Triumphant day for the Episcopal Church establishment

When Bishop William White of Philadelphia became a bishop in 1787, he was number two in the Episcopal Church's chain of apostolic succession.

When Bishop V. Gene Robinson was consecrated in 2003 -- the first openly gay, noncelibate Episcopal bishop -- he was number 993. This fact was more than a trivia-game answer during a recent sermon that represented a triumphant moment both for Robinson and his church's liberal establishment.

Standing on White's grave before the altar of historic Christ Church, the former New Hampshire bishop quipped that he did "feel a little rumble" when he referenced the recent Episcopal votes to approve same-sex marriage rites. But Robinson was convinced White was not rolling over in his grave.

"I'd like to think that he who took the really astounding events of his day and turned them into a prophetic ministry would be joining us here today if he could," said the 68-year-old bishop, in an interfaith service marking the 50th anniversary of the July 4th Independence Hall demonstrations that opened America's gay-rights movement.

After a "week of blessings" -- the Supreme Court win for same-sex marriage, as well as the long-awaited shift by Episcopalians -- Robinson said it was now time to seek global change. It's crucial to prove there is more to this cause than "white gay men" struggling to decide "where to have brunch on Sunday," he said.

Robinson had a very personal reason to celebrate. During General Convention meetings in Salt Lake City, Episcopal bishops, clergy and lay leaders approved rites for same-sex couples seeking to be married in church. The convention also edited gender-neutral language into its marriage laws, substituting "couple" for "man and woman."

Anglicans swimming the Tiber, a one-year report

It's natural for any employee to want to know just how committed the big boss is to the company's future and, especially, to the expansion project that includes his job. So, even though Pope Benedict XVI didn't make it to America in person, Father Jason Catania still appreciated the message he sent to the former Episcopal priests and others who swam the Tiber to Rome after the pontiff's controversial "Anglicanorum Coetibus ("groups of Anglicans") pronouncement in 2009.

"We didn't just wake up one morning last year and said, 'Why don't we join the Catholic Church?' Many of us have made personal and financial sacrifices over the years to do this," said Catania, who leads Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore. This was the first American parish that voted to enter one of the new "personal ordinariates" -- the equivalent of nationwide dioceses -- that would allow Anglicans to retain key elements of their liturgy, music, art and other traditions, such as married priests.

"We were very intentional and took many steps toward Rome on this journey," he said. "Now we're starting to see the results of the Vatican's strategic step toward us."

Clergy and supporters of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter gathered at its home base in Houston last week to mark the first anniversary of this outreach effort in America. Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, the new leader of the Vatican's powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, offered his share of theological commentary on this project, but made it clear that his main message was personal.

"For most of you, this has been a journey into the unknown. ... I want you to know that the Holy Father is following with great interest the establishment and development of the ordinariate," he said, in his prepared Feb. 2 text. It is common knowledge in Rome, he added, that this is "very much the 'pope's project.' I have come to understand how true that is. You are very much in his thoughts and prayers."

So far, Benedict XVI has approved two other bodies for Anglicans and those loyal to Anglican traditions and worship -- the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in England and the new Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross in Australia. British critics greeted these efforts with a skepticism, if not scorn, symbolized by this headline in The Times: "Rome has parked its tanks on the Archbishop of Canterbury's lawn."

In addition to the Anglican doubters and all those who accused the pope of being "an ecumenical poacher," the special arrangements built into these ordinariates have caused skepticism among some Catholics, Muller admitted. However, there is no easy way to begin the work of closing a schism that has lasted for centuries. Only displays of true unity and slow, careful growth will bring healing, he said.

"Anglicans will be interested in what kind of reception you receive and how well you are able to make a home in the Catholic Church that is more than just assimilation," he said. "Catholics will want to know that you are here to stay, strengthening our ecclesial cohesion rather than setting yourselves apart as another divisive grouping within the Church. It is safe to say that all eyes are now on you and your parish communities. ...

"Your decision to 'put out into the deep' in favor of the unity of Christ's Church must be developed and extended in the promotion of a culture of communion of which you are the architects."

During the first year of its work -- while leaders wrestled with thickets of legal and liturgical questions -- the North American ordinariate ordained or accepted 30 new priests, all former Anglicans, and took in 1,600 members from 36 parish communities. It is now expanding into Canada, preparing for a second wave of incoming clergy and making plans for its own chancery facilities in Houston.

