The Anglican Church was created in 1534 as a means for England’s King Henry VIII to circumvent refusal of the Catholic pope to agree to annulment of his marriage. Draconian as Henry’s methods may have been in ridding himself of wives, his audacity in establishing a new church did accomplish two good things for society.
First, the Anglican Communion—which retains many of the customs and beliefs of its parent church—allows clergy to marry, thus eliminating the artificial barrier between priests and society that has proven problematic in many ways among Catholics. Second, by forcing the second of the great schisms in Christianity (the first being the departure of the Orthodox Churches in the 11th Century) Henry helped to promulgate the notion that there can be more than one set of religious beliefs. This undoubtedly helped to stimulate a great flowering of new ideas and the diversity of Protestant Churches that exist today.
Lately, two of the most contentious issues in the Anglican Church and its American counterpart, the Episcopal Church, have been the ordination of women and the recognition of committed relationships among same-sex couples. Understandably, some people are slower than others to adapt to change, and in both churches, there are conservatives who have a hard time accepting new cultural norms. In the Catholic Church, one of those conservatives happens to be the Pope.
What’s interesting to me about all this is that, on a shrinking planet, cultural changes that potentially involve hundreds of thousands of people generally involve all of us, one way or another. Here are some thoughts about how the Pope’s little gesture may snowball into something much bigger than he might imagine:
- From this day forward, there will be a precedent for the notion of married priests in the Catholic Church. Home-grown clergy may not long tolerate much greater privileges for the adopted children of the family.
- If Catholics become accustomed to the notion that priests can marry, they may find it a relatively small step to entertain the notion of women as priests.
- If conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians start flocking to the Roman church, more culturally liberal Catholics may very well start migrating the other direction. This may initially result in two large international churches with very similar liturgy but very different political and cultural beliefs.
- As both churches adapt to change, however, each may find it harder than ever to ignore new cultural trends and equate tradition with avoidance of change.
It may well be that Pope Benedict, the reactionary Pontiff who preached against condom use in countries where AIDS is rampant, has opened the barn door and let out a few horses. Stuffing them back in could be easier said than done.