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Associated Press/Photo by Amy Gutierrez

Staying home

Religion | Many conservative Anglicans have reasons beyond culture for rejecting a papal invitation into Roman Catholicism

Issue: "2009 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 19, 2009

Karon Gibson was a busy nurse whose business occupied her seven days a week. Her church attendance was sporadic until she retired a few years ago and made the commitment to go to church faithfully. Since then, she has missed only once when she injured her knee and couldn't stand up. To keep her commitment to church, though, she has stopped going to the Episcopalian churches where she grew up and got married, and has started going to the Roman Catholic Church instead.

The services were nearly the same, she found, but the Roman Catholics had more services and more locations. Given her hectic travel schedule, it worked well.

When she found that the Vatican had made a decision to welcome conservative Episcopalians and Anglicans into the Roman Catholic communion, she welcomed the news. While the services were nearly identical, the Roman Catholic Church wasn't plagued by the political issues that haunted the Episcopalians: the ordination of openly homosexual bishops and female priests. It just went against tradition, she said: "I'm very much into tradition. I have no objection to women being nuns or being great successes. I just think that some things have a conservative view and there's tradition to be followed."

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Gibson is interested in switching to the Roman Catholic side, but she's one of just a few. Despite the Anglicans grousing about the Catholics "poaching" Anglicans, it looks as though there will not be a worldwide rush of conservative Anglicans toward the Vatican. There are practical and theological obstacles to Anglicans converting-and many of the conservatives the Vatican is targeting will be bothered by more fundamental theological issues than gay bishops or female ordination.

Thanks to the Vatican's decision-outlined in an Apostolic Constitution called Anglicanorum Coetibus-if Gibson wants to keep her Anglican identity by using the prayer books and liturgy that she grew up with, she's free to do so. Before, if she wanted to become Catholic she would have to leave behind the trappings of her heritage: the liturgy, the history, the Book of Common Prayer, and the familiar style of worship. Now, though, she can still act Anglican and be a part of the Anglican culture, but she will be under the authority of the pope. But for whole churches that want to switch, the practical obstacles to the switch will be bigger.

At a tiny chapel at the Church of the Resurrection in Manhattan, N.Y., Rector Barry Swain holds the mid-day Mass, wearing vestments and rattling off the liturgy in a brisk tone that assures the three people attending that they will be out by the time their lunch break is up. There are just a few chairs neatly lined up, with a cushion for kneeling in front of them, facing the crucifix on the opposite wall. The service is formal. It is Anglo-Catholic-as close to Roman Catholic as you can possibly get without being Roman Catholic.

"We are Catholics," said Swain. In his particular parish, there is no difference between the congregants and the doctrine of Rome, except that as Episcopalians they are Catholics who are out of communion with the pope. On the issues of gay and female ordination, they are among the most conservative Episcopalians. In Philadelphia, Swain was in constant conflict with the diocese over issues like these, but here in New York, the bishop is gracious and more accommodating of their conservative views.

As to the pope's offer, "It's a very gracious offer," Swain said. "But there are a lot of difficulties." The Episcopal Diocese of New York believes that it owns the property where the church has stood since 1866. To leave the diocese, his church would have to wage "a long, drawn-out civil battle to take the property" and if it can't take the property, how will it keep the people together? he asked: "The minute you don't have a building to come to, how is it that people meet?"

If Anglicans were to switch, they would be under the supervision of "personal ordinaries" in "personal ordinariates"-and there are differing opinions of how that would look. The personal ordinaries would function as bishops-much like the personal ordinaries the Roman Catholic Church sets up to give military families church oversight apart from geographical location-but there are still questions as to how they will interact with the diocese.

There are other obstacles, too. For instance, if Swain were to become a Catholic priest, he would have to be reordained in the Catholic Church and to do that, he would have to admit that his previous ministry in the Anglican communion was not legitimate-a difficult thing for some priests to swallow. Rome has made other big concessions, though: If an Anglican priest is married, he can stay married. If he is a bishop, he can keep the insignia of a bishop, sit with the Roman Catholic bishops as a "retired bishop," and function as a bishop without the title of bishop.

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