THIRTY-TWO NEW PRIESTS WERE ordained to the Church of England last weekend, and all 1,100 tickets to the ceremony at Bristol Cathedral were sold out months in advance, The reason: the new priests were women, the first to be ordained in the church's 460-year history. For most Anglicans, the ceremony was a festive conclusion to a long and difficult struggle for gender equality in the church. For many others, however, it sealed their decision to abandon England's established church and embrace Roman Catholicism.
Not since the early decades of this century, when such literary notables as G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Dame Edith Sitwell converted. has there been such a British exodus to the Roman fold. In recent months dozens of high-profile Brits, such as Environment Secretary John Gummer, Employment Minister Ann Widdecombe and Graham Leonard, the former Anglican bishop of London-plus the Duchess of Kent, a distant member of the royal family-have converted. At least 150 Anglican priests and several thousand lay men and women have also announced plans to switch allegiance from Canterbury to Rome.
Last week's ordination followed by 15 years a decision of the Episcopal Church in the United States to accept women as priests. Although most Episcopal parishes now accept women in the pulpit, that decision, too, prompted small groups of traditionalist priests and laity to join the Roman Church. But for many of the British defectors, the ordination of women is merely the latest evidence that Anglicanism no longer respects doctrinal integrity. "The Church of England is trying to please too many people and it ends up pleasing no one," says Denise McNeill, a warden at St. John's Church in West London, who is converting along with her four children, the two priests of her parish and a third of the congregation.
The Church of England has always taken pride in its "comprehensiveness"-a British tolerance for theological diversity dating to Queen Elizabeth I, who combined element of Catholicism and Protestant ism to form a "bridge" between the two traditions. But in recent years that tolerance has stretched to include one bishop who questions the heterosexuality of Jesus and another who last Christmas expressed doubts about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. This heterodox drift demands more tolerance than many high-church Anglicans can bear. "With the Catholic Church, you know what you stand for," says Elizabeth Mills, a former member of the Church of England's General Synod who is studying to become a Roman Catholic. "In the Church of England, if you question things prodigiously enough, with a show of hands you can change the rules."
The current migration of souls is causing disruptions in both churches. Rome's celibate male hierarchy will have to accommodate hundreds of married Anglican priests plus their wives and children. High-church Anglicans who become Roman Catholics may discover that they traded down rather than up. The typical Roman mass and music are banal compared with the stately high-church Anglican liturgies. And as for theological diversity, converts "may find they've joined an organization considerably more varied than the one they left behind," warns Catholic theologian Nicholas Lash of Cambridge University.
Meanwhile, the Church of England expects to ordain an additional 1,150 women, and its bishops are wondering how they'll be supported. The church has lost $1.2 billion through bad real-estate investments and must count on parishes to supplement already meager clerical stipends. But the average Anglican parish has only 60 active members, and in London's historic financial district alone there's a move to close 36 churches. Mostly, they're empty. Although England has 24 million baptized Anglicans (out of a total population of 48 million), a 1992 survey showed that only 1.8 million regularly worship on Sundays. By comparison, of the nation's 5 million Roman Catholics, nearly half attend Sunday mass. Given these realities, some Britons are calling loudly for the disestablishment of the Church of England, which Henry VIII created in 1534. But, says Steve Jenkins, a spokesman for the Church of England, "People of faith think it's important to have a link between church and state." To break that link, he believes, "would mean that the country doesn't care about religion." Care or not, the country is voting with its knees.