Seeking the pearl of great price

The Vatican's unexpected announcement this week made headlines around the world. An Anglican bishop who entered the Catholic Church in 2007 reflects on its significance.
Jeffrey Steenson | Oct 23 2009 | comment  

flickr / Patrick TheinerFor Anglicans to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, gathered around St. Peter and his successors, is not unlike the experience of the merchant in Matthew 13:46, who, “when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” It is a demanding venture, requiring sacrifice, but this is the nature of the apostolate, and it is of such fundamental importance that all contingent arguments must ultimately fall away. Benedict XVI’s astonishing generosity in offering a canonical home to Anglicans who desire to be in communion with him is an occasion for great rejoicing, for it will mean that we do not journey alone.

Anglicans do not come to Rome primarily because they are unhappy with their churches. There are options within the Anglican world that are far more accessible to those who object to recent decisions and developments within their own churches. The warnings heard especially in liberal Catholic circles about the dangers of admitting the disaffected Anglicans are to be heeded of course, but most of the anger I have encountered as a Catholic comes from disaffected Catholics who object to the teachings of their own church. The journey to full communion is by nature a purgative process, and the souls who arrive are mostly simply happy to be there.

For me the moment of truth came in early 2007, at a meeting of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, amidst colleagues whom I had come to love, whose company I truly enjoyed. They felt the time had come for them to assert that the polity of the Episcopal Church was essentially local and democratic and that its wider associations within the Anglican Communion and the Christian world were voluntary and collaborative. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back; I could not reconcile this position with the Catholic understanding of the Church. And as a member of a church family whose origins were Roman, it seemed obvious to me what must be done.

It was not a sudden decision. The goal of Catholic unity has been, more or less, an integral part of Anglican identity since Newman, as the agreed statements of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission plainly show. The conditions for corporate reunion seemed favorable for a brief season in the years immediately following Vatican II. But powerful counter-intuitive movements within Anglicanism had pushed the goal of full communion so far over the horizon that it was no longer realistic to expect that the established ecumenical instruments could heal the schism. And so various groups and individuals approached the Holy See, not with the intention of repudiating Anglicanism, but rather to discover a new path toward unity.

I was a part of one such effort in 1993-1994. In reviewing our submissions to the Holy See from that time, I was astonishing to find so many echoes in the Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) about Personal Ordinariates. For those who are interested in following this story, William Oddie’s The Roman Option (Harper/Colllins, 1997) is essential reading. To add one note to Dr Oddie’s fine study – the request for a canonical structure similar to the military ordinariate was initially proposed by Msgr William Stetson, for many years the secretary to the ecclesiastical delegate for the Pastoral Provision.

It is no simple exercise to define precisely what Pope Paul VI had termed the “worthy patrimony” of the Anglican tradition. We soon realized that it is not accurate to speak of this Anglican identity as primarily liturgical, because the liturgical movement has brought about a real convergence between Anglican and Catholic forms. We wrote: “It must certainly be more than the preservation of the distinctive features of Anglican Church culture (ie, its liturgical, devotional, and musical heritage), as worthy an undertaking as this may be. We desire that our return to union with Peter will enable us to contribute to the healing of the Western Schism, by means of an apostolate uniquely dedicated to Christian unity, as a vehicle through which the Catholic Church may embrace her separated sons and daughters and augment the resources for her work of evangelization.”.

I very much appreciated the CDF’s Note that the preservation of the Anglican patrimony be balanced by the concern that the Anglican pilgrims be integrated into the Catholic Church and not merely live on as a distinct sub-culture. This is important for many reasons, but one comes especially to mind: we Anglicans have some bad habits to unlearn, for Anglican life today is manifestly disordered. The need for our formation is not to be underestimated; Rome was not built in a day, and neither can Catholic priesthood be put on like a coat. I found this to be particularly challenging, requiring an effort to reach out to wise and experienced Catholic priests. I will always be grateful for those who patiently supported, encouraged, and prayed with me, especially the wonderful men of the Irish College and Msgr Francis Kelly of the Casa Santa Maria in Rome.

Those dear friends at the Irish College sometimes teased me about my “five ordinations and a wedding.” Some Anglican clergy, even as they welcome this initiative from the Holy Father, want to reopen the question of the validity of Anglican orders, because they object to the general rule of absolute ordination. I did not find this a difficulty, for I did not think of my ordination in the Catholic Church as a repudiation of the Anglican ministry. Anglican ordinations are what they are. It may be reasonable to criticize Leo XIII's 1896 encyclical on Anglican orders, Apostolicae Curae, for speaking in the harsh idiom of a different age, but it can certainly be read in a positive light. Friends do not eschew plain speaking, and it is likely that this text has been responsible for much of the ecumenical progress already realized, by provoking Anglicans to reflect more deeply on the theology of ministerial priesthood. I treasure the times I was able to pray near the tomb of Pope Leo XIII at St. John Lateran last year. Anglicanism’s chief antihero remains, ironically, a potent spiritual force for Christian unity.

One thing has continued to trouble me in this journey, and that is the remembrance of the people left behind. It was very difficult to step away from treasured pastoral relationships, although church polity and ministerial ethics certainly required a clean and decisive break. Many of them of course are firmly committed Anglicans who have no interest in following this path toward Catholic unity. I wish them every blessing. But I often think of others who hunger and thirst for something more, for whom the Catholic Church is a very intimidating but compelling presence. They must overcome misunderstandings about what the Catholic Church teaches, and fears about what it might mean to live in the Catholic Church. Patient pastoral work can resolve much of this, and I rejoice that the Holy Father has opened this door for them.

The Rev. Jeffrey Steenson, of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, was the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande (New Mexico and west Texas) before his reception into the Catholic Church on November 30, 2007. He and his wife Debra now live in Houston, where he teaches patristics at the University of St. Thomas and St. Mary’s Seminary. They have three adult children.

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