This message was first published by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England & Wales in November 1993:
As the first ordinations of women to the priesthood in the Church of England draw near, a number of Anglicans, both laity and clergy, who are unsure about their future in the Church of England, have approached members of this Bishops’ Conference. We are aware, too, that many others, in some ways represented by those who have approached us, await our response. In the light of these discussions, and of our own careful consideration of all the issues involved, we now wish to address publicly the questions they have raised.
Our responsibility, as bishops of the Catholic Church, is to ensure that the Catholic community in England and Wales, in its faith and life, is within the full communion of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, united in bonds of faith and sacraments, with a clear awareness of its universality. Our ministry as members of the College of Bishops in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, is one of the visible signs of that universality. Within this Catholic Church there is a clear doctrinal structure and vigorous debate, both of which are needed for Church life. There is also to be found a variety of styles of prayer and liturgical practice. The distinctive and complementary roles of laity and clergy, and women and men, are a point of continuing development.
Many of those who have approached us manifestly share this vision of the Catholic Church. Their concern is not primarily that women are to be ordained to the priesthood. Rather they are struggling with the question of the authority by which the decision to ordain women to the priesthood has been made by the Church of England and the implications of that decision for those who wish, above all else, to live their Christian life in the Catholic tradition. Many have arrived at the conviction that visible communion with the Bishop of Rome is a necessary element of Catholic life. They believe they can no longer work within the Church of England to achieve that end. To them we wish to extend a warm welcome.
Those who have approached us make very clear the personal sadness and distress which they experience at this time. For our part too, we take no encouragement from the difficulties being faced in the Church of England. The urgent task of announcing the Gospel in Britain needs the strength and vigour of all Christian communities. This same task also underlines the importance of the search for unity of life and witness among all the followers of Christ. Working vigorously for this unity remains one of our grave responsibilities. It is our conviction that this search for unity would not be assisted if another ecclesial body were to emerge from present doctrinal and pastoral difficulties.
Approaches have been made by clergy of the Church of England, both singly and in groups. In some few instances groups of parishioners with their pastors have also made approaches, enquiring about the possibility of coming into full communion with the Holy See, embracing the fullness of Catholic life. After our Low Week meeting we stated that our aim in welcoming those who wish to join the Catholic Church must be their eventual total integration into the Catholic life of our dioceses. This remains our aim. Other paths have been suggested. We have looked carefully at the suggestions of the establishment of a Personal Prelature or of a Special Pastoral Provision, such as exists in the USA. We are of one mind that, in our particular circumstances, such alternatives would serve to increase the multiplicity of Church identities in an unhelpful and confusing manner. Our determination in this matter does not imply any lack of respect or esteem for the tradition, strengths and vision of Christian living represented by those who are approaching us. In fact the opposite is the case. We are convinced that the Roman Catholic community, diocese by diocese, will be enriched by the eventual full integration of those who bring with them not only the traditions of English Anglicanism, but also its commitment to reach out to those who are on the margin of Christian living, or beyond. But for this to be the case, it is essential that we strive to come together in a fully integrated manner, a challenge which will involved real change for all concerned.
It is this fundamental conviction that gives shape to the ways in which we have agreed to respond to those who approach us.
1. We welcome those who have served as clergy in the Church of England, and will endeavour to express in specific ways the value of the ministry they have exercised. We gladly acknowledge and esteem their faithful celebration of Word and Sacrament in the Church of England. We would never suggest that those now seeking full communion with the Roman Catholic Church deny the value of their previous ministry. According to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, the liturgical actions of their ministry can most certainly engender a life of grace, for they come from Christ and lead back to him, and belong by right to the one Church of Christ. We recognise in the ministry they have exercised a call from God. This is the basis for 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. A period of study, preparation and integration, suited to the requirements of each person, will also be necessary.
We are convinced that our solemn duty to ensure the unquestionable validity of the sacraments to be celebrated with and for the Catholic community means that we cannot accept any residual doubts as to possible defects affecting the validity of the orders already conferred in the Church of England. This means we must ask all who are chosen to exercise priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church to accept ordination in our Church as the fulfilment of their ministry and its full integration into the Apostolic Succession. This is a difficult and sensitive matter, but we are reassured that so many who have approached us understand quite readily this need for certainty in such a crucial matter.
2. As is well understood, there are special difficulties faced by those who have thus far exercised ministry in the Church of England and are married. The celibacy of priests in the Church of the Latin Rite is the norm. It is a witness to the total love of Christ for his Church and a treasured part of our tradition. This is not at stake. In fact, it is shared by some who are seeking the fullness of Catholic life and priesthood. Rather, in these exceptional circumstances, consideration has to be given to the manner and extent in which it is possible, and desirable, to permit exceptions to this norm. This is because the discipline of the orders of those married clergymen who now seek full communion with the Holy See permitted them also to take up the vocation of married life. We understand and accept that they may well be convinced of the continuity of their vocation to serve the Catholic Church in the priesthood. This is a matter which we are pursuing with sympathy for those who have approached us.
3. In welcoming those pastors who approach us together with a group of parishioners, we wish to state that we respect and esteem the bonds of fellowship that exist within such a group and between the group and its pastor. While insisting that the decision of faith entailed in coming into full communion with the Catholic Church is always one which must be made individually, we will do all we can to respect and build on those precious bonds of shared discipleship. Steps are now being considered which will enable a group to stay together for as long as it is wishes not only during any period of enquiry and exploration, and in the process leading up to reception into the Catholic Church, but also, if thought fit in particular circumstances, after that point. The process whereby that group becomes, in practice, fully one with the Roman Catholic local community may, indeed, be gradual. On the other hand, once important steps are taken, and misapprehensions or misgivings removed, it may well be that the common identity of full Catholic faith opens up a much easier process of integration into the local Catholic parish community than is now envisaged by some. The Catholic community in many parts of England and Wales is already characterised by a diversity of culture and background. It is Catholic faith shared within the visible unity of the Church which forms our identity.
At this important time, it is clear that the way forward requires of us all both generosity and patience. For many troubled in conscience difficult decisions lie ahead. We are exploring ways in which they can be given additional spiritual and pastoral support. We will do all we can to encourage the Catholic community to give a warm and generous welcome to all who join it at this time. Similarly, we will seek not only to protect but also to enhance key ecumenical relations so that ecclesial life may be strengthened and the service and common witness required by the Gospel given in our society.
19 November 1993