On Ascension Thursday a few weeks ago I had the chance to attend an Anglican service at Westminster Abbey in London. I’d never been before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton held at the Abbey only about a month earlier didn’t exactly resemble a Catholic wedding but the service I attended reminded me a lot of a Catholic Mass. The structure was similar, and the readings and some prayers, including the Eucharistic prayer, were pretty much the same as those of the Catholic Church.
It was similar enough to make me wonder how the two churches differ. It’s an even more compelling question since eight former Anglicans were ordained Catholic priests on Pentecost Sunday, bringing to 35 the total number of priests in the personal ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, England.
According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “a Personal Ordinariate is a canonical structure that provides for corporate reunion in such a way that allows former Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of their distinctive Anglican patrimony.”
Without going into how the Anglican Communion came to be and why some of its members are now entering communion with the Catholic Church (there are a lot better sources), I’ve tried to identify some significant distinctions between the Anglican and Catholic faiths.
The Anglican Communion, an international organization of national and regional Anglican churches, which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States, has branches in 164 countries and roughly 75 million members worldwide. It has traditionally considered itself the Via Media, the middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Anglican Communion’s spiritual leader but he doesn’t direct the other bishops; leaders of the mostly autonomous dioceses consider him the “first among equals.”
The biggest difference I noticed at the service I attended was that a female priest prayed the Eucharistic prayer. The ordination of women and openly homosexual individuals as priests and bishops in the Anglican Communion, or at least in some of its member communities, distinguishes it from the Catholic Church. This is among the reasons the Catholic Church does not consider the Anglican Communion’s clergy to have apostolic succession.
Because the Anglican Communion has less dogma than the Catholic Church, Anglicans have more leeway to think what they want about the faith. Anglicans believe the body in its diversity unites in worship, bound by its Book of Common Prayer, which is based mostly on scripture.
Anglicans acknowledge baptism and communion as sacraments instituted by Christ but the other five sacraments that Catholics administer are considered minor sacraments.
While as a whole Anglicans consider the Eucharist more than symbolic, many feel that it remains bread and wine unless recipients accept it as the Body and Blood of Christ. By this standard, nonbelievers who receive communion merely have bread and wine.
Knowing that as a Catholic I shouldn’t receive communion at this service, I instead asked for a blessing from a young Anglican priest. I hope someday we’ll all be united in the Eucharist, which both faiths consider a major sacrament—and in the other areas that now divide us.