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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: The Lord be with you.

Unidentified Group: And also with you.

Unidentified Woman: Let us pray.

RAZ: The sounds of the Holy Eucharist this morning at the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C. It's a sacrament that millions of Anglicans, better known as Episcopalians here in North America, take part in each Sunday.

Now, this past week, the Vatican made a stunning announcement that could prompt tens of thousands of Anglicans to become Roman Catholics. Here's Cardinal William Levada, speaking at a press conference in the Vatican on Tuesday.

Cardinal WILLIAM LEVADA (Head, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith): The Holy Father has approved an apostolic constitution, which sets forth a canonical provision to facilitate a kind of corporate reunion of Anglican groups.

RAZ: That means entire Anglican congregations will soon be able to convert to Catholicism en masse and still retain most of their traditions. The pronouncement addresses a schism between the two churches dating to the 1530s. Back then, the English King Henry VIII wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Rome said no, so Henry broke with the pope and proclaimed himself the head of the new Church of England.

Now, today, the Anglican Communion has become one of the most liberal Christian denominations. And the Vatican says it's responding to pleas by thousands of disaffected Anglicans who disapprove of their church's decision on allowing women to become bishops and its tolerance of same-sex marriage.

Now, Jim Naughton, canon for communications at the Episcopal Diocese here in Washington, doesn't believe too many Anglicans will take up the Vatican's offer, but I asked him whether he sees the announcement as a vote of no confidence in the Anglican Church.

Mr. JIM NAUGHTON (Canon for Communications and Advancement, Episcopal Diocese of Washington): I think it's fair to say that it's an affront just because of the clumsy way it was handled. I mean, I believe the archbishop of Canterbury was actually on vacation.

RAZ: He was unaware of this.

Mr. NAUGHTON: I'm told that sort of two weeks before it happened, he was given a bit of a heads up, but that that was the end of it. But in terms of it being a vote of no confidence, I mean, who's allowed to suggest that the way another Christian faith pursues its business isn't sufficiently Christian?

RAZ: Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, the worldwide head of the Anglican Church, released a statement that seemed to welcome this announcement, so did the North American Episcopal Church. Was that done for political reasons, or is that how they feel?

Mr. NAUGHTON: Well, I think the archbishop of Canterbury had really very few alternatives other than to say this isn't as bad as it looks. But again, I think for Episcopalians, what we need to do in the wake of this announcement is to continue going out there and saying, look, we do offer very traditional liturgy, beautiful music, a style of worship that many people like. But we are a democratically governed church. We think men and women are equal at the altar, and we respect the dignity of gay and lesbian Christians. If that makes us outcasts, I think that that's a status that we embrace happily.

So if what we're talking about here are people offering alternatives, I think Episcopalians offer that alternative to their Catholic brothers and sisters.

RAZ: What do you think the Vatican is hoping to achieve here if you do not expect large numbers of Anglicans and Episcopalians here in the U.S. to become Roman Catholics?

Mr. NAUGHTON: I think this is an instance where some of the more conservative leaders within the Roman Curia have decided that there's an opportunity to try to weaken the Anglican Communion by sending a message that Rome disapproves of its policies. And so I think this is, in many ways, not the pastoral move it's being portrayed as but is largely about sending a political message. And I think that's what Anglicans have to say in response is that if indeed you want to define yourself as the church that will reach out to people who are dissatisfied over liberalization, go for it, because we do disagree with you. We just, after much prayer and study, we just think you're wrong.

RAZ: Jim Naughton is the canon for communications with the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

Jim Naughton, thank you so much.

Mr. NAUGHTON: Thank you. Appreciate it.

RAZ: So is this, as Jim Naughton argues, a political move? Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, argues that if anything the Vatican's offer is meant to be conciliatory.

Reverend THOMAS REESE (Jesuit Priest; Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University): I think what's basically happening is that there is a large number of Anglicans who have approached the Catholic Church and want to rejoin with the Catholic Church. You know, it's not that the Catholic Church is going out recruiting, trying to steal sheep from the Anglican Communion. These people are basically ones who are unhappy, have left or are planning to leave the Anglican Communion. They're knocking on our door. And the question is, do we open the door and let them in, or do we say no, thanks, you're on your own?

RAZ: But I mean, they have that option, and they have had that option. I mean, why codify it?

