The Anglican Communion did WHAT?

Cross post from Get Religion

The breaking religion-news story of the day is in Vatican City, with aftershocks in England. As has been rumored, literally, for years, Pope Benedict XVI has reached out to Anglican traditionalists, offering them an Anglican-friendly home in the Church of Rome. His activism in this area dates back to his days as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Major newspapers on this side of the pond will be filing stories on this all day, I imagine. Meanwhile, those who want to read the Vatican document for themselves, as well as reactions from traditionalists in the Church of England, just click here. If you want to read the reactions of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (and lots of updates, I am sure, from English sources) then click here for Ruth Gledhill’s blog at the Times.

All of this, of course, represents a major new marker on that Anglican wars timeline that I keep bringing up here at GetReligion. Yet, please note, that this discussion of Anglo-Catholics fleeing to Rome — once again — is not essentially rooted in the ordination of one noncelibate gay bishop in the micro-tiny Diocese of New Hampshire here in the American colonies.

After all, Father William Oddie was writing his trailblazing book “The Roman Option” in the mid-1990s. It is also interesting to note that a major theme in that book is behind-the-scenes opposition on the Catholic left to the creation of an Anglican home within Catholicism in England. You see, liberal Catholics — those seeking the ordination of women, in particular — did not want the wrong kind of Anglicans swimming the Tiber. That’s a story worth watching, now that Benedict XVI has opened a gate for the Anglo-Catholic refugees.

However, I wanted to rush a post up in response to some troubling word choices in the first major Associated Press report on this announcement, since that is the story most people will be reading today, before the major newspapers weigh in. First, here is the top of the story:

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has created a new church structure for Anglicans who want to join the Catholic Church, responding to the disillusionment of some Anglicans over the ordination of women and the election of openly gay bishops.

The new provision will allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while maintaining their Anglican identity and many of their liturgical traditions, Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal official, told a news conference. The new church structure, called Personal Ordinariates, will be units of faithful within the local Catholic Church headed by former Anglican prelates who will provide spiritual care for Anglicans who wish to become Catholic.

OK, no problems there. There is, however, some fog in another crucial section of the story.

Levada said the new canonical structure is a response to the many requests that have come to the Vatican over the years from Anglicans who have become increasingly disillusioned with the ordination of women, the election of openly gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions in the 77-million strong Anglican Communion. He declined to give figures on the number of requests that have come to the Vatican, or on the anticipated number of Anglicans who might take advantage of the new structure.

Well now. It is true that things would have been worse if the story had said “by the 77-million strong Anglican Communion,” rather than “in” the Communion. But this wording makes it sound like these doctrinal innovations are taking place across the entire global Communion. That is true of the ordination of women, although there are major Anglican churches that have not taken that step as of yet.

However, did I miss something? Note that it refers to the ordination of openly gay bishops — plural. Has that taken place, or are we still talking about New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, singular? I realize that other noncelibate (a key word to include in the coverage), openly gay clergy have been nominated in episcopal elections. But no one else has been elected, correct?

Of course, the door is open here in the U.S. Episcopal Church, but that kind of underlines my main point. This early AP report makes it sound like these changes are taking place at the global level in a global Anglican Communion. They are not — yet. As I have been saying, the key is what takes place next in the Church of England, which is terribly divided and has leadership that, in fine Anglican fashion, continues to seek some kind of compromise that will save the day.

That’s why clarity is so important, when covering these local, regional, national and global Anglican stories.

Which brings me to another chunk of vague language in this initial story, which I hope is updated and improved.

The Vatican announcement immediately raised questions about how it would be received within the Anglican Communion and the prospects for continued ecumenical talks between the Vatican and Archbishop of Canterbury. Noticeably, no one from the Vatican’s office on relations with Anglicans and other Christians attended the news conference; Levada said he had invited representatives to attend but they said they were all away from Rome.

However, the Vatican’s archbishop of Westminster and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual head of the global Anglican church, issued a joint statement, saying the decision “brings an end to a period of uncertainty” for Anglicans wishing to join the Catholic Church. The statement said the decision in fact could not have happened had there not been such fruitful dialogue between the two.

The mainstream press has always struggled to understand that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not the Anglican pope, but the first among equals in the hierarchy. That “spiritual head” language is better than nothing, but the phrase “symbolic leader” would be better.

However, the bad language comes right after that. There is a Catholic CHURCH that is based in Rome. There is an Anglican COMMUNION that has its symbolic home in Canterbury. This communion is made up of Anglican churches — plural. It is inaccurate to say that there is one global Anglican church — singular — and that Williams is the leader of it. He is the leader of the Church of England, a national church.

In other words, the Anglican Communion is not structured like the Church of Rome. It really helps to know that. And the doctrinal innovations at the heart of this story are not (again, other than the wide, but not total, acceptance of the ordination of women) taking place in or across the whole Anglican Communion. They are taking place, at the moment, in one small, but very wealthy and powerful, church in the Anglican Communion — the U.S. Episcopal Church.

It’s hard to cover this local, regional, national and global story without knowing how the Anglican Communion actually works. Here’s hoping that the AP reports improve as the day goes on.

Oh, and now there is this press release:

WASHINGTON — Cardinal Francis George, OMI, Archbishop of Chicago and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued the following statement, October 20, following a Vatican announcement of a new provision concerning Anglican groups coming into the Catholic Church. His statement follows:

“Today the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has received word of the new Provision in the form of an apostolic constitution issued by the Holy See for the reception into full communion with the Catholic Church of groups from the Anglican tradition. The USCCB stands ready to collaborate in the implementation of that Provision in our country.”

Key words: “In our country.” As in the United States of America.

Stay tuned.

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