Top Banner Image

Retconning the Reformation

What if a group of earnest reformers, with the support of King Henry VIII, managed to produce a reverent English liturgy, in communion with the pope? What would that look like today?

You may think that there is no answer to this question. But there is. This year, marking its tenth anniversary, Anglicanorum Coetibus – and the Ordinariates formed under it – make it clear: a beautiful and reverent liturgy capturing some of the best aspects of ancient Anglo-Saxon spirituality, Anglo-American hymnody, and Anglo-American prayer life. Crucially, it provides a bridge between the rest of the Church and Anglo-American culture, which Protestant Christianity had mostly claimed for itself.

Some Catholics are confused about or maybe even hostile to the idea of fostering forms of spirituality developed or maintained within Protestant churches. For my fellow Catholics – if they are comic-book fans – I offer the following analogy: it is a retcon.

In comic-book storytelling, if a previous writer took a wrong turn, the publisher gets a new writer to reframe past events so they have different meanings or outcomes. Sometimes events can even be erased. This device of fixing broken stories is called “retroactive continuity” – retcon.

Perhaps the most famous instance was the Crisis on Infinite Earths in the 1980s. It was how DC Comics took its unwieldy multiverse and brought everything back to a unified timeline, a defining event that enriched the main continuity of DC Comics storytelling by merging worlds.

This is essentially what Pope Benedict XVI did with Anglicanorum Coetibus: he reset the broken story of Anglicanism and gave it new life in the Church. At the same time, the best parts of the Anglican story became part of the Church’s story. By retconning Henry’s schism, traditions that were developed by a Catholic sense of things in Anglicanism are fully restored to the Church. And more importantly, Anglicans with a Catholic sense of things have found that they now have a home.

Some Catholics have expressed skepticism. But this retcon is minor compared to the one we celebrate every Sunday: God taking the fall of man and giving it new meaning – it becomes felix culpa, the happy fault. No longer is Adam and Eve’s fall a tragedy; it becomes the reason and means for God’s saving sacrifice. In that darkest moment, God was already announcing his major crossover event: “And I will put enmitie betweene thee and the woman, and betweene thy seed and her seed : it shal bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heele.”

*

And despite man’s fall, those truths and traditions that man has built up since then have been incorporated into the Church. A classic example is how classical philosophy was adopted by the Church Fathers. Saint Thomas Aquinas did the same. Or to give another example, the Parochial and Plain Sermons of St. John Henry Newman, given when he was an Anglican, but still treasured by the Catholic Church.

We even see holy men and women who are saints in the Orthodox tradition are venerated by our various eastern rites; for example, Saint Gregory of Narek, who died outside visible communion with the pope but is a saint and doctor of the Church.

Working through the story of salvation history every year during Advent, we see that God is the ultimate storyteller. We all have a purpose, part of the story to contribute. Many of us though will write some awful chapters – how often do you ever get a first draft right?

But God will not let His story fail. Nor can it succumb to the Crisis of Infinite Churches created by the Reformation. Instead, those digressions can be the means of creating greater unity in a richer tapestry of faith. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger referred to this possibility in a letter he wrote to the Theologische Quartalschrift:

But if the poison of hostility is slowly removed from the divisions [of Christians], and if, through mutual acceptance diversity leads no longer to mere impoverishment but rather to a new wealth of listening and understanding, then during the transition to unity division can become a felix culpa, a happy fault, even before it is completely healed.

Thinking along those lines Cardinal Ratzinger touches on the “mysterious Pauline statement” that “there must be factions.” (1 Cor 11:19). He then notes then that there is only so much we can do to heal these factions. Rather it is “God himself, the merciful Judge alone” who “decides when things are far enough along that we no longer need this split and the ‘must’ is over.”

That after much prayer and supplication these Ordinariates exist is surely a sign that this “must” is over. We – for I am a member – prayerfully bear witness to the end of the hostility between the Anglican Communion and Rome, thereby generating spiritual wealth for all the Church, including those who love Anglo-American Christianity.

As Anglicanorum Coetibus states:

the Ordinariate has the faculty to celebrate the Holy Eucharist and the other Sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours and other liturgical celebrations according to the liturgical books proper to the Anglican tradition, which have been approved by the Holy See, so as to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.

As we look beyond the horizon, we see the new story unfolding. Anglican traditions – engrafted back into the Church – are spreading throughout the former British Empire and beyond. Indeed, we may even get to see what it would have been like if Spain and England had stayed united through Henry and Cathrine, and then Mary and Phillip, as the Ordinariate re-evangelizes our Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters who have fallen away from the Church.

In other words, not only do the Ordinariates have much to be thankful for, but we come bearing gifts for the whole Church.

 

*Image: Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon before Papal Legates at Blackfriars, 1529 by Frank O. Salisbury, 1910 [Parliamentary Art Collection, London]

Gunnar Gundersen

Gunnar Gundersen

Gunnar Gundersen is an Affiliated Scholar of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. His areas of research include religious freedom, property rights, and jurisprudence.



RECENT COLUMNS

Archives