In the late 1970s, a group of Episcopal clergymen with typical American chutzpah wrote to Pope Paul VI. They said they wanted to become Catholics, and wished for their priestly ministry to be fulfilled by being ordained as Catholic priests. The only problem was that they had wives and children.
Paul VI received their petition, and they heard nothing. In the autumn of 1978, the pope died; then another pope died, and John Paul II took charge. The little group of Episcopal priests waited with crossed fingers and bated breath while Rome made a decision. In 1980 they finally had an answer: A procedure was to be established whereby former Episcopal priests could be ordained as Catholic priests, even if they were married. Individual bishops would apply to a papal delegate for a dispensation from the vow of celibacy, and after suitable training the Episcopal priests could be ordained as fully functioning Catholic priests.
Since 1983, about 75 married former Episcopalian priests have been ordained in the United States. When the Anglican Church was splitting over women’s ordination in the early 1990s, the English Catholic bishops also appealed to Rome for permission to ordain married former Anglicans. Permission was granted, and the English bishops set up their own procedure. No one is certain of the exact numbers, but since the early 1990s about 600 former Anglican priests have been ordained in England, of whom about 150 are married. Married former Anglican priests have also been ordained in Scotland and in Spain.
Who’s In and Who’s Out?
Rev. William Stetson is the priest who assists Archbishop John Myers of Newark in administering the Pastoral Provision. I asked him why, if Anglican orders are null and void, Episcopalians and Anglicans get special treatment. Why couldn’t a married Baptist minister convert be ordained as a Catholic priest? Father Stetson explained that there is a special situation for men from the Anglican communion — not because their orders are more acceptable, but because their priestly experience, theological training, and spiritual formation is closer to Catholicism.
Indeed, married converts from other denominations have been accepted for ordination as well. Jim Anderson of the Coming Home Network reports that in the United States, Catholic men who came into full communion from the Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Charismatic Episcopal, and Continuing Anglican churches have also been ordained as Catholic priests. Dom Bartholomew Leon, O.S.B., pastor of the Maronite congregation in Greenville, South Carolina, observes that the Eastern Rite churches have had married priests for ages, and that the exception for former Anglicans doesn’t seem so unusual for them.
So what’s up? Is Rome changing the celibacy discipline by stealth? Are the Vatican officials testing the water to see how married priests work before they make a wholesale change? Not really. The truth, as G. K. Chesterton observes, is often just what it seems. There’s no conspiracy. Rome is not changing the celibacy rule. It is simply making an exception to Church discipline in order to encourage Christians who are separated from full communion to "come home to Rome." If you like, Rome is sending a very practical message to Anglicans: "We are willing to be flexible and do everything possible to facilitate your journey home." Linked with this explanation is a proper concern for evangelization: Rome hopes the Anglicans who come in will continue to be an example and minister to other Christians who seek full communion with the ancient Church of the apostles.
It’s Our Rite!
When the Pastoral Provision was first established in 1980, permission for married Protestant pastors to be ordained was only part of the plan. In addition to allowing married Episcopal priests to be ordained, Rome set up a program for whole parishes to come into the Catholic Church. Not only could their married ministers be ordained, but congregations of former Episcopalians were permitted to worship according to their own traditions.
The provision for their own liturgy is sometimes called the Anglican Rite. To be precise, it’s really the Anglican Usage of the Roman Rite. This is to distinguish it from the Eastern Rite churches like the Maronites, Melkites, and Malabars that enjoy union with Rome with not only their own liturgy, but their own hierarchy as well. The Anglican Usage remains part of the Latin Rite, since the English were historically part of the Latin Church. Their unusual liturgy is simply one form of the liturgy authorized for use in the Latin Church.
The Anglican Use parishes use the Book of Divine Worship,which is based on the 16th-century Book of Common Prayer written by Thomas Cranmer. The Book of Divine Worship is a total resource for former Anglicans. Cranmer’s version of the Psalms is retained, and traditional Anglican services like Morning and Evening Prayer are authorized for use. In the liturgy of the Eucharist, most of Cranmer’s memorable and beautiful prayers are retained, but placed in the correct order and subjected to the doctrinal demands of Catholic liturgy. Anglican Use priests celebrate the Mass facing the altar; communicants kneel to receive the Eucharist; and they claim that their liturgy is a faithful 16th-century translation of the Latin Mass.
A look at the Book of Divine Worship makes one realize that a huge amount of effort and concern has gone into the production of a way forward for troubled Episcopalians. Has there been a huge positive response? Not so far. Only seven Anglican Use parishes have been established. Of these, only a few are thriving. Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio and Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston have both built new churches and are supported by growing congregations. The other Anglican Use parishes either worship in existing Catholic parishes or exist as small missions.
