Why the Ordinariates?

Why did Pope Benedict XVI consider Anglican traditions “a precious gift” and a “treasure to be shared,” considering the Anglican church's bloody history of schism from Rome?

In good Pope Benedict’s golden days, when after a somewhat mixed start the then-pontiff seemed to revel in tossing good things at the faithful—from calling them together to pray for the persecuted Church in China, to reclaiming lost papal regalia and symbolism, to liberating the Latin Mass from the ultra vires shackles placed upon it in 1974 (and replaced in the same invalid manner over the past year)—he did something that struck many as odd at the time. 

On November 4, 2009, Benedict XVI issued the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, which envisaged the creation of new diocese-like Church structures—Personal Ordinariates—to smooth the way for various groups of Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church in a corporate manner. Moreover—and this was what appeared to be peculiar to quite a large number of people—they would be encouraged “to maintain the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.”

To understand why the pope did this, we first have to understand a bit of the history behind this move, in order to see why he considered Anglican traditions “a precious gift” and a “treasure to be shared.” After all, as every Catholic English-speaker knows, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I created the Church of England in revolt from Rome, while persecuting and martyring Catholics who refused to join it. 

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Even after the bloodshed stopped, Catholics still labored under restrictions in the British Empire until a later date. And even after that time, in both the Empire and the United States, Catholics have continued to socially play second fiddle to the Anglicans—this remaining, of course, while in recent decades the Anglican Communion has collapsed doctrinally and is a major vehicle of wokery. Add to all of the Anglophobia that of many of Irish descent due to the Emerald Isle’s horrific history and it became very difficult indeed for many English-speaking Catholics to understand why Benedict would feel that way. But although the unpleasant facts just recited are correct, they are far from complete.

The first thing to understand is that despite American independence from the British Crown, the cultural and religious dynamics of not just the United States, but Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa—and even India and elsewhere—are still heavily marked by the 17th-century religious and political struggles that made the British Isles what they are: the last battle in the Civil Wars between Cromwell and the Stuarts was fought in Maryland, even as that of the American Revolution was fought in India. Had New England been settled by Anglicans rather than Puritans, our history would have been very different—as it would have been had Henry not broken with Rome. By the same token, there is a reason why so many of our national civic observances take place in D.C.’s Episcopal National Cathedral.

One thing to be remembered is that before the Protestant Revolt, English Catholicism—as with Scots, Irish, French, and every other national expression of the Faith—had its own character, its own saints and shrines, and its own liturgical customs: the “uses” of Sarum, York, and elsewhere. 

After Henry broke with Rome and then died, his Archbishop of Canterbury composed the Book of Common Prayer in large part out of Protestantized translations of the Sarum Missal and Breviary. After the brief Marian restoration, Elizabeth I renewed the break, and she turned the C of E into a national institution that was simply intended to unify her subjects behind her crown, regardless of their personal beliefs—whether subsisting Catholic, Calvinist, or nothing in particular. From these currents emerged the so-called “High Church,” “Low Church,” and “Broad Church.”

Those who refused, the so-called “Recusants,” kept the Faith alive in the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland. They fought Cromwell for King Charles alongside the High Church Anglicans, and they supported the Jacobites until the pope recognized George III as King in 1766. Under persecution and defeat, their liturgical and intellectual life suffered. Rather than much outward display, they instead reflected an intense and private piety. This would have a marked influence on the Catholic Church in America.

With the 19th-century Oxford Movement, a revitalized “High Church” emerged, which has come to be called “Anglo-Catholicism.” From these folk—starting with such as Newman and Manning—came a steady stream of converts to Rome. But those who remained saw their role as “re-Catholicizing” the Church of England and her daughter churches (those among them called “Papalists” saw corporate reunion with the Holy See as their goal; the others did not). 

Under their aegis all sorts of things returned to Anglicanism in the 19th and early 20th centuries: religious life in various orders (several of which would come into the Catholic Church en masse); a liturgy which was basically the Catholic Mass in Prayer Book English; prayers to Mary and the saints, and for the dead; and the revival of such ruined shrines as Walsingham and Glastonbury. Several of their number were imprisoned for short periods for “Romish” worship, but the Anglo-Catholic priests opened up slum parishes in Britain and sent out missionaries across the Empire (paralleling our own Catholic orders who were also using Britain’s strength as a shield in the mission field). 

At the same time, the movement inspired an amazing number of writers, from C.S. Lewis to T.S. Eliot to Dorothy Sayers. All of this convinced many of them that Anglicanism was a branch of one “Church Catholic,” alongside Rome and the Orthodox. The condemnation of Anglican Orders had little effect on them, other than angry denials on the one hand and the securing of indisputably valid Old Catholic bishops to co-consecrate their hierarchs on the other.

Since the 1960s, however, with the Anglican Communion being in doctrinal free fall—especially as regarded the Ordination of women and sexual immorality—it has become a more and more difficult place for many Anglo-Catholics. Ever since, there have been wave after wave of converts. But it is important to remember that such folk have not joined the Church simply to escape such drivel; rather, they came to realize that their own beliefs had been merely opinions as well; only in the Catholic Church were they dogmas. 

