Just weeks after a papal pilgrimage to England, the announcement that five Anglican bishops plan to resign by year’s end and join the Catholic Church is setting wheels in motion at the Vatican.
The Nov. 8 announcement seems to have caught Vatican officials by surprise. And the question of just how these bishops and other former members of the Church of England will enter the Catholic Church has quickly become an important topic of discussion inside the Vatican.
The bishops — Andrew Burnham of Ebbsfleet, Keith Newton of Richborough, and John Broadhurst of Fulham, along with retired bishops Edwin Barnes and David Silk — cited Pope Benedict XVI’s “generous” invitation last year to Anglicans who are seeking “full communion” with the Catholic Church.
In Nov. 2009, the Pope issued the invitation in an apostolic constitution, "Anglicanorum Coetibus.” The document proposed that former Anglicans could enter into “full communion” with the Church as members of specially-tailored jurisdictions, or “personal ordinariates.”
According to the Pope’s plan, these jurisdictions would be under the authority of local Catholic bishops, but members could maintain their “liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions,” including the traditional permission for priests to be married.
With the five bishops’ announcement, eyes are now on the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has yet to provide details on the final shape these ordinariates, might take.
But a timetable does seem to be on the horizon. The doctrine office’s head, Cardinal William Levada, will be leading a special closed-door discussion of the matter with the College of Cardinals on Nov. 19.
One of the resigning bishops, Bishop John Broadhurst, told CNA that his decision to leave the Church of England came after many years of hoping that the Anglicans would move closer to Rome.
Instead, he said, Anglicans have distanced themselves further by embracing such radical departures from Christian tradition as permitting women bishops and blessing homosexual unions.
But Bishop Broadhurst, who has been a priest for 40 years and heads the traditionalist group, Forward in Faith, said disaffection with Anglicanism did not lead to his decision.
As one who “believed in unity with the Catholic Church for a very long time," he said, "I don't think I can say no to it. It's as straight forward as that. You can't become a Catholic because you don't like being something else. That's not where we are, any of us."
The difficulties facing Anglicanism, he said, have less to do with issues such as gay clergy or women bishops.
“The problem with Anglicanism is the nature of authority — we have no proper concept of authority so decisions are made that tear us apart," he said.
In their joint letter of resignation, the five bishops said they were “distressed by developments … in Anglicanism which we believe to be incompatible with the historic vocation of Anglicanism and the tradition of the Church for nearly two thousand years.”
They said Pope Benedict’s invitation was “a generous response” to distressed Anglicans and “a bold, new ecumenical instrument in the search for the unity of Christians. … It is a unity, we believe, which is possible only in eucharistic communion with the successor of St Peter.”
Bishop Broadhurst said there remains a debate in more traditional Anglican parishes in England. Priests and lay people alike are contemplating their next steps. "Lots of people are interested" in pursuing the Pope’s invitation, he said.
Auxiliary Bishop Alan Hopes of Westminster is the point man on the Anglican issue for the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. He said the bishops will be considering the new “personal ordinariates” in their countries during their annual meeting next week.
Vatican Radio reported Nov. 10 that the head of the English Anglicans, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, will travel to the Vatican next week. He is to take part in celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Nov. 17.
Archbishop Williams is not scheduled to meet with the Pope. However, last year, when tensions arose after the Pope’s invitation to Anglicans, Archbishop Williams did travel to Rome for a private meeting with the Pontiff.
Archbishop Williams greeted news of the five bishops’ resignation with “regret.” In a statement, he said: "We wish them well in this next stage of their service to the Church." he said.
Whatever shape the ordinariate takes, for now, they are interested in having a good relationship with English Catholic hierarchy and maintaining their friendship with the Anglican Church, Bishop Broadhurst said.
He compared it to a failed marriage in which the spouses "break up." Some "are nasty," while in others "people manage to be decent to each other. Well, I hope as Christians that we can be respectful.”
"I really do think that it's got to work, but it's a sensitive situation both within the Church of England and in the Catholic Church," he concluded.
Msgr. Marc Langham of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told CNA that the new Anglican jurisdictions may produce some unexpected fallout in Catholic-Anglican relations.
“It perhaps will mean that there will no longer be a voice within Anglicanism ... speaking in defense of that relationship with the Roman Catholic Church,” he said.
Pope Benedict has repeatedly said that he has no interest in encouraging the further splintering of the Anglican communion, Msgr. Langham said.
As for the unprecedented question of ordinariates, Msgr. Langham said that the interested Anglicans he has spoken with "really want to wait and see what the ordinariate looks like."
Questions such as "how it will work, how it will run, how it will be financed, what it's relationship will be to the local Catholic community" are on the top of their minds.
"Anglican ministers are going to give up a great deal before moving to this, and so I think are waiting really for a bit more information about it," he said.
The "short answer," Msgr. Langham said, is that no one knows how many people might eventually join the U.K. ordinariate.
An interesting ecumenical point for him so far in the dialogue about the creation of ordinariates is that Catholic authorities are receiving advice from their Anglican counterparts on how best to do so. This, he said, "is a great thing."
"It means that the ordinariate is helping to bridge the ecumenical divide rather than to exaggerate it."