So, the Pope has invited Anglicans to cross the Tiber and join his family. And, it seems, the Church of England has been taken by surprise by this move. Or has it?

Rowan WilliamsWell, yesterday I was unable to get to a keyboard and only really picked up on the details late at night. After a day of meetings today I have finally read the responses to the Vatican move and have been thinking about the implications. But the implications I have been thinking about have more to do with the Roman Catholic Church than with the Anglican Communion. What looks like a generous move might bring with it one or two unwelcome consequences.

First of all, the probability of Rome offering some sort of refuge to those wondering about their future in Anglicanism was high and, therefore, not unexpected. The way the deed was done will need to be interpreted by others and after a period of reflective time. But it can be seen as generous of the Pope to make the provision he has (although we still haven’t seen the details of the Apostolic Constitution). And many Anglicans who won’t be heading east will be glad that the distress of some Anglicans has been recognised and honourable provison made for them.

Of course, there will now be a greater clarity in the Church of England about women in the episcopate; and people who have complained about the C of E will now have to choose which way to go in the future. I guess this will cause even greater anguish for some clergy now that a clear way forward has been opened to them and the challenge to choose can no longer be avoided.

pope_benedict_xviBut, as it looks at present, individual priests will have to leave the Church of England, be re-ordained as Roman Catholic priests and taken into the polity and financial wings of the RC Church. Individual lay people can be accepted into the RC Church and come under RC pastoral care quite easily. It will be good if such transitions are made with good grace and generosity – after all, we are all Christians and members of the Body of Christ. Church of England churches will continue to be responsible for their parishes even if/when some people leave for Rome.

But how is the RC Church going to cope with the gay sub-culture in Anglo-Catholicism, given the Church’s stance on sexuality and sexual ethics? That isn’t a dig – it’s a genuine question.

Secondly, what will be the effect in the RC Church of an influx of married priests whose families will have to be supported and whose presence in the priesthood may undermine the sacrifice being made by many RC priests who struggle with celibacy and want to see change?

Thirdly, how will the ‘converts’ cope within a Church that has little room for the sort of negotiations that have characterised their experience of Anglicanism?

Inevitably the press has speculated (as have some of those contacted for comment) about the numbers of Anglicans who might cross over. My guess is that the numbers will be considerably smaller – simply because many priests who oppose the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate have maintained all along that they have no interest in becoming Roman. Or maybe the latest development will change that? We will see.

What I think does need challenging is the assumption by several journalists and observers that the departure of people from the ‘hard edges’ of the Church will leave the C of E with a ‘liberal rump’. Most of the C of E contains evangelicals of different persuasions, catholics of different complexions and liberals of all flavours – and we are committed to the unique mission of this Church. There won’t be a ‘liberal rump’ – there will be the huge majority of the Church of England who still will get stuck in to mission and ministry where they are for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

I think my own sticking point in all this will come as little surprise to those who know me: if I really believed that the Roman option was a valid one, then I could never have been an Anglican in the first place. If I have knowingly exercised a sacramental ministry in orders that I believe to be ‘invalid’ in the eyes of the ‘true’ Church, where does that put me theologcially, ecclesiologically and ethically?

I agree with other commentators that this is a time for sober reflection and prayer. The church exists for the sake of the world – not for the sake of the purity of the church. Whichever way people choose to go, we must not lose sight of that priority and we must learn to love and pray for one another with generosity and grace.

(Interesting comment by Frank Skinner.)