Rev. REESE: Absolutely. And we've had people joining the Catholic Church from the Anglican Communion, and we've had Catholics joining the Anglican Church. We've had people going both ways. What is different with this is that we now have a process and a structure that will allow the Anglicans to keep their traditions, keep their spirituality, keep their liturgy as members of the Catholic Church, and also be allowed to keep their married clergy.

So it's an act of respect towards the Anglican tradition and allowing room for it within the Catholic community.

RAZ: An act of respect, you say, but as we heard earlier from Jim Naughton, an affront.

Rev. REESE: Well, I mean, this is the way that some people see it, and that's sad, but I don't think that's really the intention of the Vatican and the Catholic Church. They also want to continue to have dialogue. We want to continue to have good relations with the Anglican Communion. I mean, eventually, we want to have union with the entire Anglican Communion. But right now, that's not foreseeable possibility in the near future. And we have these people knocking on our door, and the question is, what do we do with them?

RAZ: Father Reese, do you think that this is a decision that will benefit the Catholic Church?

Rev. REESE: Well, I think it's a toss-up. If it ends up being something that hurts our relationship with the entire Anglican community, I think that's problematic. On the other hand, it's raising all sorts of issues for Catholics.

For example, if a large number of married Anglican priests cross over and are ordained and act as married clergy in the Catholic Church, this is going to raise questions for regular Catholics about, well, why can't we have a married clergy, especially if we continue to have a decline in the number of clergy? This raises these kinds of questions once again in the Catholic community, questions that the Vatican does not want raised.

RAZ: Father Thomas Reese is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He joined me here in the studio.

Thanks so much for taking the time.

Rev. REESE: You're welcome.

RAZ: The question, of course, is how many Anglicans will take advantage of the Vatican's overture. Archbishop Robert Duncan broke with the official North American Episcopal Church two years over issues like the ordination of female bishops and gay marriage. In response, he helped found the conservative Anglican Church in North America.

Archbishop ROBERT DUNCAN (Anglican Church in North America): What's remarkable is that the Vatican has said that this tradition really is a Catholic tradition, and the Vatican is prepared to take this tradition and make it possible for those who actually want to be under the Catholic Church.

There are, of course, doctrinal differences that separate Anglicans from Roman Catholics. And, in fact, it's those relatively few but significant doctrinal differences that will keep most of the Anglicans thankful about the Vatican's offer, but not actually taking up on it.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. We spoke with a representative from the Episcopal Church here in Washington, D.C.

Archbishop DUNCAN: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: He called the decision by the Vatican an affront.

Archbishop DUNCAN: Ah, an affront. Well, you see that the majority of Anglicans all over the world believe what the American Episcopal Church has done is an affront. It's an affront to what Christians have always believed. It's an affront to the authority of Holy Scripture. It's an affront to Christian marriage. It's an affront to the person and saving work of Jesus Christ.

So it doesn't surprise me that a representative of the Episcopal Church would call what the Vatican has done an affront. They would, in fact, call what we have done, as classic Anglicans, mainstream Anglicans, they call what we've done an affront.

RAZ: Do you have any plans to take advantage of the Vatican's offer?

Archbishop DUNCAN: No. I have made plain in my conversations with the Vatican that I believe that at this point in time, I'm called to lead the Anglican Church in North America and to rally faithful, mainstream Anglicans together and together with other mainstream Christians and that that's my call and my work right now. But I certainly bless those who are ready for this.

RAZ: Archbishop Robert Duncan heads the Anglican Church in North America.

Your Grace, thank you so much.

Archbishop DUNCAN: God bless you. It's wonderful to talk with you.

RAZ: We also spoke with former Catholic nun and author Karen Armstrong. She calls the Vatican's decision a distraction from the true message of Christ

Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG: The faith traditions, all of them, every single one, insist that compassion and charity and the Golden Rule - don't do to others as you would not have them do to you - is at the center and heart of religion. And I remember very clearly during the intensely acrimonious debate here in London about the possibility of ordaining women some years back, the then-bishop of Durham got up and said with tears in his voice that it was a scandal, that here they were uttering this vicious abuse at one another in the full glare of the media when there was a world out there torn apart, lost, longing for the compassionate message of religion to be articulated. I think that's what distresses me.

RAZ: That's religious scholar Karen Armstrong.

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