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Staying home

Many conservative Anglicans have reasons beyond culture for rejecting a papal invitation into Roman Catholicism

Staying home

(Associated Press/Photo by Amy Gutierrez)

Karon Gibson was a busy nurse whose business occupied her seven days a week. Her church attendance was sporadic until she retired a few years ago and made the commitment to go to church faithfully. Since then, she has missed only once when she injured her knee and couldn't stand up. To keep her commitment to church, though, she has stopped going to the Episcopalian churches where she grew up and got married, and has started going to the Roman Catholic Church instead.

The services were nearly the same, she found, but the Roman Catholics had more services and more locations. Given her hectic travel schedule, it worked well.

When she found that the Vatican had made a decision to welcome conservative Episcopalians and Anglicans into the Roman Catholic communion, she welcomed the news. While the services were nearly identical, the Roman Catholic Church wasn't plagued by the political issues that haunted the Episcopalians: the ordination of openly homosexual bishops and female priests. It just went against tradition, she said: "I'm very much into tradition. I have no objection to women being nuns or being great successes. I just think that some things have a conservative view and there's tradition to be followed."

Gibson is interested in switching to the Roman Catholic side, but she's one of just a few. Despite the Anglicans grousing about the Catholics "poaching" Anglicans, it looks as though there will not be a worldwide rush of conservative Anglicans toward the Vatican. There are practical and theological obstacles to Anglicans converting-and many of the conservatives the Vatican is targeting will be bothered by more fundamental theological issues than gay bishops or female ordination.

Thanks to the Vatican's decision-outlined in an Apostolic Constitution called Anglicanorum Coetibus-if Gibson wants to keep her Anglican identity by using the prayer books and liturgy that she grew up with, she's free to do so. Before, if she wanted to become Catholic she would have to leave behind the trappings of her heritage: the liturgy, the history, the Book of Common Prayer, and the familiar style of worship. Now, though, she can still act Anglican and be a part of the Anglican culture, but she will be under the authority of the pope. But for whole churches that want to switch, the practical obstacles to the switch will be bigger.

At a tiny chapel at the Church of the Resurrection in Manhattan, N.Y., Rector Barry Swain holds the mid-day Mass, wearing vestments and rattling off the liturgy in a brisk tone that assures the three people attending that they will be out by the time their lunch break is up. There are just a few chairs neatly lined up, with a cushion for kneeling in front of them, facing the crucifix on the opposite wall. The service is formal. It is Anglo-Catholic-as close to Roman Catholic as you can possibly get without being Roman Catholic.

"We are Catholics," said Swain. In his particular parish, there is no difference between the congregants and the doctrine of Rome, except that as Episcopalians they are Catholics who are out of communion with the pope. On the issues of gay and female ordination, they are among the most conservative Episcopalians. In Philadelphia, Swain was in constant conflict with the diocese over issues like these, but here in New York, the bishop is gracious and more accommodating of their conservative views.

As to the pope's offer, "It's a very gracious offer," Swain said. "But there are a lot of difficulties." The Episcopal Diocese of New York believes that it owns the property where the church has stood since 1866. To leave the diocese, his church would have to wage "a long, drawn-out civil battle to take the property" and if it can't take the property, how will it keep the people together? he asked: "The minute you don't have a building to come to, how is it that people meet?"

If Anglicans were to switch, they would be under the supervision of "personal ordinaries" in "personal ordinariates"-and there are differing opinions of how that would look. The personal ordinaries would function as bishops-much like the personal ordinaries the Roman Catholic Church sets up to give military families church oversight apart from geographical location-but there are still questions as to how they will interact with the diocese.

There are other obstacles, too. For instance, if Swain were to become a Catholic priest, he would have to be reordained in the Catholic Church and to do that, he would have to admit that his previous ministry in the Anglican communion was not legitimate-a difficult thing for some priests to swallow. Rome has made other big concessions, though: If an Anglican priest is married, he can stay married. If he is a bishop, he can keep the insignia of a bishop, sit with the Roman Catholic bishops as a "retired bishop," and function as a bishop without the title of bishop.

But there are theological obstacles, too, that are completely distinct from the issues of gay bishops or female priests.

Keith Allen is the teaching pastor at Church of the Holy Spirit in Roanoke, Va., a church that has already undergone affiliation upheaval when it separated from the Episcopal Church in 2000. The Church of the Holy Spirit objected to one of its bishops sitting on the board of Planned Parenthood, so it chose not to send money to the diocese until it assured them the money would not fund abortions. "They invited us to no longer be Episcopalians," Allen said. The church then joined the Anglican Mission in America with oversight in Rwanda.

Like Swain, Allen thinks the pope's offer is "a gracious gesture": "However, I couldn't seriously consider it because it failed to recognize the theological realities that have separated Anglicans and Catholics since the Reformation." The offer "denies the necessity of the Reformation," he said.

A central issue-one of the issues that keeps an Anglican from becoming a Catholic in the first place-has to do with where the authority of the church comes from. There is a reason that Anglican churches are, as Swain said, out of communion with the pope: An Anglican believes that the church's authority comes from Scripture; a Catholic believes that the church's authority comes from Scripture and the Magisterium. The doctrine of justification-whether a sinner is justified by faith alone or by faith and works-also separates many Anglicans from Roman Catholicism.

These are more fundamental issues than the culture war issues of homosexual and female clergy. The clergy issues "are relevant to this case," said Jeff Walton, director of Anglican Action Program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. "However, they aren't the only thing. . . . Anglicans and Catholics have been divided for many hundreds of years over where the church's authority comes from and that is the root issue that needs to be resolved."

The question is complicated by the church's big tent theology. Since it first separated from Rome in the 16th century, it has included Anglicans who were nearly Catholics and Anglicans who were far more Protestant. In the end, Queen Elizabeth I agreed to make it a big tent church. They would have the same liturgy and pray the same prayers, but they could interpret the doctrines in different ways. So in the Anglican Communion, there may be Anglicans who are so close to Catholics that the barrier between the two is permeable, while the more evangelical Anglicans will find it harder to switch.

Walton makes a final prediction about the number of Anglicans who will take the Vatican's offer: "In the United States, it's not going to be a big number. In the United Kingdom, it will be a larger number."

The theological objections that will still bother many Anglicans don't matter much to Karon Gibson anymore: "I don't have any objection to the pope. I think years ago there were problems with that." The churches are so close, she maintains: "Having gone to both Masses now, they're so close. They're so similar that you really can't find the differences."

True, if you're looking at externals. But there are deeper rifts that may keep Anglicans from fleeing to Rome.

Alisa Harris

Alisa Harris