Courting Episcopalians


In a provocative act with religious and cultural implications, Pope Benedict XVI has created an ordinariate — similar to a diocese — for disaffected Episcopalians who are converting to Roman Catholicism. It will be headed by a married former Episcopal bishop, and it will allow congregations that make the switch to retain aspects of the Anglican liturgy, including the majestic Book of Common Prayer. The defection of Episcopalians en masse might seem of interest only to students of religion, but it illustrates a larger point: that the culture wars that rage outside stained-glass windows have come to dominate debates within and among Christian churches.

The alleged “poaching” of Episcopalians — and Anglicans in Britain — would have been unthinkable in the 1970s when, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, a commission of Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops and theologians reached “substantial agreement” on issues that had divided the churches since the Reformation: the meaning of Holy Communion and the ordained ministry. The hope was that Roman Catholics and Anglicans would eventually achieve corporate reunion in which Anglicans would retain many of their traditions, including a married priesthood.

Now the pope is pursuing that vision piecemeal, not because of traditional theological differences but because of issues that didn’t loom large in the early 1970s: abortion, the ordination of women in Anglicanism (the cause of earlier conversions to Roman Catholicism) and, most recently, homosexuality and the approval by the Episcopal Church of gay and lesbian bishops. With the exception of the role of women in leadership positions, these are issues that also figure in secular politics. Think of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who echoes the Vatican on abortion and same-sex marriage. Ironically, Santorum, a Catholic, is supported by many evangelical Protestants, who over the centuries have had significantly greater theological differences with Rome than have Anglicans.


Of course, combatants in the clerical culture wars would insist that these differences are rooted in theology. Roman Catholic opposition to women priests represents a particular view of the priesthood: that it should mirror the practice of Jesus in calling male disciples. Likewise, Catholic opposition to abortion is an extrapolation of biblical prohibitions of murder. And Catholic and Protestant opponents of gay marriage invoke theology, with Protestants emphasizing biblical passages condemning homosexuality and Catholics emphasizing the rationale for traditional marriage in “natural law.”

Nevertheless, there is a striking similarity between sacred and secular debates over what the news media call “hot-button” issues. On those questions, increasingly, there is no separation of church and state.