The Vatican's goal has been to "build a safe haven for orthodox people who don't mind saying that they're loyal to the Holy Father and to the church," said Catania, who attended the Houston meetings.

"Our goal was to show that we're not just a bunch of Episcopalians who wanted to get out of that church. ... We always thought of ourselves as Catholics, but now our Catholic identity is clear to everyone. We made it all the way home."

A long Anglican road to Rome

In the fall of 1979, a cluster of Episcopalians made another trip to Rome seeking a haven for Anglo-Catholic believers anxious to exit their increasingly divided church. Vatican officials agreed that it was time to petition their new leader, the young Pope John Paul II. The document was prepared and then signed on the altar of the North American Martyrs at Rome's North American College. In it, members of the Society of St. Augustine of Canterbury and other like-minded clergy made a blunt request.

"We pray and beseech your Holiness to receive and accept us into the Roman Catholic Church," they wrote, "for we are sheep not having a shepherd and would return to the care of that Holy Apostle singularly commissioned by the Divine Lord to feed his sheep."

The pope soon said "yes." But that simply opened another chapter in a long, long, story, one that continues decades later.

There is certainly more to this story than headlines about a sudden decision by Pope Benedict XVI to commence sheep stealing in the wake of his "Anglicanorum Coetibus ("groups of Anglicans") pronouncement in 2009. This document allowed Anglican priests and congregations to join new "personal ordinariates," the equivalent of national dioceses, while retaining key elements of their liturgy, music and other traditions. The plan allows for married men to become priests, but not bishops -- as in Eastern Rite Catholicism.

In England, The Times knocked this 2009 plan, saying, "Rome has parked its tanks on the Archbishop of Canterbury's lawn." Today, tensions remain high on both sides of the Atlantic after a Jan. 1 announcement that the ordinariates are set to open.

It's almost laughable to call these developments "sudden" or the result of unilateral actions by the pope, said Father Allan Hawkins of St. Mary the Virgin Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas, a priest in the Church of England before coming to America. The roots of these events even predate the Episcopal Church's 1976 vote to ordain women as priests and later to the episcopate.

"The end of the '70s was important, but this really goes back to the Oxford Movement," said the 77-year-old priest, referring to a mid-1800s surge toward Anglo-Catholicism. While the ordination of women "made headlines, it was just a symptom of what was happening deep down. ...

"So many of us had yearned all our lives to be part of a church with a clear sense of authority. That yearning is what pulled us to Catholicism."

Converts had been "trickling into Rome" for decades, he noted. Still, more Anglicans made the move under the "Pastoral Provision" announced in 1980, which stopped short of creating a separate, Anglican-friendly "personal ordinariate."

Another pivotal moment came in the early 1990s, when the Church of England voted to ordain women. At that point, it appeared a sweeping "Roman Option" might become a reality, and the late Cardinal George Hume said the time was right for the "conversion of England for which we have prayed all these years. ... It could be happening -- a realignment of English Christianity."

But some in the British hierarchy stalled, including liberal Catholic who feared waves of traditionalist converts committed to conservative approaches to liturgy and doctrine. The key Vatican official in these talks, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, finally exclaimed: "What are the English bishops afraid of?"

Ratzinger, of course, is now Pope Benedict XVI. His years of personal contact with Anglicans seeking shelter eventually led to "Anglicanorum Coetibus."

Thus, on Jan. 22, Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore will enter the U.S. ordinariate -- the first Episcopal congregation that voted to take that step. Father Jason Catania, it's priest, expects to complete his own journey sometime this coming summer.

At that point, he will do something that once seemed unthinkable. Catania will kneel at his parish altar, as a Catholic priest, and recite one of Anglicanism's most famous texts -- the Prayer of Humble Access from the 1662 edition of The Book of Common Prayer.

"That's the prayer just before Holy Communion, the one that begins, 'We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table,' " said Catania, quoting from memory.

"That's when I will know that this has really happened, that we are finally home."

Chopping that Anglican timeline

The resolution from the 1979 Episcopal General Convention in Denver inspired a small wave of headlines, even though it simply restated centuries of doctrine about marriage. "We reaffirm the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian sexual morality," it said. "Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard."

