Once in a while comes an historical event so momentous, so packed with unexpected force, that it acts like a large wave under still water, propelling us momentarily up from the surface of our times onto a crest, where the wider movements of history may be glimpsed better than before.
Such an event was Benedict XVI’s landmark announcement in October 2009 offering members of the Anglican Communion a fast track into the Catholic Church. Although commentators quickly dubbed this unexpected overture a “gambit,” what it truly exhibits are the characteristics of a move known in chess as a “brilliancy,” an unforeseen bold stroke that stunningly transforms the game. In the short run, knowledgeable people agree, this brilliancy of Benedict’s may not seem to amount to much. Some 1000 Church of England priests may convert and some 300 parishes turn over to Rome””figures that, while significant when measured against the dwindling numbers of practicing Anglicans there, are nonetheless mere drops in the Vatican’s bucket.
But in the longer run””say, over the coming decades””Rome’s move looks consequential in another way. It is the latest and most dramatic example of how orthodoxy, rather than dissent, seems once again to have taken the driver’s seat of Christianity. Every traditionalist who joins the long and already illustrious history of reconversion to the Catholic Church just tips the religious balance more toward Rome. This further weakens a religious communion battered from within by decades of intra-Anglican culture wars. Meanwhile, the progressives left behind may well find the exodus of their adversaries a Pyrrhic victory. How will they possibly make peace with the real majority of Anglicans today””the churches in Africa, whose leaders have repeatedly denounced the Communion’s abandonment of traditional teachings? Questions like these are why a few commentators now speak seriously about something that only recently seemed unthinkable: whether the end of the Anglican Communion itself might now be in sight.