Could the Pope Aid an Anglican Split?

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Pope Benedict XVI

The scene on Monday at the Synod of the Church of England was wild. The Archbishop of Canterbury cradled his head in his hands; his presumptive successor, the Archbishop of York, appeared to be tearing at his head; and a lower-ranking prelate was reduced to public tears.

The cause of this drama was a series of votes, over the vehement objections of traditionalists, allowing the church to name female bishops. To rub it in further, the Synod of the Church of England slapped down a counterproposal that would have allowed conservative parishes to avoid answering to female bishops and submit to an independent authority of special (that is, male) "superbishops" instead. Faced with this crushing denial, a sizable chunk of traditionalist priests and bishops could well leave their church. On Wednesday, one bishop announced his intent to take his flock with him.

Does this sound familiar? A non-English spectator might be tempted to think that the agony was another chapter in the battle between theological conservatives and liberals that currently threatens the unity of both the global Anglican Communion and the U.S. Episcopal Church. (The Church of England is the flagship of the Communion and the Episcopal Church is a member.) In fact, on its face, the Church of England's crisis is only distantly related to the global or American scene. However, it might draw in a very powerful observer from outside the Communion who could make things very interesting: Pope Benedict XVI.

Both the special nature of the English crisis and the Pope's possible involvement hinge on the fact that most of the English dissidents this week are not the evangelical, Bible-thumping members of the Communion whose fury at the American ordination of an openly gay bishop has led to talks of schism this summer. Rather they are members of a faction, heavy on liturgy and ritual, that abhors evangelicalism but considers itself very close to the Catholicism from which the Anglican Church originally sprang. Many "Anglo-Catholics" share Rome's opposition to female ordination. They have also historically hoped for a reunion with Catholicism, and correctly assume that female bishops would be a deal-breaker in any negotiation with Rome. So the move to ordain women bishops is more than some of them can stand. In a petition last week, some 1,300 Anglican priests and bishops stated that if the Synod voted along the lines that it eventually did on Monday, that "we will inevitably be asking whether we can... continue [with] the Church of England which has been our home."

Would they actually leave? This is where the Pope comes in. For an ordained clergyman to depart his cradle faith is a lonely endeavor, done individually. But that is probably not how things will roll out in this case. A Catholic Church official explained to TIME that the last time a situation like this arose (when the Church of England voted to allow women to become priests), "some 400 [dissidents] became Catholic priests or bishops." The issue, he says, is "whether there is some way for [the current crop] to come into the Catholic Church in a corporate way, [with] their [congregations]." Along those lines, he notes, there are so-called "Anglican Rite" groups in the U.S. that maintain Anglican ritual, but recognize the Pope's authority and count as Catholics.

In fact, in a letter to the newspaper The Catholic Herald on Wednesday, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Burnham, Bishop of Eversfleet, announced his intention of converting to Catholicism — along with his diocese. According to the Herald, Burnham and another traditionalist Bishop have been discussing the migration of Anglo-Catholics with Cardinals William Levada and Walter Kasper, two of the Vatican's most powerful prelates. Burnham's letter requests "magnanimous gestures by our Catholic friends, especially the Holy Father, who well understands our longing for unity." According to the Herald, Burnham has been requesting a dispensation whereby Anglicans could remain in their parishes guided by Catholic bishops.

Terry Mattingly, for years an acute observer of the Anglican scene as founder of the popular religion blog, and a religion columnist for Scripps Howard says, "I expect some of the old-school Anglo-Catholics to pack up and go to Rome, period." But if Benedict were to sweeten the pot by allowing an Anglican Rite Church in England, "that's gotta be huge." And when Mattingly says "huge," he doesn't just mean for the Anglo-Catholics. Rather, he believes that an exodus of that size could affect the worldwide Communion after all, by giving other dissidents, with entirely different grievances, a model with which to unravel the fabric of Anglicanism.

Mattingly points out that more so than in other religious groupings, one of the things that holds the Anglican Communion together is the simple belief that the Anglican Communion must hold together. The case can be made that a dutiful sense of global unity, represented by four "instruments" — including the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams — is stronger than any Anglican doctrinal agreement. Mattingly suggests that the departure of 1,300 priests and bishops from the English mother church could act as a kind of spell-breaking moment, the first time during the Communion's current round of troubles when a significant number of Anglicans "are saying, 'I'm no longer in communion with Canterbury.'"

Such a defection, as it played out in terms of theology, finances and British law, would be a kind of seminar for all possible schismatics on how to break with the Communion, without the world ending. Other dissidents might then feel freer to go their own way.

And it could happen a good deal sooner than almost any other version of schism, primarily because it would take the key decision out of the hands of the Anglicans, who, as Mattingly puts it, "have a special knack for not making decisions." Rome, he notes, "doesn't usually act fast, either. But Rome — and especially, it seems to me, Benedict — has a knack for acting with clarity more than Anglicanism."

Mattingly's argument — which he would admit is only a possibility, not a prediction — may underestimate Anglican desire to stay Anglicans; or overestimate the willingness of the Roman Catholic Pope to play spoiler in the disintegration of another centuries-old international Christian body, even if he has his differences with it. But in this sour Anglican year, it is difficult to guarantee that the head-cradling, hair-pulling and weeping of the mother church might not become a worldwide epidemic.