The Rt. Reverend Andrew Burnham, the Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet, has made public his plans to come into communion with the Roman Catholic Church and bring his flock with him. His move follows the Church of England’s decision on Monday to allow women bishops to be ordained.
In a column published in the Catholic Herald, Bishop Burnham explains that the move is the result of seeing traditionalist Anglicans denied any sort of special provisions in the Monday vote on women being ordained bishops.
Reacting to the news of debate taking place on Monday, Bishop Burnham said in a message, “I was aware that, in York, my job description was being demolished almost as I spoke.”
Bishop Burnham is one of three bishops in the Church in England that are officially called Provincial Episcopal Visitors but are more commonly known as “flying bishops.” These bishops oversee parishes that refuse to recognize women priests and now women bishops.
He also described the reasons that traditionalist Anglicans are leaving as “not motivated in the least by gender issues but by a keenness to pursue Catholic unity and truth.”
“For them,” the bishop said, “the decision of the Church of England to proceed to the ordination of women bishops without providing adequately for traditionalists renders the claims of the Church of England to be part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church shaky or simply untenable.”
The General Synod that approved the ordination of women bishops is planning to draft a code of practice designed to accommodate those who won’t accept women bishops, but Bishop Burnham said, “Codes of practice are shifting sands. The sacramental life of the Church must be built on rock.”
"How could we trust a code of practice to deliver a workable ecclesiology if every suggestion we have made for our inclusion has been turned down flat?"
George Pitcher, the editor of The Daily Telegraph’s religion section, described the Monday’s synod vote, saying, "Make no mistake, the Anglo-Catholics were done over." The Synod, wrote Pitcher, is like a mafia movie "where the luckless are stabbed in the back while they're being hugged."
Speculation is circulating that Bishop Burnham’s decision could trigger an exodus of traditionalists who believe they no longer have a place in the Church of England. When the Church decided to approve women priests in 1992, hundreds of clergy and laity flocked to Rome and 1,300 clergymen have threatened to leave over the recent approval of women bishops.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Bishop Burnham said he has not yet begun the process of his personal conversion because he is waiting for a formal response from the Vatican about the possibility of special provisions to allow his 120 parishes in the south of England to continue using their churches and possibly some Anglican prayers, if they convert.
Bishop Burnham has called for help from the Catholic Church and the Pope to help Anglo-Catholics cross the Tiber. “What we must humbly ask for now is for magnanimous gestures from our Catholic friends, especially from the Holy Father, who well understands our longing for unity, and from the hierarchy of England and Wales.”
Damian Thompson, the editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald and a lead writer for the newspaper, Daily Telegraph, reports that the Rt. Rev Keith Newton, Bishop of Richborough and Bishop Andrew Burnham both flew to Rome for discussions about joining the Catholic Church.
The situation now is quite different between Rome and traditionalist Anglicans due to Pope Benedict’s desire to renew the sacredness of the liturgy and his openness to Anglo-Catholics, says Thompson.
Thompson also delivers a valuable history lesson for Catholics wondering why the Anglicans are asking for a deal to come into the Catholic Church en masse. He explains that “in the mid-1990s, after the Church of England ordained women priests, many Anglo-Catholics drew back from union with the Holy See because the Bishops of England and Wales were so unwelcoming, and because they were so depressed by the low standard of liturgy in our parishes.”
The potential influx of Anglo-Catholics could bring many benefits to the Catholic Church, Thompson writes in his opinion column. “The treasures our new brethren will bring with them - a poetic and contemplative spirituality, glorious prayers, fine music - will permanently enrich the Catholic Church in England; they belong to us all.”