With year's end fast approaching, columnists and pundits will hold forth on what was the most significant news story of 2009. The story I nominate is unlikely to bulk large in their consideration, unlikely even to be mentioned, but I suggest that the most important story was Pope Benedict XVI's overture to disaffected Anglicans.
The story really begins a couple of years earlier, when a group of breakaway Anglicans (most had left the church after 1977 over Anglican ordination of female priests) who call themselves the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) petitioned Rome en masse through their primate, Archbishop John Hepworth.
The TAC, whose size is estimated at 300,000 to 500,000 souls worldwide, asked for full communion with Rome without preconditions or demands, while expressing the hope that it might be possible to retain traditional Anglican liturgy and hymnody. Their petition was cordially received at the Vatican, but for many months, there was only silence.
Then, on Oct. 20, the response of Pope Benedict XVI was a decisive, magnanimous "Yes." The subsequently published Apostolic Constitution (Anglicanorum Coetibus) confirmed that TAC members will be permitted to join collectively and will be allowed to retain the liturgies and traditions "that are precious to them and consistent with the Catholic faith." Small wonder that Archbishop Hepworth called the Pope's offer "generous at every turn … very pastoral" and "a beautiful document."
TAC bishops and congregations will consider and vote on the Vatican's offer in a series of national and regional synods to be held early next year.
This means, in practice, that a place will be made within Catholic liturgy for Thomas Cranmer's 1662 Book of Common Prayer - considered by many to rival William Shakespeare's plays as the apotheosis of the English language. Also to be welcomed is the rich treasure of Anglican hymnody. All of this is (to paraphrase Hamlet) "a consummation devoutly to be wished," and it was greeted as such by many thoughtful Catholics and Anglicans of my acquaintance.
The immediate benefits are obvious: First, the Catholic Church will be strengthened by an influx (no one can yet say exactly how many) of committed, orthodox Christians. The priests who arrive with them will be men following Christ's instruction to leave everything behind - job security, income, pensions and, in some cases, families - to follow Him. These priests may help to alleviate, to some extent at least, what is in danger of becoming a chronic shortage of Catholic vocations.
Until 2006, I was an Anglican. By the time I left, I had grown sick of hearing colleagues whimper about the growing apostasy within Anglicanism but doing nothing about it. Well, now they can do something. Pope Benedict XVI has called their bluff. The destination was always there; now, there is a bridge to cross over. No one need jump; no one need swim. It will be fascinating to see who crosses and who stays put; those who stay put should be heard from no more.
Yet I also have reservations.
First, I worry that the liberal element within Catholicism, particularly in North America, will do all it can (which could be considerable) to frustrate this welcome initiative. There are some Catholics who would rather move the church in the direction of Anglicanism, even Anglicanism in its death throes, than to see orthodoxy strengthened.
Second, it is unclear how Rome will reconcile its traditional teaching (e.g. on the invalidity of Anglican orders) with this new initiative.
Finally, it is unclear whether this rapprochement with Anglicanism is only the first step of an initiative to all orthodox Protestants; in other words, is Pope Benedict XVI signalling that the ecumenism of the 21st century is not more pointless dialogue with the decaying husks of old-line Protestantism, but rather a new beginning with any ecclesial community willing to engage with Rome on historic Christendom?
I hope this is so. If it is, then the Pope's Oct. 20 announcement will be remembered as the day when the Berlin Wall of religious separation began to crumble; the wall erected five centuries ago - on Oct. 31, 1517 - when Martin Luther affixed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. If we have lived to see that breach healed, to witness the Christian church finally taking seriously Jesus's prayer that "they may be one, as I and the Father am one," then this is the most important story of 2009.
Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.