Thursday, April 01, 2010

Balmer's Overture

I confess I was caught somewhat offguard by the malice in Randall Balmer's 'overture':

My reference here, of course, is to the declaration last fall by the very same Benedict seeking to lure conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians to the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican sensed an opening, especially with those Episcopalians (and former Episcopalians) who were still fuming over the consecration of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire, the refusal of the Episcopal Church to foreswear same-sex marriages, and the ordination of gays and lesbians and even (still!) the ordination of women.

On October 20, 2009, the Vatican announced a special “Apostolic Constitution” that would welcome these restive Episcopalians and Anglicans into the Catholic Church, allowing them to bring with them some of the glorious liturgies and music of the Anglican tradition.

While I’ve seen no evidence of Anglicans and Episcopalians “swimming the Tiber” en masse (pardon the pun) to Rome, the Vatican’s overture struck me at the time as opportunistic, even cynical. Ignoring decades of ecumenical conversations—not to mention catching the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, off guard—Benedict thought he could harvest disaffected Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church by offering concessions on liturgy and music together with ironclad proscriptions against such “evils” as homosexuality and women priests.

Schadenfreude is not exactly becoming in a priest; but it seems to be interfering with Balmer's skills as a historian of religion, as well. All of the things that Balmer mentions had been old news by the time the Apostolic Constitution came out; Robinson, for instance, was elected bishop in 2003, Barbara Harris was elected the first woman bishop in 1989, the July 2009 compromise was simply the latest in a long series of controversies on same-sex marriage, and so forth. Now, to be sure, things move slowly in the Vatican -- as the joke goes, the reason the mills of God grind slowly is that that's the only way the Vatican can keep up. But there is simply no evidence that the Pope "thought he could harvest disaffected Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church"; Rome has been working for years on trying to find a better way to integrate Anglicans who had already converted. Under John Paul II they had been taken care of by ad hoc measures; this led to a patchwork system that needed overhaul. And with all due respect to Balmer, if Rome were to wait until the Anglicans got over their troubles on homosexuality and the like, it would have to wait forever -- Anglicans are always having some such controversy, and this is structurally inevitable. The powerhouses on the side opposite to Balmer is the Church of Nigeria, which is the largest member of the Anglican communion. (On paper the Church of England is larger, but it is widely known that on paper is the only way the CofE can muster such numbers.) The Church of Nigeria is not going to change its position on homosexuality. But the CofN is also die-hard Anglican, more Anglican than the Church of England, as the saying goes; there is nothing that will push them out of the Communion, and because they have the numbers they have the means to fight, and they know it. When they talk about how liberal stances on homosexuality are going to split the Anglican communion, they are not threatening to pack up their bags; they are threatening to push you out. It is not a wholly idle threat. The Anglican controversies will not end in any foreseeable future; it would take either the Church of Nigeria collapsing or the Episcopalians leaving the Communion to budge things. 'Opportunistic' suggests deliberate and carefully planned timing to take advantage of some suddenly open opportunity; not only does Rome lack the ability to time things so carefully, you don't time plans to take advantage of things that are perpetually ongoing. As Balmer says, to be opportunistic you have to 'sense an opening'; but nobody means by this an opening that has been open for decades and will be open for decades more. In the meantime, the Catholic Church still had the problem of what to do with Catholics already using the Book of Divine Worship and those Anglicans who had already put out feelers of interest. There appears to be no evidence that there were any motives other than that; and when neither documentary evidence, nor the timeline, nor the structure of the situation seem to support a historical hypothesis about motives, it is not a very good hypothesis.

Nonetheless, Episcopalians do have a reasonably good preventative system with regard to priestly pedophilia, and have since the 1990s; so far it seems to be doing well. I actually wish our public schools had something similar; and in hindsight just about every church should have put something in place like it to deal with sexual offenses generally three-quarters of a century ago at least.

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