Bishop Robert Mercer CR is enthusiastic about the warmth and vision of Pope Benedict’s invitation to groups of Anglicans to enter an Ordinariate

Leading men and women to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: this is the supreme and fundamental priority of the church’. Three guesses as to who said this. Billy Graham, John Wesley, Martin Luther, or an evangelical Anglican like John Stott? No, Pope Benedict XVI.

It’s no wonder that this Pope appeals more and more to evangelical Christians, to Anglicans and to the Orthodox. Some of us have been deceived by the liberal media or even by liberal Roman Catholics into writing him off as ‘the rottweiler cardinal’. But like another elderly pope who came to office late in life, John XXIII, this man is full of astonishing surprises. For one thing, he wants us all to know and love the Bible as he himself does.

The authority of the Word

The Pope’s understanding of his own limitations as under the authority of Scripture, reassures other Christians. The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary his ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and his Word.

It is Benedict’s generosity to Anglicans which astonishes us most of all. He had written that Catholics cannot demand that other churches be disbanded and their members individually incorporated into the Catholic church. They must remain in existence as churches with only those modifications which unity necessarily requires. The Catholic church has no right to absorb other churches.

Once the bishops or vicars general of the Traditional Anglican Communion had signed The Catechism of the Catholic Church and unanimously applied for reconciliation, the Pope set in train the two-year long process which resulted in the Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum coetibus, for groups of Anglicans. He did not make the first move: he is not stealing sheep. It was we who approached him.

Understandable anxieties

Naturally enough, as with engaged couples before they marry, there are some anxieties as we await developments. You will not have to eat fish on Fridays even if you dislike it. You will not have to go to confession on Friday. You will not have to write an exam on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. RC laity don’t. Why should you? Your parish council will not have to send donations to Rome. RC parishes don’t. Why should yours?

You will not have to submit to a bully. Cardinal Ratzinger and two of his staff gave me over an hour of their time in Rome in 1985 when we talked unity. He is the gentlest, most courteous of men, a skilled listener. Conversely you can still treasure our Prayer Book catechism which serves a different purpose from the Roman one. Ours is a preparation for those hoping to be confirmed. The Roman one is a fat compendium of theology to be referred to.

As to concessions, so to speak, it is Rome which has made most. We retain our identity and our Anglican heritage or patrimony; our Prayer Book tradition of worship, our hymns and music; our married clergy, our esteemed place for the laity. An editorial in the Catholic weekly, The Tablet, put it like this, ‘Roman Catholic doctrinally but Anglican culturally’, which is not quite how we’d put it but we know what the editor is trying to say.

Our only disappointment is no married bishops. After all, St Peter the first Pope had a wife. However, Rome’s reason is impeccable: the rapprochement of Eastern Christianity and Western, the two lungs of the one church, is what matters most, and as yet it is the Orthodox who cannot stomach the thought of married bishops.

No repudiation demanded

We are not asked to repent of being Anglican, nor to repudiate our past. We shall continue to revere our scholars and saints and to learn from them. (I have heard Handel in St Peter’s, Rome.) We are not described as converting but as ‘entering into full and visible communion’. We shall indeed enter into communion with millions more Christians round the world. Think of what this means when we travel; when our own isolated folk cannot find Traditional Anglican groups; when we are with Catholic relatives and friends.

However, Rome does require us to assuage their scruples about us. How can they be really sure that we were validly baptized, confirmed, ordained? After all in the Anglican communion, as it now is, people are not necessarily baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Nor are they necessarily confirmed. Laymen claim to celebrate the holy communion. Women claim to be bishops and priests. How can Rome sort out this confusion, and who can blame Rome for being confused?

If at the altar rail we are each anointed, then all Romans will be satisfied that we have indeed been initiated into the body of Christ. If our clergy are ordained, then all Romans will be satisfied that our clergy are indeed bishops, priests and deacons. It was an Anglican bishop in the 1950s who persuaded me that if our orders were the only thing keeping us apart, we ought to meet Rome’s needs in this regard. I am glad to do so.

‘This is the Lord’s doing: and it is marvellous in our eyes.’