The Vatican's expanded opening to Anglicans this week has provoked many published analyses of what the policy might mean to the future of the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church in the United States. The significance actually is far wider. Notably, on cultural issues it may strengthen the relatively conservative Roman Catholic Church and weaken the relatively liberal Anglican/Episcopal Church. That, really, is the source of so much media interest.
For breakaway Episcopal parishes and dioceses in the U.S., the Vatican offer may not mean much at first. Many are in property disputes with their former Episcopal co-religionists, and are losing in the courts. But they also are well along in forming new Anglican churches. Perhaps 100,000 Episcopalians have decamped so far to the new Anglican branches, while additional defectors already have converted to Catholicism, various evangelical churches, or Orthodoxy, or are just sleeping-in on Sundays now. The headquarters of PECUSA, The Episcopal Church of the United States, is declining to report on the latest membership changes.
Regardless, the tectonic plates of Christianity are moving, and not just because of this latest Vatican announcement. The ecumenical cause is gaining force again after decades of stasis. A long, powerful dialogue on theology that yielded a book and follow-up essays called "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" has influenced laypeople for almost a generation. Leading were such Catholics as George Weigel and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and such evangelicals as Charles Colson and J.I. Packer. The latest development in the dialogue is an essay on perhaps the most difficult issue for Protestants, the place of the Virgin Mary.
A similar dialogue has gone on quietly for four decades among theologians in the two largest Western liturgical churches (those whose sacred services center on the Eucharist)--the 1.130 billion Catholics and the 75 million Anglicans. The Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, an enterprise called ARCIC, also has produced one agreement after another, so much so that one has to ask, Couldn't a lot of these misunderstandings have been ironed out 500 years ago and spared Western Civilization a load of pain?
Regardless, while theological problems are dissipating, ecclesiological differences--over the meanings of priesthood and the operations of Church hierarchy-- have become more evident. After years of frustration, the Vatican plainly has given up on most discussions with Canterbury on ecclesiological matters; and, hence, the opening to dissident Anglicans. Representatives of the latter have been descending on Rome for five or six years now, pleading for succor. This week they have it.
Creation of "Anglican Rite" services and even whole Anglican Rite Catholic parishes now anticipate retention of the beautiful Anglican Book of Common Prayer--the only literary product of a committee to rival Shakespeare--as the liturgical basis for an additionally acceptable orthodox Catholic mass. One may well see Anglican Rite services in the calendar of regular masses at certain cathedrals and other large Catholic churches, as well as separate, predominately Anglican Rite chapels and churches and seminaries that--like the Eastern Rite Catholic churches--express a culture, but also recognize the primacy of the See of St. Peter.
In England, one idea that eventually may find resonance is shared use by Catholics (including Anglican Rite Catholics) and official Anglicans of the great, under-used and under-funded medieval cathedrals, such as Salisbury, Lincoln and Wells. They were built in the era of Christian unity, after all.
Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox and other Orthodox branches (330 million) also are in discussion with Rome, while a respected Anglican seminary, Nashotah House in Wisconsin, has been in talks with the Orthodox Church (Antioch) recently. What will come out of all this? For the old liturgical churches of Christendom, divided since the 11th century, full reconciliation on some basis is likely; rather sooner than later, it now seems. One thousand years late, old wrongs will be righted, injuries healed.
The circle widens in ways still unforeseen to the orthodox in "mainline' denominations of Protestantism (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.) and to the strong, growing number of nondenominational evangelicals. There is no knowing the particularities of revised association, of course. What matters is that orthodox Christians are finding their commonality. C. S. Lewis already has called his Office.
Rather than damaging relations between Christians and Jews, the serious discussions on matters of faith among Christians likewise may be improving understanding, mutual respect and appreciation between Christianity and what John Paul II called "our older brothers in faith."
Reconciliation, at least for those of orthodox faith, will provide an assist for a culture groping for firmer ground.