Gerald Warner: Vatican's first strike has left Anglicans dazed and confused

ThTHIS was the Church of England's Pearl Harbour. A bruised and dazed Archbishop Rowan Williams was pulled from the rubble of Henry VIII's bombed-out edifice to take part in a joint Anglican-Catholic news conference last Tuesday, announcing Pope Benedict XVI's imminent Apostolic Constitution offering special provisions for Anglican converts to Rome.

Seated beside his captor, Archbishop Nichols of Westminster, Williams looked like a downed spy-plane pilot being paraded before the world press in Cold War Moscow. If you are wondering why the Archbishop of Canterbury should be taking part in the promotion of an offer designed to tempt members of his flock to defect, that is simply a reflection of the confusion generated by "ecumenical dialogue".

For face-saving reasons, Williams tried desperately to pretend that this Vatican initiative was the outcome of mutual consultation, when the reality was that he had wakened up that morning to find Ratzinger's tanks on his lawn. Only the previous day had Cardinal Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), arrived at Lambeth Palace to brief Williams on the fait accompli. Williams admitted as much in a letter to the bishops of the Anglican communion in which he wrote: "I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this; I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage…"

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At the Roman end, the buzz is that Cardinal Kasper, the official ecumenical pass-seller, had been kept in ignorance almost as long. The notoriously liberal Catholic bishops of England and Wales are similarly believed to have had a minimalist profile in this exercise. The leading role was played by the CDF, under the supervision of the Pope. This was Blitzkrieg. Word on the street is B16 is kicking butt.

The text of the Apostolic Constitution will not be published for almost two weeks, but it proposes a canonical structure for receiving groups of Anglicans into the Catholic Church while allowing them the local jurisdiction of a "Personal Ordinariate", under which they would be permitted to preserve "elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony". The presiding "Ordinaries" would usually be former Anglican clergy.

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Married Anglican clergy could be ordained as Catholic priests, which has happened with some converts, but not married laymen, so no challenge is posed to the discipline of clerical celibacy. This is not a leap in the dark: a similar arrangement has been piloted among Episcopalian converts in America, where it has worked well. As the constitution will embrace the entire Anglican communion, it is also applicable to the Scottish Episcopal Church.

After 40 years of phoney ecumenical dialogue, Benedict XVI has finally cut the Gordian knot. Since 1970, the ecumenical circus has been run by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), with spectacular lack of success. In this dialogue of the deaf, "liberals" from both sides indulged in dishonest wordplay, with Catholic appeasers trying to disown more and more of their faith, while Anglicanism ran ever faster in the opposite direction.

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While press releases spouted ecumaniac drivel, the Anglicans voted to ordain priestesses in 1992. In 2003 John Paul II suspended talks, following the consecration of the homosexual American bishop Gene Robinson. The Church of England is now moving inexorably to the consecration of women "bishops". Only a clutch of flared-trousered 1960s relics still dance arthritically to the ecumenical tune. Now Rowan Williams and Walter Kasper have been left to dance around their handbags.

What else did they expect? Was Rome supposed to hang on until the consecration of the first openly alien-abductee Anglican bishop? The Church of England is a nasty car crash. Benedict XVI is inviting believers to crawl out of the wreckage and come home to Rome. His ecumenical priority is to do what should have been done decades ago and start serious discussions with the orthodox, instead of the time-wasters in a clapped-out remnant of the Tudor civil service. Too much time has been lost in the ARCIC wastes.

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Tomorrow, the first round of talks opens between the Vatican and the Society of St Pius X. Having made provision for Anglicans, the Pope can now offer the SSPX a Prelature status, on the model of Opus Dei. Recognising that many Church institutions are unfit for purpose or manned by liberal obstructers, it is becoming evident that the Pope is increasingly bypassing them and pursuing his objectives with the help of trusted aides. This is a potentially forceful form of governance – as his first-strike nuclear offensive against the Church of England last week demonstrated.