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Realistic expectations about Anglicans

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 21, 2009

There's a natural, healthy excitement in Church this week, caused by the Pope's bold move to welcome Anglicans into the Catholic fold. But after that first flush of excitement, let's step back just a bit and assess the likely outcome. 

Will there be millions of Anglicans battering down the doors of Catholic churches next week? Not likely. Hundreds of thousands, then? Probably not. 

The Anglican Church is sinking, and the Pope has thrown a lifeline. But there are several reasons why Anglicans-- even tradition-minded Anglicans-- might not grasp it.

First there are practical matters. Anglican clergymen have salaries and pension funds, and in many cases they have families to feed. There will be financial questions to settle, as well as legal questions about the ownership of parish properties and the administration of church programs.

Second there are the purely human considerations. Many Anglicans will find it difficult to walk away from the parish with which their families have been involved for generations, where their parents and grandparents were baptized and married, where their ancestors helped to build the church and now lie in the parish graveyard. Leaving the Anglican communion, for them, might mean leaving behind some bitterly disappointed relatives and friends, as well as some cherished memories. It will be wrenching; it might not happen right away.

Next there are the suspicions and fears that will doubtless remain, even after the Pope issues his apostolic constitution. Conservative Anglicans might glance nervously at the Catholic parishes in their neighborhood, notice the theological novelties and the liturgical abuses, and wonder whether they might be leaving one untenable situation only to enter into another. Working from the opposite direction, liberal Catholics-- including some in the hierarchy-- might discourage Anglicans from entering the Church, recognizing that an influx of conservative believers could tilt the entire Church toward a more traditional outlook. 

For some conservative Anglicans-- notably in Africa-- there is no special incentive to enter the Catholic Church, because the Anglican communities in their regions remain firmly in the hands of their fellow conservatives. The worldwide Anglican communion may be falling apart, but in Africa the faith is buoyant, and the faithful are far less likely to see any need for dramatic changes. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are many conservative Anglicans who have no desire to enter the Catholic Church under any circumstances. 

The Anglican communion, one must remember, is divided in two different ways. There is a clear liberal/conservative split, which is evident in the highly publicized battles over issues such as homosexuality and the ordination of women. Catholics readily recognize that division; we have the same problem in our Church. But in the Anglican communion there is another division, between the "high church" and "low church" traditions. Those two ways of classifying the Anglican faithful produce very different divisions. Within the Roman Catholic Church, "liberals" tend to disagree with "conservatives" consistently, across a whole range of issues: doctrinal, moral, and liturgical. Not so in the Anglican communion, where one can find high-church liberals and low-church conservatives.

The distinction between the "high" and "low" Anglican traditions can be traced back to the 17th century, when some parishes within the Church of England clung to the sacramental rituals they had preserved from their days as Catholic communities, while others-- more heavily influenced by the Reformation-- jettisoned those ceremonies to adopt a self-consciously simpler style of worship. The battle between "high" and "low" approaches has continued on different fronts over the centuries. At the risk of oversimplification, one might say that today the heirs of the "high church" tradition in the Anglican communion emphasize the patrimony they have received from the universal (Catholic) Church, while those of the "low church" tradition think of themselves as children of the Reformation. 

In the 19th century, the Oxford Movement spoke explicitly of the "Anglo-Catholic" tradition, and today the heirs of the Oxford Movement-- including the members of the Traditional Anglican Communion-- still think of themselves as Anglo-Catholics. For them, the Pope's invitation may prove irresistible.

But Anglicans from the other, "low-church" tradition, who think of themselves as Protestants, will not succumb so quickly to the magnetic attraction of Rome. Many of them may be conservative, in the same way that Evangelical Christians are conservative, on questions of theological doctrine and moral principle. They may be estranged from their more liberal co-religionists. But they do not see the Catholic Church as a potential refuge. Thus Bishop Martyn Minns, a leader of the Anglican Church in North America-- a group formed to counteract liberalism in the Episcopal Church-- told the New York Times: "I don't want to be a Roman Catholic." He explained simply: "There was a Reformation, you remember." 

 

 

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  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Oct. 23, 2009 9:41 PM ET USA

    Phil's analysis hits the nail on the head. Already, Episcopalians are whining and wondering what impact this "pope thing" will have on their church. They have a boatload of problems, most of which they want to hang on to. What the Holy Father did was admirable and it opens the door for those who want to come. I fear there is a biblical reference about sheep and goats that applies to those who don't. I pray they will weigh their choice carefully.

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