For years, small numbers of Anglicans have been quietly trickling back into Catholicism. But the Vatican's new policy, announced Tuesday, opens the flood gates to allow scores of new cross-overs. The new arrangements would allow not just individuals, but entire groups -parishes with their own priests, to enter into the Catholic Church. The Vatican's position addresses the increasing number of Anglicans, dissatisfied with their own church's liberal shift (ordaining women/gay clergy and blessing homosexual partnerships), seeking to return to Catholicism.
According to CNN, "...'hundreds' of Anglicans around the world have expressed their desire to join the Catholic Church. Among them are 50 Anglican bishops..."
On the surface, this may seem joyous news: 450 years after the Catholic/Anglican rift, a bridge forms across the chasm! Yet beneath the hype, the story carries an ominous message. The bridge is formed out of necessity, as disillusioned conservatives drift back into Catholicism, leaving behind more liberal Christians which may evolve or drift away from Christianity. In the developed world, Christianity is consolidating. It's contracting, not expanding.
European and US modern societies depict religions as irrelevant vestiges of our past. The faithful are leaving. Churches face a choice: either evolve with society to remain relevant, or double down on beliefs, knowing many may leave, but the remaining core, unwavering, will make it more likely that beliefs be handed down to the next generation. American Episcopalians have chosen the former, while the Catholic Church maintains the latter.
Which direction best guarantees the survival of Christianity? A lesson can be drawn from the current crisis in American Jewry. Depending on how strictly they observe Jewish laws/customs, Jews traditionally divide into three branches: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Being a minority in a Christian nation, American Jews are facing an increasing identity crisis. Many are marrying non-Jews, and having children that do not identify themselves as Jews. But this is primarily a problem for Reform/Conservative Jews. Orthodox by and large do not marry out. They preserve their beliefs and pass them on to their children. Orthodox also are far more likely to have multiple children, versus one or two for Reform/Conservatives (below the level of replacement). The predicted result is that within three generations, non-Orthodox Jews' offspring will be few, and most will not identify themselves as Jews, while the Orthodox will produce a large bounty of believing (Orthodox) Jews. 50 years from now, Judaism in America will be greatly diminished, and far more Orthodox than it is today.
Could a similar pattern arise in Christianity? Most Americans still consider themselves Christian, so this is unlikely to occur here -yet. But consider Europe. How many truly see themselves as Christian versus atheist/post-modern what nots? Those who practice a "light" form of Christianity could soon see their children marrying out with other religions or perhaps simply no religion at all. Only the more conservative European Christians will continue to pass on the faith to their kids. The fate of Christians in the developed world could parallel that of American Jews: Those who remain will be conservatives, while the rest may eventually disappear.
In this context, the Anglican defections foreshadow a possible Anglican rift, where those who chose to remain liberal Christians could eventually disappear, while the conservatives migrate into Catholicism, or another conservative Christian branch. Our current gain could eventually imply Christianity's loss.