The Anglican Church has been in pandemonium this week, with everyone trying to make sense of the surprise announcement on Tuesday that the Roman Catholic Church is making a bid for their members. According to many religion commentators, the historic invitation from the Vatican is very likely to tear the Anglican Communion (which includes Episcopalians in the US) apart. But considering the opposing sides of the church have been at each other’s throats for a decade now, perhaps this open hand from Rome is just what it needs to facilitate an amicable divorce.
The Vatican announced that it is going to make special arrangements for protestant Anglicans to defect and join the Catholic Church as full members, while still being able to preserve their Anglican traditions and practices including – most significantly – the right for priests to be married.
Many media outlets, including this really interesting article from the BBC, have billed this as a historic and unprecedented decision. Historic it may be, but not exactly unprecedented. Most of the media has failed to note the fact that the arrangement will be similar to that accorded to the Eastern Catholic Churches, the ancient Christian sects of the Middle East which are in full communion with the Catholic church yet retain their own customs, including different baptism rites and the right of priests to marry.
The big difference though is that those Eastern churches predate the Roman Catholic church – they were brought in as sister catholic religions rather than splinter protestant ones. This Anglican invitation will be the first time the Roman Catholic church has made special arrangements for a protestant denomination to join the church while keeping their own separate customs and rules. Who knows, if the Catholic church had allowed people to do this in the first place there might not even be protestant churches today.
But just how protestant is Anglicanism? The answer is not very. But, it’s a bit complicated. Anglicanism is by far the most “Catholic-like” protestant denomination, in fact many call it “Catholicism in all but name”. This is a result of the fact that the church was formed not as an expression of religious protestation like its counterparts Luthernism and Calvinism, but rather as the byproduct of a marriage dispute between Henry VIII and Rome. Henry simply took the existing Catholic Church in England and made himself, rather than the pope its leader - confiscating church property and breaking up the monasteries. Essentially the two major differences between the religions today are that Anglicans don’t recognize the leadership or infallibility of the pope and they allow priests to marry.
Of course even if the split had little effect on the daily religious practices of the English, it had a huge effect on the politics and the destiny of the nation, putting it squarely on the side of the protestants and making it an enemy of Rome in the wars of religion (a conflict whose vestiges still rage today in Northern Ireland). The fact that the Vatican would extend an arm like this to its ancient enemy is a telling sign of how much things have changed. The new conflict, rather than being between religions, is between the religious and the secular. And the trend is for religions to unite against Atheist influence.
What Now for the Anglicans?
In addition to its historical significance, the move will likely have a dramatic effect on the future. Essentially there are four different competing factions within the global Anglican communion, and they overlap. Historically there has always been the old division between the “Anglo-Catholic” wing which follows more Catholic traditions and the “low-church” which is more protestant. But in the past decades a new modern split has emerged between the progressives, who favour having the church ordain women and accept homosexuality, and the conservatives, who refuse to serve under female bishops or priests and condemn homosexuality.
With this move the Vatican is specifically targeting the Anglo-Catholics, whose practices and beliefs would transition seamlessly into Catholicism barring the fact that the priests are married already. So problem solved right? The Anglo-Catholics who oppose women and gays can move into the more conservative Catholic Church, and the Anglican church is whittled down to its more protestant root. Well, it’s not that simple, because the four groups are mixed. Many of the conservative Anglicans, especially those in the US, are also die-hard “low church” protestants who would never join the Catholic Church. Likewise, many Anglo-Catholics are progressives who support women priests. Though most Anglican congregations in Africa fall into the conservative camp, they are mixed between Anglo-Catholics and low churchers.
Up till now the conservative Anglo-Catholics and low churchers have been in an uneasy alliance against the progressive moves to annoint female and gay bishops. But the Vatican’s move could drive a wedge between them. If the Anglo-Catholics leave, the conservative low churchers will be left by themselves, and with such a reduced number they certainly would be in less of a position to exert pressure on the Anglican Synod, which would then be free to push through a relatively unrestricted agenda of progressive reforms.
Already the lobby group for conservative low-churchers, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, has come out strongly criticising the Vatican’s move. According to the BBC there’s already been suggestions that the Catholic church is “capitalising on Anglican divisions to poach clergy.” If that was their wish, it seems to already be working. The leader of the Catholic Group on the Anglican Church's synod told the BBC that "several hundred" clergy would leave immediately, and something like 1,500 altogether would depart soon.
Considering that the Anglican church has been stuck in such deadlock for so long, perhaps this is the best solution. There may be questionable motivations from the Catholic Church, but if the end result is a more progressive and more protestant Anglican communion, there will be many within that religion which would be glad to see that result.