Mending the Split or Hostile Bid?

On Tuesday, the Vatican announced “it would make it easier for Anglicans uncomfortable with their church’s acceptance of female priests and openly gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church while retaining many of their traditions.” (See “Vatican Bidding to Get Anglicans”)

“I don’t see it as an affront to the Anglican Church,” said The Very Rev. David Richardson, the archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Vatican, but I’m puzzled by what it means and by the timing of it.”  The anxiety and ambivalence in his statement is palpable.  He doesn’t see it as an affront, or at least he is trying not to take it that way, but certainly others will.  The Times characterized it as “a rare opportunity, audaciously executed, to capitalize on deep divisions within the Anglican Church.”

The parties are constrained to be polite and dignified, after almost 600 years of conflict, but the underlying issues are the same as what happens on Wall Street when one company makes a bid to take over all or part of another.  What are the real motives?  Who will come out ahead?  What will be lost?  What will be the unintended, unforeseen consequences?  It is not difficult to see these fears and feelings flickering beneath the surface of official statements.

It is being spun as mending the split that occurred when Henry VIII drove the Catholic Church out of England.  It is also presented as a compassionate gesture to those Anglicans troubled by the ordination of women and gays.  Some of them have already split off to found their own rites.  So this could be viewed as a helping hand.

On the other hand, it can look like a raid on a vulnerable corner of the Anglican establishment, an attempt to gain market share.  This, I suspect, is what makes Anglicans wary.  Is the Pope trying to profit from their woes?

But it can also lead to difficulties for the aggressive party.  Not all take-overs work out well.  Liberal Catholics were irritated that “Benedict reached out only to the most conservative elements on the Catholic spectrum.”  On the other hand, “the Anglican ruling was a rare, if mixed, moment of hope….   Allowing married priests, liberals noted, could go a long way to overcoming the deep shortages of priests in the developed world.”  And it might also increase long-standing pressures to change Catholic policy on celibacy.” (See “Offer Raises Idea of Marriage for Catholic Priests.”

The gesture arouses strong associations of aggressive maneuvers by big guns in finance, but reactions by churchmen are muted.  It has been a long time since churches warred openly – and they are not comfortable doing it or being seen to be doing it.  Acting like businesses might only further erode their shaky credibility as spiritual authorities.