The announcement that Pope Benedict XVI had made it easier for disaffected Anglicans to become Roman Catholics caught the faithful of the two largest Christian churches by surprise.
Even the spiritual leader of Anglicans worldwide, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, in his pastoral letter to the provinces, confessed he had yet to discern the substance of the offer.
“I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this,” Dr Williams wrote to Anglican provinces worldwide, “I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage and we await the text of the Apostolic Constitution itself and code of practice in the coming weeks.”
The offer has raised questions whether it will not weaken the status of the Anglican church and reopen the issue of celibate priesthood for the Catholics. Kenyan clergy and scholars argue that the Pope’s move may not augur well for conservative Catholics who view the Apostolic Constitution as a dilution of the traditional Catholic doctrines.
Conservative Anglicans may, however, find the offer appealing as a way of sidestepping the controversies occasioned by the consecration of gay bishops and ordination of female priests. “There is necessity to prepare the Catholic clergy to avoid mass exodus as happened in 1963,” said Father Stephen Mbugua, an Egerton University chaplain.
ACK Archbishop Eliud Wabukala has rejected the papal offer arguing it was ill-timed. But he faces opposition from within as some of his bishops say there is nothing wrong with it. “I do not see why it is necessary at this point in history,” Archbishop Wabukala told the Sunday Nation on the phone.
He said the two churches have theological differences which the priests crossing over will have difficulty dealing with. While the details of the Apostolic Constitution are still limited, the papal announcement made it clear it would allow groups to join the Roman Catholic Church while maintaining some of their own traditions. It allows the ordination of married former Anglican priests, but not bishops.
With the announcement, a new church structure, called Personal Ordinariates, was created comprising units of faithful within the local Catholic church headed by former Anglican prelates who will provide spiritual care for Anglicans who wish to become Catholics.
Those who support the Apostolic Constitution argue that it was necessitated by crises that have shaken the foundations of the Christian faith in recent times. Bishop Joseph Otieno Wasonga of Maseno West ACK diocese welcomed it. “What the Pope has done is to provide a pastoral home to the disenfranchised Christians who have been knocking on their doors. It is a caretaker offer,” he said.
“Even though it is bad for the Anglican Church in general, I understand it from the pastoral dimension.” Many Anglican conservatives, especially the church in Africa led by the outgoing vocal Primate of Nigeria The Most Rev Peter Akinola, have opposed the ordination of gay priests and even threatened to quit.
This is the group Pope Benedict was targeting, says Bishop Wasonga. But Dr Nicholas Keya, a theological scholar and lecturer at Masinde Muliro University, said Catholics will be wondering if the Pope is admitting married priests through the back door.
The Catholic Church has been battling with rebel priests who have broken away to form splinter groups against the principle of celibacy. Fr Daniel Kasomo, a leading member of Married Priests Now! splinter group who openly admitted to having a family for 20 years, has since been barred from leading Mass or offering sacraments to Catholics. Other splinter groups include Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ and Reformed Catholic Church.
“This is interesting and is a clear case of admitting double standards by the Catholic Church. It is not in keeping with Catholic doctrines,” said Dr Keya. On the other hand, observers wonder whether the move might also intensify rivalry between the two largest Christian congregations in the world. Dr Keya’s take is that it will. “Why would the Pope be telling Anglican priests to cross over? This will bring rivalry.”