On October 20, 2009, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced that Pope Benedict XVI had set up a procedure to allow "groups of Anglican clergy and faithful in different parts of the world" to return en masse to the Catholic Church. While the announcement was greeted with joy by most Catholics and many doctrinally orthodox Anglicans, others remained confused. What are the differences between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion? And what might this reunification of parts of the Anglican Communion with Rome mean for the broader question of Christian unity?
The Creation of the Anglican Church:
In the mid-16th century, King Henry VIII declared the Church in England independent of Rome. At first, the differences were more personal than doctrinal, with one significant exception: The Anglican Church rejected papal supremacy, and Henry VIII established himself as the head of that Church. Over time, however, the Anglican Church adopted a revised liturgy and became influenced briefly by Lutheran and then more lastingly by Calvinist doctrine. Monastic communities in England were suppressed, and their lands confiscated. Doctrinal and pastoral differences developed that made reunification more difficult.
The Rise of the Anglican Communion:
As the British Empire spread around the world, the Anglican Church followed it. One hallmark of Anglicanism was a greater element of local control, and so the Anglican Church in each country enjoyed a measure of autonomy. Collectively, these national churches are known as the Anglican Communion. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, commonly known simply as the Episcopal Church, is the American church in the Anglican Communion.
Attempts at Reunification:
Through the centuries, various attempts have been made to return the Anglican Communion to unity with the Catholic Church. The most prominent was the mid-19th century Oxford Movement, which stressed the Catholic elements of Anglicanism and downplayed Reformation influences on doctrine and practice. Some of the members of the Oxford Movement became Catholic, most famously John Henry Newman, who later became a cardinal, while others remained in the Anglican Church and became the basis of the High Church, or Anglo-Catholic, tradition.
A century later, in the wake of Vatican II, hopes for the prospect of reunification rose again. Ecumenical discussions were held to attempt to resolve doctrinal issues and to pave the way for the acceptance, once again, of papal supremacy.
Bumps on the Road to Rome:
But changes in doctrine and moral teaching among some in the Anglican Communion erected obstacles to unity. The ordination of women as priests and bishops was followed by the rejection of traditional teaching on human sexuality, which led eventually to the ordination of openly homosexual clergy and the blessing of homosexual unions. National churches, bishops, and priests who resisted such changes (mostly Anglo-Catholic descendants of the Oxford Movement) began to question whether they should remain in the Anglican Communion, and some began to look to individual reunification with Rome.
The "Pastoral Provision" of Pope John Paul II:
At the requests of such Anglican clergy, in 1982 Pope John Paul II approved a "pastoral provision" that allowed some groups of Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church en masse while preserving their structure as churches and maintaining elements of an Anglican identity. In the United States, a number of individual parishes took this route, and in most cases, the Church dispensed the married Anglican priests who served those parishes from the requirement of celibacy so that, after their reception into the Catholic Church, they could receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders and become Catholic priests.
Coming Home to Rome:
Other Anglicans tried to create an alternative structure, the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), but as tensions grew in the Anglican Communion, TAC petitioned the Catholic Church in October 2007 for "full, corporate, and sacramental union." That petition became the basis for Pope Benedict's action on October 20, 2009.
Under the new procedure, "personal ordinariates" (essentially, dioceses without geographical boundaries) will be formed. The bishops will normally be former Anglicans, though the tradition of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches will be respected, and thus candidates for bishop must be unmarried. Married Anglican priests, however, will be allowed to request ordination as Catholic priests once they have entered the Catholic Church. Former Anglican parishes will be allowed to preserve "elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony."
The Future of Christian Unity:
While both Catholic and Anglican leaders have stressed that ecumenical dialogue will continue, in practical terms, the Anglican Communion is likely to move further away from Catholic orthodoxy as traditionalist Anglicans are accepted into the Catholic Church. For other Christian denominations, however, the "personal ordinariate" model may be a path for traditionalists to pursue reunification with Rome outside of the structures of their particular churches. (For instance, conservative Lutherans in Europe may approach the Holy See directly.)
This move is also likely to increase dialogue between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The question of married priests and the maintenance of liturgical traditions have long been stumbling blocks in Catholic-Orthodox discussions. While the Catholic Church has been willing to accept Orthodox traditions regarding the priesthood and the liturgy, many Orthodox have been skeptical of Rome's sincerity. If the portions of the Anglican Church that reunite with the Catholic Church are able to maintain a married priesthood and a distinct identity, many fears of the Orthodox will be put to rest.