According to the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed intensely on the night before his crucifixion that his followers, present and future, would “be one.”
After 2,000 years, it’s obvious why he needed to pray like that. Unity is difficult, a stubborn fact reaffirmed last month when Pope Benedict XVI cleared a new path for Anglicans to enter the Roman Catholic Church.
The relationship between Rome and Canterbury has always been complex, to put it mildly.
The Anglican tradition was born 475 years ago when, in a messy mix of personal desire, European politics and theological disputes during the Protestant Reformation, King Henry VIII challenged the pope’s authority in England and, with the first Supremacy Act, the government in effect declared churchly independence. The monarch was deemed “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England,” with the archbishop of Canterbury its primary leader.
That rough beginning has evolved into the global Anglican Communion, which today claims 77 million members, making it the world’s third largest church body, after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Most Anglicans in the U.S. are in the Episcopal Church.
The dispute over papal authority turned out to be only the beginning. Inevitably, Catholics and Anglicans grew apart theologically as well as structurally. Among other issues, today they differ over women in ministry, over married clergy, and, depending on which part of the globe you’re in, over gay priests and bishops. (North American and British Anglicans tend to be more liberal about such things than their spiritual siblings in the southern hemisphere.)
Even so, many Anglicans and Catholics have long yearned for reconciliation, recognizing their churches’ special if strained relationship. Church leaders have constantly talked about cooperation for almost a half century, working together when theological differences weren’t at issue. There’s even been speculation about eventual reunification. Leaders in both churches regularly express a desire for unity.
But last month’s directive from the pope indicates how far apart the two churches remain. Benedict will establish “personal ordinariates,” bodies similar to dioceses, to oversee the pastoral care of those who want to be received into the Catholic Church and bring elements of their Anglican identity with them. (The arrangement isn’t unique, even if the situation is. The Catholic Church already includes various groups with different rites, such as the Melkite and Maronite churches, living under similar structures.)
insists it still seeks unity, according to church leaders. Rather, the pope was responding to “many requests” submitted by individual Anglicans and Anglican groups, including “20 to 30 bishops,” asking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.
East Tennessee has not yet felt any impact. Neither the Roman Catholic Knoxville Diocese nor the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee knows of any Episcopalians seeking to join Catholic churches since the Vatican’s announcement.
“No one from the Episcopal Church has come at the parish level,” said Anietie Akata, head pastor at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Johnson City. “A few members have read what the Vatican issued, and there’s been only positive acceptance expressed to me.”
Hal Hutchison, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, doesn’t know of any members in that parish heading toward Rome. He doesn’t foresee a large migration at all.
“I don’t anticipate it being a significant number in any provinces of the Anglican community,” he said. “Part of the reason they like being Anglican is they don’t have a pope. Those who are unhappy with the Episcopal Church have sought to align themselves in other ways.”
The move may have other effects, however. While high-ranking Catholic and Anglican officials talk about their desire for unity, their words may sound like whistling in the dark.
Cardinal William J. Levada, who directs the Vatican’s chief body for overseeing theological consistency, has noted that with “recent changes” within many Anglican provinces – probably a reference to the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the U.S. and other controversies about sexuality – the prospect of full unity “seemed to recede.” So instead of holding out hope for full reconciliation, the Vatican opened a road to Rome for Anglicans who no longer feel at home with Canterbury.
St. Mary’s parish continues to pray for the unity of the church, according to Pastor Akata, “which has always been the ambition and goal for the church.”
He’s right about that. Jesus himself prayed for such unity, probably knowing how difficult it would be.
First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 7 Nov 2009.