On Receiving Anglican Clergy Into the Catholic Church

Author: English Bishops


Statement of the bishops of England and Wales given on April 15, 1994

In recent weeks and months approaches have been made by members of the Church of England. These have been both from individuals and groups, clergy and laity. Some have already been received into full communion with the Catholic Church; others are about to be so received; others are making first inquiries about what such a journey involves and how they will be received.

The discussions which have taken place, with individuals and with groups, involving both bishops and Catholic laity, have made clear a number of important perspectives and some widespread misunderstandings. It is these we now wish to address.

First, there should be no doubt that those approaching us are not simply wishing to avoid the advent of women priests. To describe them in such terms is inaccurate and a real disservice. Rather, they reveal a depth of Catholic faith which is both impressive and moving. The doctrines they hold concerning the sacraments and the eucharist in particular, including its reservation for prayer and devotion, are substantially Catholic. Many follow the same devotional and liturgical practices as we do; they have a deep respect for the Holy Father and acknowledge the primacy which is his as the successor of Peter.

It is important for members of our Catholic community to understand that for some of these Anglicans, especially the clergy, the principal aim in their church life has been to help bring about the visible unity of the Church of England with the see of Peter. In their judgment, recent decisions make this no longer a realistic possibility within the Church of England, and lead them to seek that full visible unity individually or in groups. As we said in our statement of November 1993: "Many have arrived at the conviction that visible communion with the bishop of Rome is a necessary element of Catholic life. To them we wish to extend a warm welcome."

Second, it has become clear that a key question for many who are approaching us in the view they should take of the sacramental life they have faithfully lived as members of the Church of England. This is an important question for our Catholic community, too. It is the clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council that visible elements of the church of Christ can and do exist outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church. The visible elements and sacred actions spoken of by the conciliar Decree on Ecumenism include "the celebration of the memorial of the Lord’s Supper" (No.22). These sacred actions, and the ministries by which they are carried out, are clearly to be found in the Church of England. Catholic teaching is, then, that the liturgical or sacred actions of those in the Church of England "most certainly can truly engender a life of grace and, one must say, can aptly give access to the communion of salvation" (No.3). No one who is considering full communion with the Catholic Church is, therefore, expected to deny the value of the liturgical life they have celebrated in the Church of England, which has sustained them to this point. Rather they are coming to recognize that it is "through Christ’s Catholic Church alone ... that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained" (No.3).

These perspective have important consequences for the nature of the journey into full communion to be undertaken by those seeking full communion with the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly they will engage in a period of exploration of contemporary Catholicism, often in discussion with the neighboring Catholic community. But the period between their decision to leave the Church of England and their reception into full communion need not be lengthy. As the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults states, when speaking of the reception of baptized persons, such preparation is to be "adapted to individual pastoral requirements" (No. 391). For those who have been accustomed to regular, if not daily, holy communion in the Church of England, a lengthy delay before they are admitted to the eucharist is not desirable. Their sharing in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church will help the process by which they come to an experience of being part of the local Catholic community.

As we stated in our 1993 November meeting, in welcoming those clergy of the Church of England who are approaching us, "We recognize in the ministry they have exercised a call from God. This is the basis of our readiness to assume a continuity of ministry, normally leading to ordination to the priesthood in the Catholic Church, depending on a process of mutual discernment." For some this has already begun. So, too, has the exploration of ways in which we can respect and build on the bonds of fellowship that exist between groups of Anglican laity who wish to lead a Catholic life and their pastors.

In all these matters we ask that the five principles enunciated in our 1993 Low Week meeting be kept in mind.

They are:

1. The conviction that the fullness of Catholic life, and the orders which are part of it, is to be found in the visible communion of the Catholic Church.

2. The aim for those who seek to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church must be their eventual total integration into the life of the Catholic community.

3. That those seeking full communion are required to accept the teaching authority of the church, in matters of faith and morals, as exercised by the pope as the successor of Peter and by the college of bishops acting in union with him.

4. That we reiterate our commitment to developing ecumenical relations with the Church of England and with other churches and communities; we will continue this dialogue and common effort in the new circumstances that we now obtain.

5. That we confident that the Catholic community will be enriched by the spiritual heritage of those seeking full communion and that Catholics will show generosity of heart as they work with us in the duty of meeting the needs of those who are now approaching us.

We are thankful that our ecumenical relationships remain good. Our commitment to the search for the full visible unity of the church remains undiminished, rooted in the conviction that such is the will of Christ. His solemn prayer makes clear that this visible unity is necessary for the effective proclamation of the Gospel in our society:

"Father, may they all be one, just as your are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me? (Jn. 17:20-21).