Britain’s conservative Anglicans welcome Vatican’s overture

The parishioners at St. Savior’s come from various backgrounds: Afro-Caribbean countries, Eastern European nations, Britain itself. But it may be that all roads are leading them to Rome.

The East London church is Anglican in name but Roman Catholic in spirit and worship, with the “smells and bells” of traditional Roman Catholic liturgy. Father David Waller sticks to the Vatican’s line on doctrines such as transubstantiation -- the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus -- and teachings such as the ban on contraception. Neither he nor his congregation believes in allowing women into the priesthood.

So Pope Benedict XVI’s stunning announcement this week of a new dispensation that would, in effect, give traditionally minded Anglicans their own niche within the Catholic Church seems almost too good an offer to pass up.

After years of feeling alienated and unwanted within the increasingly liberal Church of England, conservatives such as Waller hail the chance to return to the fold that many Christians in Britain left 500 years ago, when Henry VIII officially broke with Rome -- and, as every schoolchild here knows, with the wife who failed to bear him a son.


“We were hoping and praying that something would come along, but this was of a magnitude we hadn’t expected. It really took our breath away,” Waller said. “You want to be free, where you’re not constantly fighting for your right to exist but where you’re actually free to be able to proclaim the Gospel.”

But, Waller added, he and other like-minded Anglicans are waiting for the Vatican to spell out how the new structure would work before they make a decision. The full document is not expected for weeks, perhaps months.

Whether the pontiff’s surprise move is a visionary path to Christian unity against creeping secularization or a hostile takeover bid aimed at a denomination weakened by internal division depends on your point of view.

British commentators immediately seized on military metaphors to characterize this week’s announcement, declaring that the Vatican had parked its tanks on the well-manicured lawn of Lambeth Palace, the residence of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

“The Vatican has shaken the ground beneath him,” the Guardian newspaper said in an editorial Thursday titled “Imperial Rome,” which described Benedict as having launched a boat “to ferry the disaffected back across the Tiber.”

It’s unclear, though, how many Anglicans will want to make the trip. The worldwide communion numbers about 77 million people, including 2.4 million members of the Episcopal Church in the United States and 13.4 million Anglicans in Britain.

Some conservative leaders have made predictions of hundreds of thousands of worshipers worldwide bolting for Rome, but others say such apocalyptic scenarios are premature at best, especially before the details of what’s on offer are published.

“There’s a long way to go before this runs the course,” said Stephen Parkinson, the director of the traditionalist group Forward in Faith.


“We must read the small print; the devil is in the detail. No one in their right mind would make a decision until they had done that.”

What elements of Anglicanism would converts get to keep if they defected to Rome -- the Book of Common Prayer, their own much-loved hymns? What would happen to the property, including some beautiful stone churches dating to the Middle Ages, that many congregations use?

Questions arise on the other side too, such as whether allowing married Anglican priests to become Catholics would increase the pressure on the Vatican to ease its requirement of celibacy for the priesthood. Some Roman Catholic groups argue that the vow of lifelong chastity has made it much harder to combat the shortage of priests.

But both the Vatican and so-called Anglo-Catholics, Anglicans drawn to Roman rites and practices, hold firm on one principle: Women cannot be priests. Period.


Parkinson’s group was founded specifically in opposition to the ordination of women, which began in the Church of England in 1994. (The Episcopal Church started ordaining women much earlier, in 1976.)

Not that Parkinson and other members of Forward in Faith don’t also have strong views on hot-button topics such as homosexuality, one of the most divisive -- perhaps the most divisive -- issues in the Anglican communion. But they are adamant about not wanting a woman presiding at the altar or sitting on the bishop’s throne.

Yet what happened after the initial controversy over female priests could be instructive. Opponents at the time warned that thousands of clergy would desert, but in the end, only about 440 did, and a few dozen later returned to the Anglican fold.

The difference is that now, the Catholic Church seems to many to be actively trying to recruit disaffected Anglicans, even though a senior Vatican official recently insisted that Rome had no intention of “fishing in the Anglican pond.”


Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, complained that he was alerted by Rome of its intentions “at a very late stage.” He looked discomfited at a news conference Tuesday in London to discuss the announcement.

“It is not an act of aggression,” Williams told reporters, though some in the audience thought his body language said otherwise.

For Waller, the East London priest, the Vatican’s move is an act of grace. He thinks that the great majority at St. Savior’s would favor switching their allegiance from Canterbury to Rome.

As a practical matter, Sunday services would be no different: Masses at the 135-year-old church are already Catholic in all but name.


But finally St. Savior’s parishioners would nestle in the warm mainstream of a denomination rather than freezing on the fringes.

“It’s an overwhelming pastoral gesture,” Waller said. “At the end of the day, Rome is responding to the crisis that many of us have.”

And potentially creating another.