However, 21 bishops disagreed, publicly stating that gay sexual relationships were "no less a sign to the world of God's love" as traditional marriages. These bishops -- including the Rt. Rev. Edmund Browning, who was chosen as America's presiding bishop six years later -- warned that since "we are answerable before almighty God ... we cannot accept these recommendations or implement them in our dioceses."

It was the start of an ecclesiastical war that has dominated the 70-million-member Anglican Communion for decades.

Then again, this conflict may have started in the 1960s, when Bishop James Pike was censured for his "offensive" and "irresponsible" views questioning the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity and other ancient doctrines. And in 1977 a high-profile leader -- Bishop Paul Moore of New York -- created a firestorm when he ordained a priest who identified herself as a lesbian.

It's hard to understand this story without some grasp of this complicated timeline. However, news reports regularly chop off several decades, thus making it appear that these doctrinal clashes began with the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first openly gay, non-celibate Episcopal bishop.

"This whole conflict is actually about the Bible and how you interpret it," said the Rev. George Conger, a correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper. "The polite warfare has been going on for 30 or 40 years. The open warfare truly began in 1997, when the archbishops from Africa and the rest of the Global South met in Jerusalem and decided to let their voices be heard."

In addition to events in the late 1970s, other crucial dates on this timeline include:

* 1989 -- Bishop John Spong of the Diocese of Newark ordains the first homosexual priest who is openly living in a same-sex relationship.

* 1994 -- Spong drafts his Koinonia Statement affirming the ordination of gays and lesbians living in faithful, monogamous relationships -- with the support of 90 bishops. He also publishes his 12 theses for a liberal Reformation, rejecting belief in the transcendent, personal God of the Bible.

* 1996 -- An ecclesiastical court dismisses heresy charges against Bishop Walter Righter, after another controversial ordination. The court says Episcopalians have "no clear doctrine" clearly forbidding the ordination of persons who are sexually active outside of marriage.

* 1998 -- In a stunning defeat for the left, bishops at the global Lambeth Conference in Canterbury declare that sex outside of marriage, including gay sex, is "incompatible with scripture" and call for a ban on same-sex-union rites and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals.

* 2000 -- Archbishops from Rwanda and Southeast Asia consecrate two American conservatives as missionary bishops, escalating global efforts to form an alternative structure for Anglican traditionalists in North America.

Since the consecration of Robinson, the Episcopal Church has made several attempts to appease the large, overwhelmingly conservative Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and other regions overseas. Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has attempted to calm nerves, while starting the process of creating a doctrinal covenant that he hopes will provide unity on issues of faith and practice.

However, early this week the U.S. House of Bishops voted -- by a 99-45 margin -- to allow dioceses to proceed with the selection of gays and lesbians for "any ordained ministry." This effectively overturned a resolution passed at the 2006 General Convention that urged dioceses to refrain from consecrating bishops whose "manner of life" would offend other churches in the Anglican Communion.

"The key question is whether this is a national story or a global story," said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the conservative Diocese of South Carolina. "The way most people tell this story, America initiates things and then the rest of the world responds. Then America responds and you repeat this process over and over.

"You see, America is at the center of everything. It's the American church and its concerns that count the most. Meanwhile, Anglicans around the world are trying to tell a different story."

Anglican beat goes on

The career of Bishop Catherine Roskam of the Diocese of New York has been built on her skills as a cross-cultural ambassador for the modern Episcopal Church.

She led the International Concerns Committee of her denomination's executive council, helped create her diocese's Global Women's Fund and has worked as a consultant on issues of cultural sensitivity. In some circles, she is known as the bishop who dared to rap during a "Hip Hop Mass" a few years ago in the Bronx.

"My sistas and brothas, all my homies and peeps, stay up -- keep your head up, holla back and go forth and tell it like it is," proclaimed the bishop, in her benediction.

Thus, the diminutive, white-haired assistant bishop was an unlikely figure to inspire bold, angry headlines during the recent Lambeth Conference of bishops from the global Anglican Communion. This 20-day gathering had been carefully planned by the archbishop of Canterbury and his staff to focus on prayer, Bible study and small-group sessions called "Indabas" -- a Zulu term for tribal meetings -- in private settings that did not include journalists.

It was especially important not to inflame already painful disputes between Third World traditionalists and liberals in the United States, Canada, England and elsewhere.

Then, during planned discussions of domestic violence, Roskam spoke out on an unlikely topic -- bishops who beat their wives.