A Lost Cause?
The most recent Anglican Use congregation is theSociety of St. Thomas More in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Made up of about 20 families and their former Episcopal pastor, Rev. Eric Bergman, the members of the society left the Episcopal Church and were received into full communion by Rev. Charles Connor, the pastor of St. Peter’s cathedral, in October 2005. Since then, Father Bergman has been ordained, and the congregation worships according to the Anglican Use in St. Clare’s Church.
Father Bergman explained why there has been so little take-up of the Anglican Use so far: For an Anglican Use parish to be established, an Episcopal priest has to convert with a good number of his congregation. They have to step out in faith together, without a building and without financial support for their married priest. After converting, they have to wait for permission from Rome for their priest to be ordained. Because of the difficulties involved, some congregations have wanted to become Anglican Use parishes but their priest was not willing, and vice versa.
A possible new change in the rules promises a more positive response in the future. Father Bergman explained that in November 2006, the leaders of the Anglican Use communities, the Pastoral Provision Office staff, and Archbishop Myers, the ecclesiastical delegate, met to discuss how the Pastoral Provision might be more fully implemented in communities in the United States. Two task forces were created to draw up proposals for Archbishop Myers, who took them to Rome for approval in April 2007.
The first proposal concerns raising money for men and groups in transition from Anglicanism to Catholicism. The Anglican Use Society will be used to collect money and will then distribute it in consultation with their bishop. The second suggestion is to create guidelines to match a priest to a group of Anglicans desiring to take advantage of the Pastoral Provision. Through these new guidelines, it is hoped that a priest can be ordained for the Anglican Use, even though he is not affiliated with a particular congregation.
An Ecclesiastical Eccentricity
Not everyone is enthusiastic about these new proposals, however. When given the Anglican Use option, the English Catholic bishops rejected the possibility outright. Most of the former Episcopal priests who have been ordained under the terms of the Pastoral Provision serve as ordinary diocesan priests within the Roman Rite. They simply resigned from the Episcopal Church to join the Catholic mainstream. Many of them perceive the Anglican Use with benign indifference. They see the Book of Divine Worship as a liturgical curiosity, while others regard the whole thing as an unfortunate ecclesiastical eccentricity.
The $64,000 question is: Do enough Episcopalians really want their own little churches in communion with Rome that use the old 16th-century liturgy? Father Bergman thinks so. He believes the growth in popularity of the Tridentine Mass indicates a surge in demand for traditional, formal, and beautiful liturgy. In addition to this, the large number of Anglican breakaway churches use some form of the traditional liturgy, and the Anglican Use provides a bridge for them to come into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Father Bergman also points out that Anglican Use parishes have become a refuge for cradle Catholics from the stranger liberal liturgical experiments. "The established Anglican Use communities have many cradle Catholics who come to the Anglican Use Mass because they appreciate the beauty of the music, the reverence of the liturgy, and the orthodoxy of the priest," he explains. Rev. Christopher Phillips, the pastor of the Church of the Atonement in San Antonio, reports that about 60 percent of its members are reverts to the Catholic Faith or cradle Catholics who have returned for what they perceive to be a proper liturgy. People who actually converted to Catholicism represent only 40 percent of the large Anglican Use parishes in Texas.
Rather than being an ecclesiastical eccentricity, it could be that the Anglican Use parishes will provide a safe haven for shipwrecked Anglicans, as well as a home for Catholics who are refugees from clown Masses, new age rituals, and the whole range of goofy liturgical abuses found within the American Catholic Church.
Evangelistic and Ecumenical Tool
Critics of the Anglican Use argue that the whole thing is a waste of time and energy. If people want to convert to the Catholic Church, let them convert and join their local parish. Why should Episcopalians get special treatment? What’s the point?
Defenders argue that the Pastoral Provision and Anglican Use parishes are part of a larger ecumenical and evangelistic plan. If the Catholic Church is serious about unity, then she should be making every effort possible to reconcile different groups in a multitude of different ways. The Anglican Use, they say, is a tool for evangelization and reconciliation.
The Anglican Use "bridge" is not only a way across the Tiber for Episcopalians; there are an increasing number of Anglican and Episcopal breakaway churches. To date, there are nearly 100 independent Anglican denominations. As the worldwide Anglican communion goes into meltdown, there is a real possibility that whole provinces of the Anglican Church will break away. Could a breakaway denomination or a whole Anglican province convert and use the Pastoral Provision and Anglican Use in order to come into full communion with Rome?
