The energy is palpable. People are excited. Married Episcopalian clergymen are coming to the Catholic Church and being ordained to the Catholic priesthood. On the first day of this year Pope Benedict XVI established the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter for Episcopalians in the United States who wish to join the Catholic Church while continuing to retain the distinctive spirituality and liturgical traditions of Anglicanism. About a year before, the pope established a similar ordinariate for England and Wales.
The relationship between Rome (home of the papacy) and Canterbury (home of the primate of the English Church) is long, contentious, occasionally tense, and quite fascinating. Augustine of Canterbury (not Augustine of Hippo) is remembered as the first to head that diocese back in the sixth century. Sent by Pope Gregory the Great, Augustine is remembered as “the Apostle to the English” and he is credited with the establishment of the church in Britain. But there was already a Christian presence in the British Isles, which has come to be known as the Celtic or Ionian Church. Perhaps this was an ominous sign of things to come.
Cardinal Reginald Pole was the last Archbishop of Canterbury to be in union with the See of Rome. He died in 1558. An exhausting debate has ensued about whether or not the sacraments and priesthood of the English (Anglican) Church are valid. As far as Rome is concerned, the issue was settled in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII’s papal bull entitled Apostolicae Curae, declaring Anglican orders to be “absolutely null and utterly void.” According to the decree, the primary problem with Anglican ordinations (and therefore also Anglican sacraments) is defect of intention. In other words, the English bishops who broke with Rome did not intend with the ordinations they performed to do what Rome intends and understands ordinations to accomplish. Ergo, Rome can’t recognize Anglican orders or sacraments as valid.
It’s not all that simple, at least not to the theological mind. There are Catholic bishops and theologians who disagree. But many Anglicans (in the US most Anglicans are Episcopalians) have accepted the notion of questionable orders themselves. Episcopalians, like others in the worldwide Anglican Communion, are embroiled in controversies like the ordination of women and of gay clergy. Many are looking to Rome for certitude and stability. Admitting married clergy from the ranks of Episcopalians and even Lutherans is nothing new, but the widespread preservation of Anglican distinctiveness in Catholic liturgy is a fairly new twist, and a welcome one for those coming to Rome from Anglicanism.
I find myself with feelings of ambiguity. I am happy to welcome into the Catholic Church those who feel called to join at our eucharistic table. But if they are looking for a perfect community, this certainly isn’t it. Many Catholic theologians would argue that Rome has still never formulated an adequate reason to deny ordination to women, and we have plenty of gay clergy in our own ranks. If Episcopalians are swimming to the shores of Rome because they are comforted by the policies of the present pope on such issues, what will happen if a new pope offers divergent approaches?
And what about the thousands of former Catholic priests who have left active ministry in order to marry? Officially, they are not even allowed to serve as eucharistic ministers or lectors in their parishes. In my opinion it is both unjust and unwise to refuse them a path to return to sacramental ministry simply because they are married.