The time is coming, indeed it may already be here, when Anglo-Catholics must once and for all choose a path. The Bishop of Fulham and one parish have already declared and will take the Roman Road. Others, we might call them the “Chichester Set”, have chosen the way back to Canterbury. But what difficulties lie ahead for those priests and people who are not able to carry entire parishes with them? I think particularly here in Wales, and especially North Wales, of the few Anglo-Catholic bastions (indeed my former parish is one) where not only would the parish priest not be able to carry the PCC, but the legal position is very different to that in England. Many complications lie ahead for such parishes, priests and people alike.
Nevertheless, I am also convinced that Anglicanorum coetibus will, should, and must change Anglicanism and (what I am particularly interested in) the Catholic attitude to Anglicanism forever. It might also change some things about the Catholic Church in countries like the UK and US which have a less than negligible number of Anglicans who may take up the provision offered them. But, since the number of convert priests is already large and already an influencing factor in the life of the Catholic Church (particularly, for example, in the liturgical “reform of the reform”), that seems less important as it has long since begun.
The change facing Anglicanism is this: can any claim to catholicity continue to be made with intellectual and theological honesty following the implementation of AC? Some Anglicans will argue – as they already do – that the Anglican Churches have their own “catholic” identity which is not dependent upon Roman unity, or even the desire for it. But those who might consider AC as a positive option (I am thinking of members of FiF, and the founders of the new sodality of SS. Hilda and Wilfred) Roman unity has always been part of the “end game”. Indeed, the proposal for a “Third” or “Free” province within the C of E included a clause insisting on “freedom of ecumenical movement”. For Anglicans are always “on the way to unity” rather than in possession of that unity which is one of the defining aspects of the Catholic Church. Here is the fundamental problem for Anglicans who remain united to Canterbury: having rejected a defining element of their self-understanding (i.e. that unity with Rome is the goal of any movement Catholic-wise), how do they remain fundamentally different from those “catholic” Anglicans who have already implicitly rejected it when they accepted the ordination of women, or the other innovations of modern Anglicanism? In other words, what precisely of the “catholic tradition” will be preserved?
One aspect of Catholicism sorely missing in Anglo-Catholic circles is the understanding that to be Catholic also means to be under obedience, to be obligated to something which is not simply a nebulous, noetic concept, but which has manifested itself as a historical, cultural and institutional actuality. In rejecting AC those who remain Anglicans will also be rejecting this reality in favour of a fantasy.
But all this must also bring about a change in approach from the hierarchies of the local Catholic Churches. The assertion that “the Anglican Communion occupies a special place” among the communities of the Reformation in which “Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 13) must receive a new look and an altered interpretation. It may be that “Catholic institutions” or even “traditions” (if one makes this mean the liturgical action only) may remain once AC is fully implemented. But they will be hollow. They will not exist “in part” but “in accident” only, and will not speak of the thing itself, but only of some things which pertain to it. A dog is a dog never-mind what colour it is. But it isn’t a cat, even if both cat and dog are pink. That is a very different position for the Anglican Communion to be in vis-a-vis the Catholic Church. The essence of what commends Anglicanism to the Fathers of Vatican II will have genuinely been “reintegrated” into the Catholic Church and what will remain will be little more than a shadow. This must make Catholics view Anglicanism differently. Perhaps not all at once, for, in charity, we have to argue that the implementation of AC will be a process and not an event. But, in five or ten years time, we will have to acknowledge that the Anglican Communion is no longer anything “special” but has joined the ranks of all the other Protestant bodies which emerged after the “reformation” of the sixteenth century. And, especially in England and Wales (and perhaps Scotland, the US and Australia), that will mean a new culture emerging, and probably some difficulties for Anglicans (and Catholics who take a view which is syncretistic on the basis of Anglicanism’s current “special” status).
Nevertheless, all this is in fact something good. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy (or is usually not easy), nothing good can be bought without pain. Our Lord proves that in his Cross. Yet, what is happening here is a movement towards unity. For the Anglicans who take up AC a restoration of unity with their origins, with the principal. For the Catholic Church the extension of her own unity to embrace them. While the Anglicans do not add anything to her ontological totality, they assist in perfecting its beauty as she continues her pilgrimage through history, and aid her vocation to draw all men to Jesus Christ, her spouse, and the One for whom she exists.