From 1977 onward a significant number--perhaps 30,000--Episcopalians left the Episcopal Church/U.S.A. because it had begun to ordain women as priests; had changed or was changing radically on a variety of sexual-ethical issues, for instance, on abortion and on the indissolubility of Christian marriage, and had altered The Book of Common Prayer (B.C.P.) in ways that the departers perceived as falsifying certain Christian doctrines.
Most of these former Episcopalians established or entered what are called "continuing Anglican Churches," some of which are of evangelical or low-church orientation and others are of Anglo-Catholic orientation. These churches are relatively small and often factious groups.
A much smaller number of former Episcopalian laity and clergy were received into the Catholic Church, some into a "continuing unit" that provided a corporate existence for "Anglican-use" congregations in accord with norms issued by the Holy See in 1980 and implemented under the supervision of the Most Rev. Bernard F. Law, then Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., and now Cardinal-Archbishop of Boston.
Although this Pastoral Provision, as it was called, permitted already-married former Episcopal priests to be ordained as Catholic priests (about 85 have been so ordained) after careful evaluation of each candidate's application, and resulted over the years in the formation of about half a dozen Anglican-use parishes throughout the country, it was notably restrictive in what it permitted former Episcopalians to bring along with them from The Book of Common Prayer and included no plan for their continuing existence as a corporate body.
Some elements from the B.C.P.'s Eucharistic liturgy and daily offices were permitted, but, for the former, usually in concert with elements of the Roman Sacramentary. The Anglican-use congregations were incorporated as personal parishes in the local Latin-rite dioceses.
It would seem that this 1980 Provision has a bleak future. Why? It does not sufficiently embody and safeguard the Anglican/Episcopal liturgical and spiritual tradition for those who wish to retain this tradition in as integral a manner as possible; and it does not provide a jurisdictional framework that will permit the continuing parishes to maintain their distinctness, interact fruitfully and grow within the Catholic Church.
The issue is raised again today because about 15 of the Anglican provinces (of a total of 30) now ordain or have voted to ordain women as priests. The Church of England, mother church of the Anglican Communion, recently so voted. At least two provinces, those of the United States and New Zealand, have already ordained women as bishops. Others are likely to do so. For the former Anglicans or the departing Anglicans these steps constitute the final proof that Anglicanism no longer has a valid claim (with Rome and Orthodoxy, as they formerly thought) to share the historic faith and order of Catholic Christianity.
Bishop Graham Leonard, recently retired Anglican Bishop of London and a leader of those Anglicans who believe they can no longer stay within the Church of England, has called for a continuing Anglican group to live in communion with the Holy See. His idea, not a new one, has been thrashed over for about 75 years in a variety of romantic and unrealizable forms. Does the idea have any merit in any form?
It seems that a more generous, creative and enlightened yet perfectly orthodox reception ought to be available to those former Episcopalians and Anglicans (anywhere in the world) who seek an ecclesial life in communion with the Bishop of Rome as their true spiritual home. Yes, their numbers in anyone place are likely to be small; but they are seeking to end a schism more than 450 years old, not to begin one, which other Anglicans or Episcopalians, unfortunately but understandably, will label them as doing. What can we do for these Christians who, moved by conscience to seek a new spiritual home, are knocking at the papal door?
Back in 1980 it seems that U.S. Catholic leaders, and perhaps also relevant officials of the Holy See, showed only a modest, even embarrassed interest in those former Episcopalians seeking communion with Rome. (It must be emphasized that only some former Episcopalians sought to take such a step. Most did not.) Some ecumenists no doubt held that a positive outreach to the departing Episcopalians would be viewed as sheep-stealing, harmful for the ecumenical dialogue in general and a concession to "traditionalists."
Such an approach, I think, is mistaken and may explain the cramped nature of the 1980 Pastoral Provision. Anglicans and Episcopalians have a beautiful liturgical, hymnological, spiritual and scholarly heritage, all of which, with only those modifications needed to prevent ambiguity or false teaching, they ought to be able to bring with them into the Catholic Church.
Can we do better now? I think so. But only the will and wisdom of the ecclesiastical authorities can make it so. We should approve, with necessary revisions, the American Book of Common Prayer, both in its 1979 and 1928 editions, since some former Episcopalians strongly prefer the older edition. When the need arises, a similar editing and enrichment of the B.C.P. as it is used in other provinces of the Anglican Communion would be in order. This prospect of yet more liturgical variety within the unity of the Catholic Church may distress some, but such variety was for many centuries the rule rather than the exception in our church.
As revised, the B.C.P., its original versions having been composed in the main from late medieval Catholic service books, could be the liturgical book used by those congregations of former Anglicans received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Catholics should welcome the hymnological and other musical traditions of the Anglican Communion and authorize the use of such hymnals in Anglican-use congregations. We should welcome the heritage of spirituality and scholarship in the ecclesiastical sciences common to Anglicans, particularly in the British Isles and in North America. This spiritual and ecclesial heritage, preserved and promoted now in the context of the belief, life and worship of all the churches, Eastern and Western, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, can only enrich the Catholic Church.
To insure that the continuing Anglican-use congregations maintain their spiritual identity and have a framework in which they can mutually interact and grow, we should establish a special geographical (rather than merely personal) prelature for them on the model of the Eastern Rite exarchates (Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Romanian, Armenian) that Pope John Paul II and his predecessors have established in this country and then, after a time, have promoted to full-fledged dioceses or eparchies. In such a framework the Anglican-use congregations will find guidance, direction, mutual support and needed institutional structures.
Clearly, as with the current Provision, each person being received into the Catholic Church must be able to accept and affirm the entire content of the church's binding teaching, in accord with the standard profession of faith, and receive the sacrament of confirmation. For the common good of the entire church here and elsewhere, too, future candidates for the priesthood must be willing to embrace the celibate state, although, as now, clergy already married when received into the church may be considered for Catholic ordination.
These latter clergy, in order to function as Catholic priests, must receive sacramental ordination in the Catholic Church.
I expect that the proposal outlined here will draw sharp criticism from those Catholics who want their own church to take the same doctrinal position that official Anglicanism has already taken or is now taking. It will also draw the ire of Catholics, Anglicans or other Christians who view the step as a concession to a group of idiosyncratic, traditionalist Christians. Still others will view it as the creation of new and harmful "unia" (the Eastern Orthodox designation for those Eastern Churches that, over many centuries, have restored communion with the Bishop of Rome) or as an anti-ecumenical step that, in any case, is just not needed.
To be sure, all interested observers should express their sincere convictions. Catholics, however, must approach the issue with respect for the authentic doctrinal convictions of their own church. The salvation of souls, moreover, is the supreme law. Those former Anglicans or Episcopalians who, on their own initiative and in a corporate way, seek full communion with the Holy See as their rightful spiritual home ought to receive from us a generous welcome.
Let the papal door swing wide! After all, we do believe, do we not, what Vatican II teaches ("Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," No.8; "Decree on Ecumenism," No.3): that the Catholic Church is their God-intended spiritual home?