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Catholics Welcome Anglican Converts. Will They Be Wanting Those Monasteries Back?

October 21, 2009

Bermondsey Abbey {{Wikimedia PD-Art}}

It may strike some as a pretty churlish invitation (“We’re exclusionary, too — join us!”), but the Vatican has extended open arms and flexible conversion terms to Anglicans repelled by their church’s tolerance of female and gay bishops. A joint statement from the Archbishops of Canterbury (Anglican) and Westminster (Catholic) said Rome will permit prelates and laity alike “to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.”

As many as 1,000 English priests and many parishes might take up the offer, predicts the Times of London, while the Christian Science Monitorcalling it the Vatican’s “boldest move since the Reformation” — speculates that hundreds of thousands of the 77 million Anglicans worldwide could convert. (In the U.S., where Anglicans are served by the Episcopal church, conservatives have already addressed their dissatisfaction by aligning with African branches that call homosexual practice Satanic.)

Henry VIII of England after confiscating all of England's monasteries, painted in 1542, by Holbein the Younger {{Wikimedia PD-Art}}

Once you address the tricky question of priestly celibacy (married priests could retain their pulpits but would be limited in promotions), the next thorny matter seems to be the disposition of defecting congregations’ properties. Under a legal ruling from 2005, according to a BBC news Q&A, “nobody” (and essentially everyone) is deemed to “own” Anglican properties in England. As a consequence, “Ecclesiastical lawyers may be looking forward to a busy few years,” the site adds.

If churches changed over, it wouldn’t be the first time sacred real estate changed hands on account of supposedly doctrinal matters. The Catholics’ invitation “comes nearly 500 years after Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce led him to break with Rome and proclaim himself as the head of the newly formed Church of England in 1534,” the Monitor‘s Nick Squires notes. Of course, in that instance, the transfer went the other way.

Henry VIII actually did offer a nod to property rights scruples when, in 1536, 27 years into his reign, he began the notorious “dissolution” of the 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries dotted across England and Wales. The king dressed the eradication as a reform measure, and — in the early closings, anyway — offered monks and nuns full pensions and voluntary transfers to other religious houses.

“Manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living is daily used and committed amongst the little and small abbeys,” Henry’s appointed inspectors charged. Parliament was duly persuaded to allow him to close and confiscate any religious house with income below £200 a year. (That the heads of larger, wealthier monasteries voted in Parliament could not have been lost on him.)

Henry took possession of the houses’ precious metals, artwork, altar furnishings and other valuables and distributed their manors as patronage. He soon dispensed with even the modest emoluments he’d provided victims of the early closings and began targeting larger institutions. The few attempts at resistance were harshly suppressed.

By 1540, almost every monastery was gone. “Only the abbey of Dorchester, and Westminster Abbey, survived the general destruction and decay,” writes Peter Ackroyd in Thames, the Biography. “The rest were looted and rifled. The refectory at Abingdon became a malt-house, while the refectory at Hurley became a stable.”

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