September 24th is the feast day of Our Lady of Walsingham, which is the patronal feast of the US' Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. For more information about this oft forgotten apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, please click here to read more.
The approach of this holy day coincided with the latest numbers of the health of the Episcopal Church, and this gave me pause, allowing me to meditate on the Ordinariate and what that means for Anglicanism. The Episcopal Church in the United States is going to disappear, as is Anglicanism in Canada and elsewhere. New numbers released show that in the United States the average amount of Episcopalians showing up at their parish for Sunday worship is a mere 58 people. 71% of the Episcopal Church's parishes report less than 100 people attending on any given Sunday; less than 4 percent attract 300 people or more. All in all, the Episcopal Church has seen a 26% drop in attendance since 2005.
Church attendance is shrinking across the board - no one is immune - but these numbers are devastating. To give a comparison, as of 2015 there were 17,337 Catholic parishes in the United States; there are only 6,500 Episcopalian ones. There are 81.6 million Americans who identify themselves as Catholic; there are less than 1.8 million Episcopalians in this country - in Canada, 1.6 million Canadians identify themselves as Anglican (compared to 12.7 million Canadian Catholics).
This had to have gone through Benedict's mind when he was establishing the Anglican Ordinariate. There is no doubt that English Christianity has left its imprint on the world, thanks in part to the United Kingdom's worldwide empire over the last few centuries, leaving Anglican/Episcopal churches on nearly every continent and giving the world the grand English prose of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Holy Scriptures. To this day, at least in the US, the most beautiful churches I've been to have been Episcopal churches. They took many things that were Catholic and put an English spin to it, creating something that was - and still is - truly unique and beautiful. While there is a great deal of variety within Anglicanism, the parts of it that remain connected to her Catholic past allow us to see a beauty connected to her past, as well as speaking to us in the present; many prayers in the BCP are English translations of prayers from the liturgies of England prior to the liturgical reform of Pope St. Pius V (d. 1572), so they are a window into a past that even the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite (the "old Latin Mass") doesn't reach.
Benedict XVI, knowing the faith of those Anglicans/Episcopalians who desperately wanted to keep these beautiful traditions and spirituality, which although planted by the Catholic Church nearly 1,500 years ago, was reformed outside of communion with Rome into something that still gave the world an expression of faith and a deep love of Christ - the pope had to have known the decline of that denomination. Gone were the days of hope in the late 60s and early 70s when millions believed they would see a reunification between Rome and Canterbury within their lifetime; now are the days when the staunchest Anglicans/Episcopalians seem to be the most progressive or the most traditional - and neither group is interested in communion with Rome. However, out of that small group in the middle, there were men and women who longed for faith, morals, and tradition built on rock instead of the shifting sands of popular culture; this group appealed to the Pope for an opportunity to be Catholic, but hoped to keep the things about Anglicanism (and English Christianity in general) that weren't opposed to Catholic teaching, and the Pope gladly complied with the petition of the faithful. We now have three Ordinariates: in the US and Canada, in England and Wales, and in Australia, with rumors of there being another one day in South Africa (although that remains to be seen).
As a member of the Ordinariate, I've been tasked with keeping English Christianity alive. I'm encouraged to worship according to the traditions of Anglicanism as approved by Rome. I'm challenged by Rome to reach out to my separated brothers and sisters in the Episcopalian/Anglican tradition, to bring them home to Rome. The Ordinariate is not just so that we can continue to have pretty liturgy in English; it is to preserve Anglicanism and English Christianity; it is to be a tool in the reunification of Christians. Rome has said this; we have our marching orders. Right now we're in the early days of the Ordinariate and much can happen, good and bad.
There are some schools of thought that see the Ordinariate as "the place" where tradition-minded Protestants may come as Catholics, experiencing liturgy and traditions that they may find familiar; other schools of thought see the Ordinariate as the template for other denomination-based Ordinariates, like the much-whispered about "Lutheran Ordinariate" that I heard mentioned several years ago - if Presbyterians or Lutherans or other denominations came to believe in the Catholic faith and saw Presbyterian Ordinariates or Lutheran Ordinariates, keeping their faith traditions alive while preserving a unity of faith as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that might be something to think about. And it's all thanks to the forward thinking, wisdom, and generosity of Pope Benedict XVI, prompted by the Holy Spirit, and in response to the heartfelt requests from concerned, faithful Anglicans and Episcopalians; what St. John Paul II started, Pope Benedict built upon with great hope and faith. It is up to us and future generations to continue building upon this foundation.
Justin Welby, the (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, said something very true and powerful when he traveled to Assisi, Italy, for an interfaith prayer meeting with Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew, and members of many non-Christian faiths, including Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. Archbishop Welby said:
"Mercy begins with the mercy that each of us experiences in the sacrament of reconciliation; the knowledge that we ourselves are accepted...[Mercy is the] engine of reconciliation [and] the source of our capacity for the evangelization of the world in which we live...The failure of ecumenism [Christian unity] imprisons mercy and prevents its liberation and its power with one another...If we do not suffer together, we do not know the meaning of the ecumenism of mercy...When they kill us, they do not ask if we are Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic or Orthodox; we are one in Christ for them. So why are we divided when they are not killing us? [By not reconciling with each other] our worship is diminished and our capacity to grow close together with God is reduced. [Evangelization] depends on the world seeing visibly that we belong to one another and that we love one another. Without that, we have nothing to say to a world that is incapable of resolving its own differences."
Amen. This is why I believe in Christian unity, "that the world may believe" that the Father has sent the Son. And this is why it's important that the Catholic Church has chosen to give a home to the unique and beautiful traditions of Anglicanism, shrinking at an alarming rate, but now always existing in the Church founded on the rock of Peter, "and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it" (Mat 16:18).