I have been asked why I titled my post on the Pope’s Apostolic Constitution ‘Roman Candles’. Was it because the Vatican’s initiative amounted to ecclesiastical fireworks? Actually, the reason was less dramatic: Roman Candles sparkle, but then fizzle out and everything looks the same afterwards. I think the big splash about the Pope’s decision might look a little different once people have begun to think through the consequences and implications.
This is what I tried to get across on a ‘live’ Channel 4 interview this evening. The following are some of the matters that will need to be weighed up:
1. Any individual accepting the papal invitation will have to ‘convert’ to Roman Catholicism. This will mean accepting the doctine and practices of the Roman Catholic Church and agreeing that the dogmas of the Church are ‘true’. This must, therefore, include the dogma of the Church that Anglican orders are ‘null and void’ – that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Chichester, the Provincial Episcopal Visitors and the rest of us are ‘dubiously baptised lay people’. If people agree with this, then they have knowingly and willingly accepted or perpetrated a fraud on their congregations for years: by definition the sacraments they have celebrated have been deficient – in the sense that the ‘celebrant’ has known that the ‘true’ church regards them as such.
2. Were the 600 or so priests (as reported) in Westminster today stipendiary parish priests? How many were retired, almost retired or non-stipendiary? This question is not a matter of pedantry, but will indicate the real impact on the Church of England if they all accept the Roman option. I note that Geoffrey Kirk has said that he intended all along to become a Roman Catholic – which is fine when he is about to retire and get his pension. But what of those beginning their ministry whose future might look different if they move onto a RC stipend and pension provision? Doctinal reasons for ‘moving’ will inevitably be affected by more carnal considerations such as money and property and prospects.
3. How will the acceptance of married Anglican priests affect the question of celibacy in Rome? Forward in Faith speakers today have (rightly in my view) suggested that Rome might have to become more ‘Anglican’ in reconsidering its celibacy rules if married Anglican join them and get re-ordained. I can see this only as bizarre fantasy on the part of FiF and wonder whether the acceptance of Anglicans who think this way might make the Vatican think again. After all, the Vatican has already made it clear that those who accept the Pope’s invitation will have to come on Rome’s terms and those who do come will not have the room to dissent or negotiate as they have done in the Church of England.
4. Much has been made today of the fact that this invitation does not end the search for full, visible untiy between the Churches begun with the ARCIC process. That is right and I am glad it has been made clear. The conversations towards unity will continue, but this latest move by the Vatican (and the manner of its making) will change the contours of the conversation. What it has clarified is that if Anglo-Catholics wish to accept the Roman invitation, they must do so lock, stock and barrel and not live with the fantasy of having their cake and eating it. It is important that the Vatican is clear about this and that those who leave their Church, their parish, their church building and (where it pertains to clergy) their vicarage, do so with a clear understanding of what they are doing and why.
There are other questions to be addressed, but there is time for that to be done over the next few months. What is indisputable is that the generous provision by the Pope has offered a way for disaffected Anglo-Catholics to resolve their problems with the Church of England in a way that takes their conscience seriously. But I suggest that the decision to be made will cause other crises of conscience. As the days go by, the euphoria might subside as the cost is counted. And, inevitably, it will make the lobby to oppose the consecration of women bishops much harder to press.
In short, I think this might clarify matters on all sides and prove ultimately healthy for the whole Church. But the Churhc of Rome will need to count the cost for itself of its invitation, too.