Peter Stanford: After 500 years, has the Pope outfoxed the Archbishop?

The Vatican's pitch for disaffected Anglicans is a major breach of protocol. But it could rid the Church of England of some of its most turbulent members

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For 470 years, since Henry VIII broke with Rome, the Church of England has been walking a careful middle line, halfway between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. This week it has effectively given up the struggle, or, more to the point, been manoeuvred into defeat by the Vatican.

The uneasy look on the face of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, seemed to say it all as it was announced on Wednesday, at a press conference he was hosting with his Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, that Pope Benedict XVI was opening up a whole new branch of Catholicism to welcome parishes or even whole dioceses of disaffected traditionalist Anglicans who can't stomach the imminent prospect of answering to a woman bishop.

Williams muttered a few words about continuing inter-church dialogue, but it was obvious he had neither been consulted nor warned of what is effectively an open invitation from the Pope to the Catholic wing of the Church of England to leave a sinking ship. His predecessor George Carey has urged him to complain to the Pope about the manner of the announcement, and has expressed concern that the strategy could damage church unity.

Benedict's surprise offer marks a shift in Vatican attitudes. Those Anglicans – John Gummer, Ann Widdecombe and Charles Moore among them – who "came over" to Rome after the 1992 General Synod vote to ordain women priests were required to do so as individuals. No group discount was approved. And until very recently, the Vatican had been responding very coolly to pleas for a lifeboat from around half a dozen Anglo-Catholic Church of England prelates and their followers dismayed by the 2008 decision in favour of women bishops.

But suddenly it seems Rome has gone on the offensive and is targeting the Catholic wing of Anglicanism. In so doing, it is brazenly unpicking the Reformation settlement in England. Some senior CofE figures are so dismayed by the Pope's new strategy that they want Benedict's visit to Britain next year to be scrapped.

What is particularly galling – to Anglican leaders and to Catholics who struggle to live within the sometimes draconian rules of their church – is that Rome is also offering the traditionalists opt-outs from some of its most contested teachings. In the new "ordinariate" that Benedict is proposing to set up for them , they will be able to keep their own distinctive "smells and bells" liturgical arrangements, and their own married clergy. Elsewhere Catholic priests have to choose between marriage and ordination. There is even talk that they will be able to run their own seminaries, thus ensuing that this is not a transitional arrangement but the permanent establishment of a church within a church.

Estimates of how many will take up the offer vary greatly, but one thing seems plain: the delicate balancing act between High Church Anglo-Catholic and Low Church Protestant wings (with liberals holding the centre ground) that has characterised the Church of England for centuries is over for good.

The Church of England is often described as having its origins in Henry VIII's desire to divorce his first wife, but it saw in its early decades a genuinely theological tug of war between Catholic and Protestant tendencies. In 1552, under Edward VI and his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, the CofE produced a draft of 42 "articles" which would dump all Catholic trappings and throw its lot in wholeheartedly with Luther, Calvin and fellow European Protestant reformers. Then Henry's sickly son spoiled it by dying.

The throne passed in 1553 to Mary Tudor who at once instigated a Catholic backlash, executing those who stood in her way, including Cranmer). But then she too departed to meet her maker and it was left to her half-sister, Elizabeth, to adopt the compromise that is the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563, the first eight being broadly Catholic, the next 10 all but embracing the fruits of the Reformation, and the rest concerning themselves with the position of the Church in relation to the state.

It took until 1662 to hammer out a compromise on that other bedrock of Anglicanism, The Book of Common Prayer. Thereafter, the Church of England stuck to its middle way. On occasion it overbalanced. In the 1840s, the Oxford Movement significantly bolstered the Anglo-Catholic wing before one of its leaders, John Henry Newman, spoiled it by going over to Rome. The compromise church endured – until now.

When he gets over the shock of Rome's actions, Rowan Williams may find some short-term comfort in the realisation that at least it makes his task as leader of the CofE easier. If the Catholic wing departs for Rome, it will remove one troublesome faction in what has become a paralysing debate within Anglicanism about the role of women and gay ordination. Protestant Anglicans are broadly pro-women and anti-gay; Anglo-Catholics, again in general terms, the opposite. The dwindling number of liberals try to mediate.

The question remains, though, of what precisely Pope Benedict is up to. A display of pastoral concern for a troubled group of Christians was how the Vatican presented its change of heart this week. Some Anglicans were not convinced. It was, they suggested, a shameless ploy to bolster Roman Catholic numbers by interfering in the internal disputes of a sister church with which Rome has spent decades working to establish closer links. What price now mutual respect? The hopes of ecumenical progress towards a final healing of the wounds of the Reformation, so high after Pope John Paul II's 1982 visit to Britain, seem now to have given way to what looks uncomfortably like a Catholic attempt to annex a whole swathe of Anglicanism.

"It is just clever marketing," an unhappy Church of England vicar told me last week. "Next thing, Benedict will be tempting Eastern Orthodox Christians by offering them pews if they join the Catholics." (Orthodox services traditionally require often elderly congregations to remain standing for a full 90 minutes.)

That is perhaps to judge the German Pope too harshly. One of his strongest instincts since he was elected in 2005 has been to act not as the rottweiler he was often accused of being as doctrine enforcer to his predecessor, but as a German shepherd rounding up stray members of his flock. He wants as many people as possible to feel at home in the big tent of his Catholic church.

So, soon after coming to office, he issued a lunch invitation to the dissident liberal theologian, Hans Küng, regarded under John Paul as little better than the anti-Christ. And Rome is currently engaged in a tricky set of negotiations to re-admit the extreme traditionalist Society of Pius X (whose members include the Holocaust-denier, Bishop Richard Williamson). The leaders of the group were excommunicated by John Paul.

The traditionalist Anglicans are by comparison a relatively uncontroversial target for this shepherdly concern. They also offer other advantages. They tend to describe their disaffection with the Church of England in terms of its overstepping its God-given authority, but many Anglo-Catholic dissidents openly regard women as second-class citizens at the altar – precisely what the Catholic church also teaches.

It not only refuses to ordain women (on the basis that there were none at the Last Supper and Jesus was a man) but since the 1994 has ordered Catholics to stop talking about it. Such an unreasonable dictate has, inevitably, had the opposite effect, especially among English Catholics who Rome is reported to see as a little too liberal and independent-minded for its liking.

The Vatican may just have calculated that adding a few traditionally minded converts from Anglican ranks to the local mix might ensure a little more obedience.

For cradle Catholics, the events of last week are both confusing and dismaying. Why is our church so eager to embrace a group who denigrate women? It sends out such an unattractive message about what Catholicism is about. And is the Pope in favour of married priests or not? He appears to be suggesting that those Catholics torn between a vocation to priesthood and the urge to marry should first become an Anglican vicar, then tie the knot, and finally apply for a transfer to the new ordinariate.

And what of these Anglo-Catholic liturgies? The standard Catholic mass has for centuries been a link between the Pope's 1.1 billion worldwide flock. Now, English Catholics will be able to choose between it and a "smells and bells" pastiche. The irony of the week's events is that, in the Church of England, the unravelling of its historic compromise between Catholic and Protestant factions may end up leaving it to go forward smaller but clearer about what it is and isn't. In Catholicism, by contrast, the Pope's apparent opportunism will bolster numbers but risks further confusing the faithful about precisely what it is their church stands for.

Peter Stanford is a former editor of The Catholic Herald and author of The Extra Mile: The Twenty-First Century Pilgrim (Continuum, 2010)

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