Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Anglican Right

by Rev. Dwight Longenecker

In the late 1970s, a group of Episcopal clergymen with typical American chutzpah wrote to Pope Paul VI. They said they wanted to become Catholics, and wished for their priestly ministry to be fulfilled by being ordained as Catholic priests. The only problem was that they had wives and children.

Paul VI received their petition, and they heard nothing. In the autumn of 1978, the pope died; then another pope died, and John Paul II took charge. The little group of Episcopal priests waited with crossed fingers and bated breath while Rome made a decision. In 1980 they finally had an answer: A procedure was to be established whereby former Episcopal priests could be ordained as Catholic priests, even if they were married. Individual bishops would apply to a papal delegate for a dispensation from the vow of celibacy, and after suitable training the Episcopal priests could be ordained as fully functioning Catholic priests.

Since 1983, about 75 married former Episcopalian priests have been ordained in the United States. When the Anglican Church was splitting over women's ordination in the early 1990s, the English Catholic bishops also appealed to Rome for permission to ordain married former Anglicans. Permission was granted, and the English bishops set up their own procedure. No one is certain of the exact numbers, but since the early 1990s about 600 former Anglican priests have been ordained in England, of whom about 150 are married. Married former Anglican priests have also been ordained in Scotland and in Spain.

Who's In and Who's Out?

Rev. William Stetson is the priest who assists Archbishop John Myers of Newark in administering the Pastoral Provision. I asked him why, if Anglican orders are null and void, Episcopalians and Anglicans get special treatment. Why couldn't a married Baptist minister convert be ordained as a Catholic priest? Father Stetson explained that there is a special situation for men from the Anglican communion -- not because their orders are more acceptable, but because their priestly experience, theological training, and spiritual formation is closer to Catholicism.

Indeed, married converts from other denominations have been accepted for ordination as well. Jim Anderson of the Coming Home Network reports that in the United States, Catholic men who came into full communion from the Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Charismatic Episcopal, and Continuing Anglican churches have also been ordained as Catholic priests. Dom Bartholomew Leon, O.S.B., pastor of the Maronite congregation in Greenville, South Carolina, observes that the Eastern Rite churches have had married priests for ages, and that the exception for former Anglicans doesn't seem so unusual for them.

So what's up? Is Rome changing the celibacy discipline by stealth? Are the Vatican officials testing the water to see how married priests work before they make a wholesale change? Not really. The truth, as G. K. Chesterton observes, is often just what it seems. There's no conspiracy. Rome is not changing the celibacy rule. It is simply making an exception to Church discipline in order to encourage Christians who are separated from full communion to "come home to Rome." If you like, Rome is sending a very practical message to Anglicans: "We are willing to be flexible and do everything possible to facilitate your journey home." Linked with this explanation is a proper concern for evangelization: Rome hopes the Anglicans who come in will continue to be an example and minister to other Christians who seek full communion with the ancient Church of the apostles.

It's Our Rite!

When the Pastoral Provision was first established in 1980, permission for married Protestant pastors to be ordained was only part of the plan. In addition to allowing married Episcopal priests to be ordained, Rome set up a program for whole parishes to come into the Catholic Church. Not only could their married ministers be ordained, but congregations of former Episcopalians were permitted to worship according to their own traditions.

The provision for their own liturgy is sometimes called the Anglican Rite. To be precise, it's really the Anglican Usage of the Roman Rite. This is to distinguish it from the Eastern Rite churches like the Maronites, Melkites, and Malabars that enjoy union with Rome with not only their own liturgy, but their own hierarchy as well. The Anglican Usage remains part of the Latin Rite, since the English were historically part of the Latin Church. Their unusual liturgy is simply one form of the liturgy authorized for use in the Latin Church.

The Anglican Use parishes use the Book of Divine Worship,which is based on the 16th-century Book of Common Prayer written by Thomas Cranmer. The Book of Divine Worship is a total resource for former Anglicans. Cranmer's version of the Psalms is retained, and traditional Anglican services like Morning and Evening Prayer are authorized for use. In the liturgy of the Eucharist, most of Cranmer's memorable and beautiful prayers are retained, but placed in the correct order and subjected to the doctrinal demands of Catholic liturgy. Anglican Use priests celebrate the Mass facing the altar; communicants kneel to receive the Eucharist; and they claim that their liturgy is a faithful 16th-century translation of the Latin Mass.


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