The Wall of Death
Is a time of truth
It's an act of faith ...
(From 'The Wall of Death' sung by Pete Atkin, lyrics Clive James.)
On Wednesday 20 October 2009, the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced arrangements for Personal Ordinariates for Anglicans entering the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols issued a joint statement . If you follow the link you will also find a link to the Roman Catholic announcement.
Clive James' words and Peter Atkin's song have been with me ever since. Sadly, the song is not available in full on the internet. Given where I stand theologically, it is hardly surprising that my views are what they are but I would not wish anyone to take offence at the image of the wall of death. You will see I use it in a way that is positive albeit challenging.
Hopefully, most people know what this is about. Some Anglicans (remember the Roman Catholic Church is a worldwide church and this statement is for Anglicans everywhere not just the Church of England) have been making enquiries to the Roman Catholic Church. This is the Catholic Church's response and the joint statement expresses the Archbishop of Canterbury's position.
The reason some Anglicans are making these enquiries is because of their position on sexuality and the ordination of women, particularly women bishops. To me their views seem reactionary but I am reminded of John Wesley who blessed Christians who left the Methodist movement for other traditions. He said he had no wish to restrain those who feel more comfortable elsewhere.
It seems the Roman Catholic Church is unlikely to ordain women in the foreseeable future although the numbers of those who would like to see a move in this direction in the Roman Catholic Church is I hear usually underestimated. As far as sexuality is concerned, it is hard to believe this has never been an issue until modern times. In its formal statements the Church clearly does not support expressions of homosexuality although it is much harder to see how tolerant the church is in practice. I do wonder though whether the most strident Anglicans would find exactly the positive welcome they might anticipate as far as these issues are concerned.
Just to be clear about a few things. The Anglican clergy would have to be re-ordained to function as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. As a priest they can remain married but any Bishop transferring would not be able to remain a Bishop if they are married. I am not an expert on canon law of the Church of England or charity law as it affects the Church of England. I suspect though it will be individuals who transfer, not parishes, church buildings or dioceses. It's possible the Church of England might make some provision but I suspect they will be seriously constrained by various laws.
So, this presents dissenting Anglicans with a choice. A choice they did not have before. It is a kairos moment for them. Imagine the opportunity arises to ride the wall of death. Doubtless there are all sorts of safety provisions but still some of us would refuse. I would. It requires a particular type of courage which I don't have. For those who do choose the ride it must be exhilarating, an experience of a lifetime for some.
So some will choose to transfer to the Roman Catholic Church. The estimates in the media are probably high. About 500 clergy transferred following the Church of England's decision to ordain women and some came back. The estimates for the worldwide Anglican communion seem high but are a small percentage of all clergy.
What of those who stay? Arguably their arguments will be weakened. The new arrangements reduce the need for the divisive plans to make provision for those who do not accept ordained women or women bishops. They will continue to argue they haven't chosen to be in this position. I don't rejoice at this because I don't rejoice in the unnecessary divisive situation as it is. In their nature these sorts of conflicts are unpredictable except for their destructive nature, if this eases the conflict it may be for the better but there are no certainties.
And the implications for ecumenism? My main concern is this will be seen as a move by the Catholic Church which is anti-ecumenical. The reassurances in the joint statement ring a little hollow for me. Is this really a step towards full visible unity for the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches? It makes it easier to climb over the wall in one direction but the wall is no lower.
Of course, the ecumenical conversations between the Church of England and various free churches pull the Church of England in the opposite direction. The demand here is that women have equal status to men. It does look as if the Church of England is being pulled in two mutually exclusive directions (at least two) through its ecumenical relationships. This could be positive because all the traditions involved see their ecumenical work as important; for the Church of England not to be conflicted in this way would mean that one or more of its ecumenical partners had given up.
This does illustrate how the faith and order debate, initiated at the Edinburgh 1910 mission conference, has penetrated deep into the ecclesiology of all the participating churches.