthusiasm for Pope Benedict among Anglo-Catholics, who love his theological emphasis on beauty in the liturgy. He, in turn, is anxious to welcome them into the Roman fold.

Not so the current bishops of England and Wales, who are almost uniformly liberal. In the early 1990s, the bishops forced Basil Hume to place as many obstacles as possible in the path of Catholic-minded Anglicans wanting to convert together. For many observers (including me) that was a profoundly disillusioning moment.

Some tremendously talented Anglican priests did cross the Tiber. Of those that remained, I think we can identify four broad groups:

1. Anglo-Catholics who now accept women priests – I would never have believed, 15 years ago, that so many “bells and smells” types would become reconciled to this innovation, but they have.

2. Anglo-Catholic clergy who, despite their extreme Roman ritualism, are in irregular relationships that would not be tolerated by the Catholic authorities, so they pull up the drawbridge.

3. Anglo-Catholics who still believe, against all the evidence, that they will be able to preserve their male-only priesthood until their fellow Anglicans see the error of their ways.

4. Anglo-Catholics who know the game is up, that there will never be corporate reunion with Rome, and that their future lies in submitting to the Holy See.

It is these last people who are enduring the worst pain. They want to seize the hour while the chair of Peter is occupied by a brilliant theologian who recognises the special qualities of Anglo-Catholicism. They admire Benedict’s boldness in removing the power of diocesan bishops to block the traditional Latin Mass and encouraging the setting up of congregations using only the 1962 Missal. Could he make similar arrangements for ex-Anglicans?

The answer, at the moment, is depressing. The Bishops of England and Wales have fought a surreptitious campaign of resistance against the Pope’s liturgical reforms. So far, it has succeeded: the total number of traditional Sunday Masses has barely increased since the Pope changed the rules last year.

The current hierarchy feels no more warmly towards conservative Anglo-Catholics than it does towards the Latin Mass Society. It will do the bare minimum to accommodate converts. The paradox is that many Anglo-Catholic parishes celebrate the liturgy in a manner that corresponds far more closely to Benedict’s aesthetic of worship than the makeshift, sloppy services found in ordinary Catholic parishes.

No wonder the flying bishops are unhappy and confused. If they submit to Rome, they would like to do so under a truly sympathetic papacy, but who knows how long it will last? The best solution would be for the Pope to appoint a successor to Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor who is in his own image – the Dominican writer Fr Aidan Nichols, say. But the chances of that happening are slim. We are heading towards another missed opportunity


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