With the establishment of a second Ordinariate in America – recently announced as the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter – the process of healing the wounds of the Reformation continues. But along with the joy of welcoming Anglicans into the Church there have been a few cries of dissent. Various onlookers see the initiative as an attempt by Rome to benefit from the internal problems of the Anglican Communion. Even among Catholics there can be confusion about what the Ordinariate really means.
The reality of the situation is straight forward. There are significant groups of Anglicans who desire unity with the historic Catholic Church. Although some of these groups fall under the umbrella of Canterbury, others split off from the Anglican Communion years ago, and have grown used to maintaining their own buildings and structures. Alongside a common Anglican heritage, these groups share the desire for full communion with the See of Peter.
There can be an instinctive discomfort felt by some people towards the papacy. But it is impossible to deny that the fragmentation of Christianity began with a breaking away from Rome. If the aim of ecumenism is to bring about the unity of Christians, then the establishment of the Ordinariate should be seen as a truly ecumenical act.
It is ecumenical in a cultural sense as well. Rather than forcing Anglicans to deny their heritage – and no one who has attended choral evensong can fail to be impressed by the glories of the Anglican tradition – Pope Benedict is encouraging some of the distinctive aspects of the tradition to be retained. They are treasures that can contribute significantly to the universal Church. In a similar way, the fruits of communion with Peter will breathe new life into this heritage. This is what it meant by a “mutual exchange of gifts”.
The impetus for the Ordinariate came from persistent requests from Anglicans themselves. Pope Benedict was responding to a direct plea for groups of Christians to be given a home within Catholicism. It is somewhat ironic that the Vatican – so often accused of being unyielding – is now criticised for being too accommodating. The idea that the largest body of Christians in the world – with more than a billion members – is syphoning off modest groups of Anglicans to feather its own nest is reminiscent of Elizabethan paranoia.
The Pope spoke beautifully about his own motivations when he said “the Church does not work for her own ends. She does not work to increase numbers and thus power. The Church is at the service of another.” This expresses the heart of the Ordinariate project – faithfulness to the will of Christ.
The doors have been dramatically thrown open to Anglicans who desire unity with Rome. Not everyone will respond to this offer. The Church respects the freedom of individuals to reject its claims. But no one can deny the significance of the Ordinariate and the sincerity of the Pope who has made it possible.