Father Bergman explained that the Pastoral Provision can only be fully instituted in those countries where the national conference of Catholic bishops approves its implementation. So far, only the United States conference has done so. Some moves are being made for bishops’ conferences in other English-speaking countries to do the same, and there is a dream that the growth of the Anglican Use will one day justify the creation of a personal prelature or an apostolic administration.
If this were to take place, there could be a real opportunity for Anglican Use parishes to exist in many places around the world where the Anglican communion now has a presence. Some Anglican provinces in Africa and Asia are both Anglo-Catholic and orthodox in doctrine, and such an option may very well be a way forward as they seek to disentangle themselves from the irreformably liberal Anglican regimes of Canterbury and New York.
A Society, a Network, and a Conference with a Cause
Despite pulling the word "Protestant" from their name 30 years ago, the vast majority of the Episcopal Church of the United States is Protestant through and through. They don’t object to the Catholic Church these days with the old cry of "No popery!" Nor do they react against Catholicism because they hold to Protestant doctrine. They object to Rome now because Rome is against feminism, homosexuality, and the dictatorship of relativism. Most Episcopalians are far from the banks of the Tiber, but there are still many faithful Episcopalians who are distressed by the direction their church has taken and who do not wish to move sideways into one of the many Episcopalian splinter groups.
Why are these priests and people so slow to investigate the Anglican Use option? It could be that part of the problem is a lack of publicity and promotion. Faithful Episcopalians still have many questions and problems about Catholic faith and practice. They have many prejudices and concerns about what it means to be Catholic in the 21st century. A place for them to discuss their concerns is vitally needed.
One of the forums available is the Coming Home Network. In 1993, former Presbyterian minister Marcus Grodi founded a small apostolate to tend to fellow Protestant ministers whose faith pilgrimage was bringing them close to the Catholic Church. The Coming Home Network has grown enormously since then, thanks to Grodi’s successful program on EWTN. The greatest portion of clergy converts it deals with are Episcopalians. Grodi’s organization offers books, resources, and personal mentoring from others who have already made the journey. It also offers assistance and advice as clergymen give up their livelihood to come into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Coming Home Network‘s older sister is the English-based St. Barnabas Society. Founded at the end of the 19th century, when a large number of Anglican clergymen were coming into the Catholic Church, the St. Barnabas Society offers pastoral and financial support to convert clergy and their families. As an established English charity, its scope is not yet international, but its leadership is aware of the Anglican Use and follows the developments with interest.
In Pennsylvania, Father Bergman has taken the call to evangelization seriously and has started an annual conference on the Anglican Use. The first conference (in 2006) attracted 120 participants, 40 of whom were clergy. The theme was "Conversion to Catholicism," and the late-Avery Cardinal Dulles, himself a convert, was the key-note speaker.
The conferences offer Episcopalians a chance to network, as well as the opportunity to meet people and clergy who have taken the step toward Rome. Episcopalians will gain encouragement as they speak with those who have blazed the trail, and will begin to see the move as a viable option.
Father Bergman says that the numbers are growing, and there are more men following this path every year. The Anglican Use is part of the overall movement toward Rome. "Everywhere an Anglican Use community is established it reconciles many to the Church." He calls on the Catholic faithful to be open to this unusual new development, to let others know about the Pastoral Provision, and to be generous in donations to help more Anglican priests take the courageous step to be reconciled to the Catholic Church.
Foundation or Footnote?
The Pastoral Provision has been in existence for 25 years. Since then, only a handful of Anglican Use parishes have been established, and the number of married Episcopal priests to be ordained is currently less than 100.
Is this really a movement to be reckoned with? Is it the stroke of genius that it seems? Have these first 25 years been a time of quiet foundation-building for a great tidal wave of Anglican clergy and laity into the Catholic Church, or is the whole movement just an interesting idea promoted by a few eccentric enthusiasts?
Much depends on the success of the newly reformed and updated Pastoral Provision Office — whether it will continue to be proactive in promoting the Pastoral Provision; whether it will be able to publicize and encourage this creative option successfully, along with committed men like Father Bergman; whether it receives support from the conferences of bishops and the Vatican; and whether it will be given the resources to reach out confidently to the various Anglican groups worldwide.
If so, what it has done so far may well be a solid foundation for an exciting development in the Catholic Church’s relationship with worldwide Anglicanism. If not, the Anglican Use will become merely an interesting footnote in the history of ecumenism.