That Vatican has announced its intention to organize new non-geographic jurisdictions which will offer a home to disaffected Anglicans, allowing them to enter communion with the Roman Catholic Church while retaining their distinctive rites and practices. (Those would be, we suppose, the BCP, married priests, and sherry).
The new jurisdictions will be called "personal ordinariates," a phrase which purposefully echoes the term used for the existing jurisdictions designed to serve soldier. The idea is to create a diocese without borders, headed by a bishop (or some leader with comparable authority) and answerable through him to the pope.
The story is that the Vatican was approached two years ago by a smallish schismatic group called the "Traditional Anglican Communion," which objects to all the usual stuff: female priests, the 1979 Prayer Book, yadda-yadda. They claim to number 400,000, of whom 5,000 are in the US. Needless to say, behind this story lies the far more important story of Gene Robinson, Peter Akinola, and the unrest within worldwide Anglicanism.
It is tempting to shrug this off. After all, as among Lutherans, so individual Anglicans, both lay and ordained, have often found a home east of the Tiber. Those in orders have not infrequently continued as priests. And we aren't just thinking of John Henry Newman here, either; years ago, our dental hygienist remarked that her new priest was a former Anglican, married with children, adding, "My husband and I are okay with it, but we don't know how to explain it to the kids." And indeed, in the US, there has even been a "Pastoral Provision" establishing "Anglican Use" parishes since 1980.
But this is different, and quite remarkable. Those former Tiber-jumpers wound up Roman Catholics of the Latin Rite. Their Masses, and ultimately their religious lives, were governed by the same rules which obtain at St. Malachy's down the block. The wives and kids were an oddity, but not much more. Now, the Pope has created a sort of "Anglican" church within the Roman Church, in which a different set of norms apply. Although parishes of this new ordinariate will not be truly Anglican -- the point is argued, but we hold that Anglican identity is inseparable from the Archbishop of Canterbury and at least some nod toward the 39 Articles -- it will look and feel Anglican. Which is enough for many people.
Surely, this will have an impact -- and not a good one -- on Roman/Anglican relations. Reading between the lines, one can't help suspecting that there has been some heady debate within the Vatican. The move was announced at a press conference, held in Rome by the prefects of two congregations: Doctrine and Worship. Not present, as the Times notes, were people engaged in high-level dialogue with Canterbury.
And indeed, not only did the Vatican deny some rumors in early 2009 of just such a move, but the National Catholic Reporter quotes ecumenical point man Walter Cardinal Kasper as saying, just a few weeks ago, that "We mare not fishing in the Anglican lake." Um, lose a fight there, Wally?
All of which begs the question of what the papacy is up to. Why? And why now?
The obvious conclusion is that, seeing Anglicanism in disarray, Benedict has decided to take advantage, and poach a few hundred thousand members. In Vatican-speak, that would be rendered as "the Holy Father, compassionately answering the request of certain faithful souls among the separated brethren," etc.
Spinmeisters on both teams are already trying to steer us away from the obvious conclusion. The official announcement actually says that "The provision of this new structure is consistent with the commitment to ecumenical dialogue...." It must have been for the scribe who wrote that to keep the smirk off his face. If he even tried.
Far more surprising, however, is a joint statement by Vincent Nichols, the [Papist] Archbishop of Westminster, and Rowan Williams, the [Anglican] Archbishop of Canterbury. It is a notably brief statement, which attempts to put the best face on the move, claiming it as a victory for ecumenism. It must have been hard for Williams to keep the grimace off his face when he signed it. If he even tried.
This is true, in a small way. If the goal of ecumenism is considered to be the reunion of the Church, then this might be a microscopically small step toward that goal. On the other hand, it is also a step likely to defer the actual arrival, because it further estranges far more people than it proposes to welcome.
Let's put it bluntly: this is a clear case of malicious meddling in the affairs of a different church body. It looks for all the world like the classic Vatican overreach of days gone by -- from an index of prohibited books to kidnaping Jewish children who had been baptized by their nannies. We had thought that decades of earnest ecumenical encounter had put us beyond this sort of thing, but apparently they have not.