This week during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Anglicans were not only invited to conduct Choral Evensong in St Peter’s Basilica, but the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrated a communion service in a Catholic Church in Rome.

While these gestures are diplomatic, they don’t mean much more than window dressing for what is now a collapsed, stale and disenchanted dream.

I went to England to train as an Anglican priest in 1979 and the ecumenical temperature was quite fervent. Both the Anglicans and the Catholics had been revising their liturgies and the result was an exciting level of convergence. This is because in the post-war years Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic scholars had discovered some previously unknown liturgical documents from the early church and all the buzz was “If we all returned to the sources of our shared faith from before the Reformation and the Great Schism we will begin a process of genuine church unity.”

It sounded wonderful in theory, but the fly in the ointment was that the Spirit of Vatican 2 (and the modernistic trends in Lutheranism and Anglicanism) was not toward tradition, but toward accommodation with the modern age. Consequently the lust for “relevance” and being up to date prevailed over any allegiance to tradition.

In the decades since then the Anglican and Lutheran churches, step by step continued to accommodate themselves to the spirit of the age–being ruled by the zeitgeist instead of the Holy Ghost. First women deacons, then women priests, then women bishops, then gay priests, then gay blessings, then gay marriage, then gay marriage in church.

The embrace of these cultural enemies of traditional Christianity drove nail after nail into the ecumenical movement’s coffin so that now any talk of Christian unity is either mere diplomatic blather or downright polite dishonesty on the part of both parties.

However, there was one amazing ecumenical achievement that  both the Anglican and Catholic bishops hate: the foundation of the Anglican Ordinariates by way of Pope Benedict XVIs Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus

The Anglican Ordinariates provide the way for Anglicans to come into full communion with the Catholic Church while retaining precious elements of their patrimony: the richness of seventeenth century English, ritualism, splendid choral tradition, classic hymns along with an appreciation of fine architecture, church furnishings and vestments and most of all a tradition of worship that emphasizes the transcendent–the beautiful, good and true. To learn more about the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter (the American Ordinariate) go here.

The Ordinariates are probably the only real, concrete and active accomplishment of the ecumenical movement over the last sixty years. Yes, yes, there have been ongoing theological discussions, but I can tell you from experience how they happened and what has become of them. While I was an Anglican priest everybody would be breathless with excitement as Anglican theologians trooped off to Rome for another round of ecumenical discussions. Then they would come back waving a document (like Chamberlain returning from his talks with the Germans) declaring “Peace in Our Time!”

The document would be called something like “Sharing in Christ – a joint statement on Baptism Eucharist and Ministry”. The document would be a delightfully sounding selection of ambiguous terms which could be taken in either a Protestant or Catholic interpretation, and the theologians (all of whom were chosen because they were either from the Liberal or the Anglo-Catholic wings of the Anglican Church) would express their delight in having made great progress. Then when the document went to the Church of England General Synod to be approved it would be thrown out by the Evangelical, Low Church “no popery” Anglicans.

So it is fair to say that the only real progress–real, substantial progress towards visible unity has been the Anglican Ordinariates. The exciting thing about this progress is not so much towards reunion with the Church of England or the Episcopal Church of the USA. Those two bodies along with the rest of the mainstream Anglican Communion are pretty much lost causes. Their adoption of the spirit of the age is just about complete–and with the ultimate acceptance of same sex marriages in church it is not a stretch to predict that the “ecumenical discussions” in the future will be for Catholic theologians to acknowledge that the discussions have shifted from ecumenical to inter-faith discussions.

No. The really optimistic thing about the creation of the ordinariates is not the possibility of reunion with mainstream Anglicans, but with the reception into the Catholic Church of large numbers of Evangelical Protestants. Anecdotal experience from where I am in the Bible Belt is that that younger generation of Evangelicals (like younger Catholics) are turning away from the rock n roll, smoke and mirrors mega church experience and looking for stability, tradition and liturgy.

They know they cannot take their Bible churches in that direction and the mainstream Protestant churches (like the United Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans) are so sold out to the spirit of the age that they look to Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

They are too conditioned against Catholicism to find the mainstream Catholic Church attractive, (and TBH when they visit many American suburban Catholic Churches they find them indistinguishable from their mainstream Protestant neighbors) so they are looking for a church that seems “safely” within the Protestant tradition but with liturgy, classic hymns, solid preaching and  firm traditional values. So they find their way to one of the “continuing” Anglican churches–churches that have broken from the Episcopal Church and maintained traditional teaching, values and worship.

Finding that they are still in a do it yourself Protestant church (albeit with liturgy and trad values) they still feel drawn to the historic Catholic Church. Now, however, it is only  a short hop to the Anglican Ordinariate and full communion with the Catholic Church. This ecumenical achievement of Pope Benedict is therefore far more important than simply building a bridge to a few disenchanted conservative Anglicans–the Anglican tradition (as it was for me and many others) will prove to be a bridge for many Protestants who would find the swim across the Tiber too daunting.

Despite this positive move, my friends in the Ordinariate in England tell me how they are marginalized by the English Catholic bishops. I know what that’s like. The English ruling class are world experts in ignoring what they don’t like and just hoping if they ignore the problem long enough it will just go away…

If the Catholic bishops in USA and UK are serious about church unity they will wake up to this true potential of the Anglican Ordinariates and empower them to carry out this work with apostolic zeal and a missionary spirit.

The Anglican Ordinariate is an amazing ecumenical achievement. The Catholic bishops should get over their reluctance about the Ordinariates and see them for the real accomplishment  and opportunity they are.

As for the Anglican bishops…well, who am I to judge?