"We have 700 men here. Do you think any of them beat their wives? Chances are they do," argued Roskam, in The Lambeth Witness, a daily newsletter for gay-rights supporters in the 77-million-member Anglican Communion. "The most devout Christians beat their wives. ... Many of our bishops come from places where it is culturally accepted to beat your wife. In that regard, it makes conversation quite difficult."

The key, she added, is that, "Violence against women, and violence against children for that matter, is violence against the defenseless. With women, it goes hand-in-hand with misogyny."

The New York bishop's accusations rocked the conference, which was already tense due to the absence of about 280 conservative bishops -- many from Nigeria and Uganda -- who declined to attend due to the presence of U.S. leaders who backed the 2003 consecration of the openly gay and noncelibate Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Only 617 Anglican bishops pre-registered and some of those failed to attend, according to a report in The Living Church magazine. Thus, nearly a quarter of the bishops in attendance came from the small, but wealthy, U.S. Episcopal Church.

The most damaging part of Roskam's pronouncement was her tone of moral and cultural superiority, noted commentator Riazat Butt. It was easy for bishops from the Global South to read between the lines and find painful traces of colonialism.

"What bishops should be ... concerned about is her insinuation that a non-white culture leads to domestic violence and that white, western culture is too civilized and too advanced to allow such atrocities to occur," argued Butt, in The Guardian. "Roskam fails to recognize that domestic violence affects people regardless of their class, ethnicity, religion, gender or geography."

The whole episode brought back memories of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, when a rising tide of African and Asian votes helped produce a pivotal resolution -- the vote was 526 in favor, with 70 opposed and 45 abstentions -- stating that sex outside of marriage, including gay sex, is "incompatible with scripture."

The Anglican primate of Scotland said that particular resolution left him feeling "lynched" and was the result of Third World bishops trying to "Islamify Christianity, making it more severe, Protestant and legalistic." One outspoken American bishop complained that many Africans have "moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity."

Now, a decade later, a female bishop from a liberal diocese in America provided new evidence that these kinds of cultural stereotypes are hard to bury.

This kind of guilt-by-association game is not going to ease tensions in the Anglican Communion, noted Archbishop of York John Sentamu.

"I have never beaten my wife, although I can't talk about other people," Sentamu told the London Times. "There is a danger of stereotyping people because of the culture they come from and assuming they must surely be doing it. ... I hope Bishop Catherine has got figures and numbers and people. Because if not, she is in danger of causing an unnecessary rumpus."

Blasphemy in the U.K.

The last successful prosecution under Britain?s blasphemy law was in 1977, when the publisher of the Gay News was fined for printing a love poem from a Roman centurion to Jesus.

In the most recent clash the nation's high court waved off an attempt by evangelicals to attack "Jerry Springer -- The Opera."

To no one's surprise, a coalition of powerful Brits has issued yet another call to kill the blasphemy law. It's a sign of the times.

"The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities," said a statement backed by activists ranging from the creator of the BBC comedy "The Office" to the retired Archbishop of Canterbury. "Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the 'protection' of such a law. Far from protecting public order ... it actually damages social cohesion."

The conviction behind blasphemy laws is that cultures need some kind of religious order to maintain social cohesion, said Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, a key voice in Britain's ongoing debates about faith and culture.

Defenders of Britain's law would insist, he noted, that "it provides some sort of basis to the British constitution, which is, of course, the queen and parliament, under God. So if you protect the queen and protect the parliament, then you also need to protect ... the honor of God."

But the question now is whether Britain can find a common set of values or laws, said Nazir-Ali, in a dialogue with journalists from around the world.

The timing of that 2006 seminar -- organized by my Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life colleagues -- was crucial. Blasphemy was in the news because of Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. Then there would be more tension when Sudanese officials arrested a teacher for allowing her young class to name its teddy bear "Muhammad."

Nazir-Ali recently made headlines of his own when he claimed that radical forms of Islam have turned parts of England into "no-go zones" in which it is dangerous for non-Muslims to live, work and minister. The nation, he lamented, is breaking into "self-contained," segregated communities in which people live "parallel lives." The bishop and his family are living under police protection after receiving death threats.

"Converts to Christian faith also find it difficult or impossible to live in certain areas," noted Nazir-Ali, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots. "It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished."

