A shotgun marriage with unintended consequences

On this Reformation Day, with an odd overture to Anglicans by the Vatican still hanging in the air from the week past, we note a column from scholar Diarmaid MacCullough in today’s Observer:

There is one killer fact about the pope’s present move. “Traditionalist” Anglicanism is a shotgun marriage between incompatible groups: extreme Anglo-Catholics and extreme evangelicals. One group believes an Anglican holy communion is the mass, and surrounds it with appropriate magnificence and ancient ceremony; the other thinks the mass is a blasphemy and stresses that holy communion is the Lord’s supper, plain and simple.

Because of that, they cannot even agree on what a clergyman is, or what he does (though they can all agree that he ought to be he). Evangelical traditionalists, meanwhile, have no time for a reunion with an unreformed Church of Rome. Their alliance with the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics has been one of convenience, because both sides cannot stomach women in positions of clerical authority (for entirely opposite reasons) and hate the idea that homosexuals might be just part of the spectrum of boring normality in God’s creation. (Anglo-Catholics are more muffled in their outrage on this one, given how many of them are gay themselves.) So the pope’s move will split the traditionalists down the middle and reveal how fragile their alliance is. The best law in church history is the law of unintended consequences.

In one sense, this is a storm in a teacup, stirred by an elderly cleric in the Vatican with a private agenda and a track record of ill-thought-out policy moves. In another, it is a fascinating moment in a confrontation as much a struggle for the soul of the Church of Rome as of the Church of England. Once we have got past the screaming headlines, we should keep an eye open for the real story.

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