The first attempt to bring such in was in the United States in the ’70s—and it was only partly successful. This, of course, was because we Catholics were knee-deep in our own troubles. The Ordinariate scheme was an improvement upon the Pastoral Provision—not least because it would allow its beneficiaries to live without answering to local Catholic bishops who were in many cases closer in tacit behavior to the local Episcopal bishop than to the Rome of either John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Moreover, as that latter pontiff declared in Anglicanorum Coetibus, by this time the Anglo-Catholics had gifts the Church as a whole needed.

So now let’s look at those gifts—and we may start with Liturgy. As we know, the average offering of the Mass in most Catholic parishes is rather uninspiring; as Benedict put it, “where there is applause, the spirit of the Liturgy has fled.” It was to redress this problem that the pontiff gave us Summorum Pontificum: partly to address the terrible injustice of the abrogation of the Traditional Mass but also to reinvigorate Catholic worship everywhere. 

The strengths of the Anglican Missal were in large part those of the Traditional Mass: reverence and sacrality derived from an Ad Orientem positioning of the priest; gestures ritualized—often following Fortescue; and sacred language—albeit Prayer Book English rather than Latin. Of course, in such circles there is often an openness to Latin unknown in many Church locales today. 

Added to this is an incredible musical tradition that, while often encompassing our own plain chant and polyphony, has its own unforgettable hymns and incredible composers, from Tallis to Willan. There is also an appetite for such public demonstrations of the liturgy as public processions, which while still popular in “ethnic” American parishes tend to be less so in more assimilated ones—due in part to that earlier tradition of persecution under which the Catholics of the British Isles lived for so long.

In the spiritual and devotional realm, the Anglo-Catholics early on sought to establish a connection with the Pre-Reformation Church in Britain. So, they became enamored of such Medieval English writers as Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, Dame Julian of Norwich, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. During the 17th century, the Caroline Divines and the Cavalier and Metaphysical Poets attempted to uphold the “High Church” against the Puritans, and they created a backdrop from which the later Oxford Movement could borrow a great deal of ammunition—some of which Catholics as a whole today may find useful. We may also find useful the more modern writings of later Anglo-Catholics, such as the ones earlier mentioned, as well as Ralph Adams Cram, Eric Mascall, Gregory Dix, and a host of others. 

In a word, it reflects a deeply literate Faith that is not afraid of modernity. Moreover, private devotions are a huge part of Anglo-Catholic life; the recently published St. Gregory’s Prayer Book, produced under Ordinariate auspices, reflects the best of the many such volumes they produced in their heyday—and this writer finds it enormously useful.

The last gift is pastoral; for the Anglo-Catholic, his parish is truly the center of his life. For American Catholics this is an experience generally reserved to ethnic or Eastern Catholic parishes. Of course, like them, Anglo-Catholic (and so Ordinariate) parishes tend to be much smaller and family-like. As a result, members of Ordinariate parishes tend to be very active indeed, and they are at home with each other and with the Faith in a way that is hard to describe. To put on such events as the annual “Festival of Lessons and Carols,” a Christmas-time treat many Ordinariate parishes have brought over lock, stock, and barrel, usually requires all hands!

But there is more to it than that. Our ancestors kept the Faith in the Isles during Penal Times and were driven from their parishes; they lived, as it were, in the shadows—even as many Traditionalists do in my time. But in those days, the parish was in fact the center of everyday life for everyone, as it had been throughout Catholic and Orthodox Europe; it was the smallest unit of temporal as well as ecclesiastical governance, and the same committee that kept the church fabric in repair also kept the peace and fed the poor. 

This did not stop at the Protestant Revolt; the Catholics were simply put out. But the parish churches continued as they had; as the center of social life as well as of religious. So it was and is in the Church of England, and in many places in America it remains so with the Episcopal Church (as well as in Catholic Europe—as in my little village in Austria). Thus, the pastors and members of such congregations often take an active place in local activities—and host everything from Maypoles to Boar’s Head Feasts to blessings of the Hounds. But in such hands, these things are little more than memorials to a glorious past. In Catholic hands—at least in the hands of Catholics dedicated to evangelizing their neighbors—they could be so much more.

Ultimately, it is not really a question of merely preserving Anglican customs as though they were museum pieces. One of the major problems the Faith has always faced in the Anglosphere is the perception that it is foreign. Just as the Ordinariates allow Anglicans to share the same Church as Sts. Thomas More, John Fisher, and John Newman, they also can provide a means of rebuilding or recreating a Catholicism as natively English-speaking, as culturally tied to its countries while retaining its universality, as anything in Catholic Europe or Latin America. 

It is ultimately as vehicles for the conversion of the Anglosphere that we must look at them. If, due to the same factors that appear to restrain every movement for growth today throughout the Church, that possibility looks remote, we must remember one important thing. This moment shall pass sooner or later; because of Benedict’s foundational efforts in this and other areas, a future pope interested in the Salvation of Souls shall find in the Ordinariates—and other things—very useful tools indeed.

[Photo Credit: The Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham website]


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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