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Which Side Are You On?

When the Vatican announced its new canonical structure that will allow Anglicans to enter en masse into the Holy Catholic Church, clerical ecumenists on both sides of the fence scrambled to make sense of Pope Benedict XVI’s monumental gesture on their own terms. Ecumenical dialogue partners Vincent Nichols, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, and Rowan Williams, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, the de facto leader of worldwide Anglicanism, in a joint press release, described the impending publication of the apostolic constitution that would formalize the new structure as “further recognition of the substantial overlap in faith, doctrine and spirituality between the Catholic Church and the Anglican tradition.”

It is true that there is significant overlap in many areas — the Anglican Communion, after all, split off from the Catholic Church in the 1500s but retained a greater sense of Catholicity than the other Protestant sects that developed out of the Reformation on the Continent. But the practical effect of the Pope’s apostolic constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus (“Groups of Anglicans,” released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Nov. 9, complete with complementary norms), has been to crystallize the significant differences between modern Anglicanism and Holy Mother Church.

Ten days after Anglicanorum Coetibus was released, Archbishop Williams addressed an ecumenical conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He touched on the most divisive issue in Catholic-Anglican relations, the ordination of women, which also happens to be the most divisive issue within Anglicanism itself. In his address, given a day before he was to have a private audience with the Pope, Williams in effect threw down the gauntlet. As The Times of London reported (Nov. 20), “The Archbishop made clear that there would no turning back the clock on women priests in order to appease critics.” Williams instead asserted that the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women to the priesthood was a “clear obstacle” to corporate reunion: “For many Anglicans, not ordaining women has a possible unwelcome implication about the difference between baptised men and baptised women, which in their view threatens to undermine the coherence of the ecclesiology in question.”

Williams then issued a “challenge” to Catholics: “Even if there remains uncertainty in the minds of some about the rightness of ordaining women, is there a way of recognising that somehow the corporate exercise of a Catholic and evangelical ministry remains intact even when there is dispute about the standing of female individuals?”

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