Friday, February 26, 2010

The Beginning of the Reformation's End?


(The Wall Street Journal) On a recent evening, about 60 people—ex-Episcopalians, curious Catholics and a smattering of earnest Episcopal priests in clerical collars—gathered downtown for an unusual liturgy: It was Evensong and Benediction, sung according to the Book of Divine Worship, an Anglican Use liturgical book still being prepared in Rome.

Beautiful evensongs are a signature of Protestant Episcopal worship. Benediction, which consists of hymns, canticles or litanies before the consecrated host on the altar, is a Catholic devotion. We were getting a blend of both at St. Mary Mother of God Church, lent for the occasion.

One former Episcopalian present confessed to having to choke back tears as the first plainsong strains of "Humbly I Adore Thee," the Anglican version of a hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas, floated down from the organ in the balcony. A convert to Catholicism, she could not believe she was sitting in a Catholic Church, hearing the words of her Anglican girlhood—and as part of an authorized, Roman Catholic liturgy.

And that was not the only miracle. Although the texts had been carefully vetted in Rome for theological points, the words being sung were written by Thomas Cranmer, King Henry VIII's architect of the English Reformation. "He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel," the congregation chanted, "as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever."

The language of this translation of the Magnificat, one of Christianity's two great evening canticles, is unfamiliar to many Episcopalians today, as it comes from earlier versions of their Book of Common Prayer. Yet a number of former Anglicans are eager to carry some of this liturgy with them when they swim the Tiber, as Episcopalians becoming Catholic often call the conversion. "I wonder why the phrase 'and there is no health in us' was omitted from the penitential rite" by the Vatican vetters of the newly approved rite for converts, one nostalgic ex-Episcopalian mused aloud. "Must be too Calvinist," suggested another.

Liturgies of this kind could become more common because of Pope Benedict XVI's Apostolic Constitution, called Anglicanorum coetibus (the name means "concerning groups of Anglicans"), which was published last November. It provides for former Anglicans to come into the Catholic Church as a group and retain certain of their traditions. For nearly three decades, the Catholic Church has let Episcopal clergymen who convert, even married men, become ordained as Catholic priests. They are every bit as much priests as other Catholic priests. A former Episcopal priest is not allowed to remarry if his wife dies.

But Anglicanorum coetibus changes the landscape by providing for the establishment of ordinariates, each almost like a diocese administered by its own bishop. There will be one such ordinariate in the U.S., and Episcopalians and parishes that come into the Catholic Church under this provision can be part of it. The ordinariate will facilitate Anglican Use for its member parishes. A former Anglican priest will head the ordinariate; he will become a bishop only if he is celibate.

The recent liturgical evening in Washington was arranged by Eric Wilson, a 24-year-old layman and former Episcopalian. "I believe the Anglican Use is a model for meaningful ecumenism—insisting on the fundamentals of faith while providing charity in other areas," he said.

The service was conducted by Father Eric Bergman, a Yale Divinity School-educated former Episcopal clergyman who was ordained a Catholic priest in 2007. Father Bergman stresses that this is not an overture to effete Episcopalians who are angry about changes in their church and want to sneak into the Catholic Church bringing nothing more than their pretty music. Being "angry about Gene Robinson," he says of the openly homosexual bishop of New Hampshire, isn't enough reason to become a Catholic. There must be a real conversion to the tenets of Catholicism.

Father Bergman says he began his journey to the Catholic Church by thinking about something that has taken many liberal Catholics out of the church: contraception. He regards Anglicanism's 1930 embrace of contraception as a mistake: "Out of that came a confusion about the roles of men and women, a theology of androgyny," he says.

Father Bergman and his wife, Kristina, have six children. They and more than 60 members of his Episcopal parish came into the Catholic Church in 2005. He is now chaplain of the St. Thomas More Society in Scranton, Pa., which seeks to establish Anglican Use parishes.

Naturally, many liberal Catholics are less than thrilled at the prospect of stodgy former Episcopalians importing traditional opinions along with their non-Catholic thou's and thy's. In a Nov. 23, 2009, story "Where Hype Meets Reality," the liberal National Catholic Reporter pooh-poohed the idea of large numbers of Anglicans coming in under the pope's new rules.

But Father Bergman not only predicts a mass movement toward Rome. He believes Anglican Use may mark the beginning of the end of the Reformation. There will be "a flourishing of this throughout the world," he says. "Wherever there are Anglicans, there will be people who want to enter Holy Mother Church." As he told a rapt audience at St. Mary's, "If we look at histories, heresies run themselves out after about 500 years. I believe we are seeing the last gasp of the Reformation in the mainline Protestant groups."

And so, I ask Father Bergman, how does he feel about a liturgy using the words of Cranmer, one of the Reformation's pivotal figures, in the Catholic Church? "A despicable fellow," he replies. Even so, he notes, the liturgy Cranmer created was built upon Catholic sources, and where elements were retained they now fit into the Catholic Church. Father Bergman doesn't quite say that it's "meet and right" to use those and many others of Cranmer's now-famous words. But it is clear that this is what he means.

Ms. Hays is the editor of In Character, published by the John Templeton Foundation.

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