News Analysis

Why are Anglican ordinations taking place in Catholic churches?

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There are some wounds that time simply doesn’t heal. One of them is the twinge of resentment Catholics feel at the sight of Canterbury Cathedral. The spectacular “mother church” of the Anglican Communion was once, in fact, the seat of English Catholicism. The cathedral was even home to a Benedictine monastery.

That all changed, of course, when the Protestant Reformation reached Blighty. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a supporter of King Henry VIII and was excommunicated for heresy. Except during the brief reign of Queen Mary, successive Archbishops of Canterbury have sworn allegiance to the English Crown instead of the Supreme Pontiff.

However, it wasn’t until 1896 that Pope Leo XIII finally declared the CofE’s ordinations “absolutely null and utterly void”. This was a century before some of the CofE’s more (shall we say) unexpected developments, such as women’s ordination, same-sex marriage and other practices unimaginable in the Catholic Church.

In any case, the CofE’s use of ancient Catholic church buildings still carries a certain sting. However, some communicants share our grievances. Most of them now belong to the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which was established in 2009 by conservative ex-Episcopalians.

Still, despite the concerns of both Catholics and Anglicans over the trajectory of mainline Protestantism, it would be surprising to see a Catholic priest volunteering his church buildings for Anglicans’ use. Yet that’s precisely what’s happened in the Archdiocese of Boston. On March 16, the ACNA consecrated Andrew Williams as bishop of the Anglican Diocese of New England. The ceremony took place in Holy Family Parish in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

“This was a natural for us to be able to host them for this celebration,” parish priest Fr Scott Euvrard said. “I also needed to get the permission from Cardinal [Seán] O’Malley and he was very generous and enthusiastic to be able to do this.”

No doubt some lay people would be concerned about a Catholic parish facilitating Anglican services – particularly their ordinations and consecrations, which Rome has gone to great lengths to explain are null and void.

The Catholic Herald consulted Ed Condon, Catholic News Agency’s Washington bureau chief and a respected canonist. Dr Condon explained that “to a very great degree the direction of ecumenism falls to the local bishop. The case is also by no mean unreciprocated – certainly there are some places in which Anglian churches regularly (weekly) make themselves available for Mass in places where there is no Catholic church.”

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston said: “We advise the pastor to remove the Blessed Sacrament at the time the church is being used.”

Dr Condon adds: “There is no outright prohibition in the Code [of Canon Law] for such an event. Given the clear involvement of the diocesan bishop, and the pointed admonition to remove the Blessed Sacrament, I would say this falls within the rightful discretion of the bishop to permit as the circumstances seem to recommend it to him.”

So, who knows? The 500-year trend may finally be reversing itself. Where Canterbury Cathedral stands as a painful reminder to the divisions in Christ’s Body, perhaps Holy Family in Amesbury will one day serve as a testimony to its healing.