Soon after this controversy, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams threw more fuel on the multicultural fire by saying that it "seems inevitable" that elements of Muslim Sharia law will be included in the British legal system.

In a complicated lecture, Williams said it might be possible to develop a "scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters." Sharia courts might be involved in some "aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorized structures of mediation and conflict resolution."

News reports about the archbishop's views created a firestorm. Critics stopped just short of accusing Williams of committing a secular brand of blasphemy, if that is possible in modern Britain.

As the headlines raged on, Nazir-Ali stressed that all of these conflicts point to one reality.

Sooner or later, he said, British leaders will have to decide whether to affirm or deny centuries of English law that is "rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition." The various schools of Islamic law that exist today, he stressed, bring with them their own traditions and assumptions and compromise will be next to impossible.

"The Sharia is not a generalized collection of dispositions. It is articulated in highly concrete codes," he wrote, at his diocesan website. "It would have to be one or the other, or all, of these which would have to be recognized. All of these schools would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions of divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence.

"This is not to mention the relation of freedom of belief and expression to provisions for blasphemy and apostasy."

Episcopal chair fights

True connoisseurs of ecclesiastical humor can answer this question: "How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?"

The most popular answers sound something like this: "Ten. One to change the bulb and nine to start a newsletter about the irreplaceability of the original bulb."

Episcopalians do love their traditions, a trait that they share with everyone else in the Anglican Communion. Nevertheless, the reason the world's 77 million Anglicans fight so much is that many cherish some traditions more than others or sincerely believe that, in changing times, some traditions trump others.

Consider, for example, the recent letter from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to Nigerian Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, urging him not to visit the United States to lead rites installing a bishop here to minister to those who believe the Episcopal Church has veered into heresy.

Into the Anglican wilds

All it took the other day was hearing pop star Olivia Newton-John's

recording of the "Ave Maria" for Father Paul Zahl to feel that old,

familiar tug at his heartstrings.

Then came the voices in his head asking those nagging questions that many

weary Episcopalians have pondered in recent decades: "Why keep fighting?

Why not join the Roman Catholic Church?"

Every now and then, Zahl feels another urge to "swim the Tiber." This is

somewhat problematic because he is dean of the Trinity School for

Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., a post that makes him a leader among

Evangelicals in the embattled Episcopal Church and a strategic voice in

the broadly Protestant, low-church wing of the global Anglican Communion.

"I could become a Roman Catholic in a heartbeat," said Zahl. "But the

minute I say that, I stop and think about it and I know all the reasons

that I am an Evangelical and why my spiritual home is in Anglicanism. ...

But that doesn't mean that I don't understand why so many people --

people I love and respect -- have fled to Rome and why many more will

follow them."

Many Episcopalians, stressed Zahl, are seeking what he called a "truly

objective form of church life" that provides authoritative answers to the

moral and doctrinal questions that have -- for at least a quarter century

-- caused bitter conflict and declining statistics in the American branch

of Anglicanism. Their complaints run much deeper than mere discontent

over the 2003 consecration of a noncelibate homosexual as the Episcopal

bishop in New Hampshire.

But if they want that kind of church structure they are going to have to

join that kind of church, he said. The Anglican approach, built on a

unique blend of compromises between Protestantism and Catholicism, will

never be enough.

"Anglicanism can only give you an ersatz form of that kind of church,"

said Zahl, a Harvard man whose graduate work took him to England and

Germany. "If you want the kind of authority that comes with Roman

Catholicism then you should run, not walk, to enter the Church of Rome. ...

That's where you have to go to find it. You either become a Catholic or

you simply stop asking the big questions about ecclesiastical structure.

You move on."

This will be a painful step for some Episcopalians to take, in an age

when newspapers are full of reports about legal and theological cracks in

the foundations of the mother Church of England and its bickering

relatives around the world.

The big news on this side of the Atlantic Ocean is that eight

congregations in Northern Virginia -- including two of America's most

historic parishes -- have voted to leave the Episcopal Church to join a

new missionary effort tied to the conservative, rapidly growing Anglican

Church of Nigeria.

Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams faces a revolt in his

own backyard, with Evangelical leaders saying they will revolt if he does

not allow them to answer to conservative bishops, rather than to

liberals. And then there was that Sunday Times report claiming that Pope

Benedict XVI has asked officials in his Congregation for the Doctrine of

the Faith to research ways to reach out to disaffected Anglicans.

