VATICAN CITY – The relative ease with which groups of Anglicans can be welcomed into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church owes much to the unique history of the Anglican Communion.
Even before the formal Anglican-Roman Catholic theological dialogue began working on ways to restore unity, the Second Vatican Council singled out the Anglicans when talking about the Christian communities born in the 16th century.
“Among those in which Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place,” the council said in its Decree on Ecumenism.
Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, announced Oct. 20 that Pope Benedict XVI would allow the formation of “personal ordinariates” – similar to dioceses – to oversee the pastoral care of Anglicans who want to enter into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church while preserving elements of their Anglican liturgy, tradition and spirituality.
In fact, the cardinal said, the liturgy used by most Anglicans developed within the Latin rite of the Catholic Church and continues to resemble closely the text of the Mass celebrated by most Roman Catholics.
While a new apostolic constitution will make the special concessions to former Anglicans, the liturgy celebrated within the personal ordinariates will be completely valid for all Catholics, Cardinal Levada said.
However, he said, it would not make sense to welcome into the ordinariates “Catholics who have not come from the Anglican church” since the idea is to preserve an Anglican patrimony and not “have it submerged by Catholics who know nothing about that Anglican patrimony.”
What is today the Anglican Communion was born in England from the one Christian church in the West headed by the pope.
The occasion for the split between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church was King Henry VIII’s request to Rome that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon be annulled. Pope Clement VII refused his request, so the king divorced her and declared himself head of the church in England.
The tension between the king and the pope took place while the Protestant Reformation was in full swing in Europe, dividing the Western church between those who recognized the authority of the pope as it was being exercised and those who did not.
In the newly independent Church of England, pastors and theologians adopted and contributed to some of the key aspects of the Protestant reform, including an emphasis on the importance of the Bible, gradual use of the vernacular for liturgy and an emphasis on collegial decision-making. But the Church of England also maintained many traditions held in common with the Catholic Church, especially in the liturgy and in church structure.
Given their history, Anglicans often describe their church as both Catholic and reformed.