The temptation, according to Zahl, is for Episcopalians caught in these

conflicts to assume there is "some church body out there, some

supervising entity or person, which, when we find it, will be seen

definitely to be 'The One.' The question of 'Whither?' is based on the

idea that there is, at this point in time, a verifiable protecting safe


Instead, those committed to Anglicanism must embrace another image of the

Christian life found in scripture, argued Zahl, in a missive to

supporters of his seminary. While it will be hard, they should see

themselves as the "wandering people of God" who must spend a long time in

the wilderness as they "seek the city which is to come."

It will be hard to find clarity and unity during the years ahead, he said.

"I hold out exactly no hope of a safe haven in the Church of England,"

said Zahl. "If you have any hope of finding safe answers for the big

questions of church identity within Anglicanism, then you are going to

need to be patient because that is not going to happen anytime soon."

Anglicans meet Rome's Big Ben

Father Peter Toon is a strict traditionalist in all things liturgical, which is fitting since he leads the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer.

Thus, the Anglican priest has little sympathy for those who want to wiggle out of translating the Latin word "Credo" -- the root for "creed" -- as "we believe" instead of the more personal and definitive "I believe."

"Of course 'Credo' means 'I believe.' ... And it's the same thing in the Greek Orthodox liturgy, because 'Pisteuo' can only mean 'I believe,' " he said.

These liturgical wars have been going on for decades and the combatants are always seeking allies at other altars. This is how Toon began corresponding with the leader of the Vatican's influential Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany -- now Pope Benedict XVI.

The cardinal agreed that it wasn't heresy to translate "Credo" as "we believe." But Ratzinger also said that this error would eventually need to be corrected in the Roman Missal, said Toon. They had a friendly series of exchanges.

Now that Ratzinger is pope, contacts of this sort have gained symbolic weight. Toon and others in the balkanized Anglican Communion have good reason to wonder if this articulate, outspoken Catholic intellectual may soon play a role in their tense debates about sex, worship and doctrine.

Progressive Episcopalians certainly remember a stunning letter that Ratzinger sent soon after the 2003 election of the openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Writing to a Texas conference held by the conservative American Anglican Council, he wrote: "The significance of your meeting is sensed far beyond Plano, and even in this City from which Saint Augustine of Canterbury was sent to confirm and strengthen the preaching of Christ's Gospel in England. ... In the Church of Christ there is a unity in truth and a communion of grace which transcend the borders of any nation."

The address on the envelope was even more symbolic than the text, with its familiar John Paul emphasis on truth as a source of unity, not division. What mattered most was that Ratzinger sent the letter directly to the Episcopal traditionalists, bypassing the office of U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in New York City.

Symbolic gestures of this kind are taken seriously in marble sanctuaries. If there is anything that Anglican prelates understand it is the subtle politics of protocol.

Thus, it was significant that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams attended the inaugural mass for Benedict XVI, becoming only the second occupant of the throne in Canterbury to witness such a rite since the Reformation. Afterwards, the former Oxford don greeted the pope in German and presented him with a pectoral cross.

Ah, yes, but journalists and photographers paid close attention to the precise details of this rite of reception.

"Symbolism is everything," opined David Virtue, a conservative Anglican whose Internet reports circle the globe. "When the new pope met with the patriarchs from the Orthodox churches there were public embraces and kisses, but when Benedict XVI met Williams there was only a handshake. ... Williams edged forward perhaps hoping for a papal embrace but it was not forthcoming."

Then the London Times reported that, behind the scenes, Vatican authorities had been corresponding with the Traditional Anglican Communion inside the Church of England, discussing the possible formation of an Anglican-rite body in communion with Rome. This network claims the loyalty of more than 400,000 Anglicans around the world and perhaps 500 parishes.

Who was the key Vatican official behind these talks? According to Archbishop John Hepworth of Australia, it was Cardinal Ratzinger.

It is easy to make too much of these contacts, said Toon. After all, Benedict XVI supports traditional Anglicans in the Third World and elsewhere on many issues, but he disagrees with some of their compromises -- such as a softened stance against divorce.

"The new pope will continue to be a gracious friend," said Toon. "But I think he will be much too busy -- for some time -- handling events in his own church to have more than a few words to say about all of these little Anglican groups and their affairs."