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William Oddie FAITH Magazine September-October 2008s

Attitudes to Converting England


Well, the C of E has done what everyone knew it would do sooner or later; it has decided to proceed at some point to the ordination of women-bishops). Of course it was always theologically absurd that a separate legal procedure had to be gone through: if the women who have been ordained actually are priests, it necessarily follows that they may be ordained bishop. The fact is, however, that the original Synodical legislation to authorise women-priests would not have been ratifed by Parliament unless it had also interdicted women-bishops: such are the absurdities which attend an established Church.

This time, the Synod has made no provision for a fudge which would satisfy the Anglo-Catholics, who last time were given “fying bishops” – a provision enabling them to erect a church within a church. This was never more than a holding operation. As I wrote in a book on this entire problem, published in 1997 and entitled The Roman Option, “I do not believe that the ecclesial entity that Forward in Faith has created is intended, even by them, as a permanent structure: it is a provisional solution, a desert encampment.” And all this was made necessary principally by the utter pastoral failure of our bishops to respond to the situation that confronted them. Most of the Anglo-Catholic clergy who stayed in their ghetto did so because of their refusal to leave their people behind: asone Anglican priest who had attempted to take his Parish to Rome and had been repulsed by his local Catholic bishop put it to me, the essential was that “Rome has got to have a more creative view of the corporate nature of our present existence”.

So it is important, if the Catholic Church is to get it right this time, that we should understand clearly why so many Anglicans stayed inside the C of E when women were ordained in the frst place. It is because their clergy really had been given an apparently well-founded hope that they would be able to “cross the Tiber” with their people (possibly under provisions made by Pope John Paul for the reception of whole Anglican parishes in America): and because of the sense of massive betrayal they felt when some of our bishops confronted Cardinal Hume, who had originally been inclined to respond positively, and forced him to back down. I described the negotiations towards this hoped for solution, involving a number of representative Anglo-Catholics and a group of English Catholic bishops, inmy book. My account was based on conversations with most of the Anglicans involved and – more to the point – on the minutes of the meetings, which had been leaked to me by more than one participant. These conversations took place in the aftermath of an interview by Cardinal Hume in, of all places, The Tablet, in which he said of these conversations that:

“ This could be a big moment of grace, it could be the conversion of England for which we have prayed all these years. I am terrifed now that we are going to turn round and say we do not want these newcomers. We have prayed for Christian unity and now it could be happening.…”

Cardinal Hume, indeed, went some way towards responding to Anglo-Catholic hopes by establishing two convert Parishes in his own archdiocese. These were, in fact, a considerable pastoral success. Not only were they an “accessible door” into the Catholic Church for ex-Anglicans: they were also a way back into the Church for quite a few lapsed Catholics. I described these parishes at some length in The Roman Option.

When my book was published, Cardinal Hume was furious, since it inevitably highlighted his volte-face in the face of pressure from some of his more liberal bishops: this made him look weak. The book was published on a Tuesday. On Thursday it was, apparently, offcially condemned by the Catholic
Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. And on the Saturday, both the parishes I had approvingly described in the book (then still happily in existence) were abruptly closed down. No Catholic bishop apart from Cardinal Hume had, of course, read the book: I was later told by the author of the statement condemning it that when asked how it should be presented, Cardinal Hume had replied simply “issue it in the name of the Bishops’ Conference”.

It was, after all this, inevitable that when, recently, conversations took place over the possible Catholic response to the legalisation of women-bishops in the Church of England, they would be in Rome and not in Westminster. The Anglo-Catholics will never trust our bishops again: and their mistrust is well-founded in bitter experience.

The latest episode in this long and continuing story was frst fully broken shortly after the Synod’s decision in July by The Catholic Herald, who had a long news piece, an article by “fying bishop” Andrew Burnham (who had just returned from discussions in Rome), and an opinion piece by Damian Thompson containing “well-informed” speculation as to the shape of any agreement over some form of corporate solution to the Anglo-Catholics’ problem.

“Traditional Anglo-Catholics”, wrote Bishop Burnham, “must now decide whether to stay in the Church of England in what, for a while, will be a protected colony – where the sacramental ministry of women bishops and priests is neither acknowledged nor received – or to leave.”

He then went on to anticipate the main possible Roman Catholic objection to any substantial exodus on this issue; it had fgured largely in the hostile reactions voiced last time. “You don’t”, continued Bishop Burnham, “become a Catholic, for instance, because of what is wrong with another denomination or faith. You become a Catholic because you accept that the Catholic Church is what she says she is and the Catholic faith is what it says it is. In short, some Anglo-Catholics will stay and others will go.”

“ …As for those who choose to go, like in the early 1990s these will include some of the fnest Anglican clergy. Most of them are not motivated in the least by gender issues but by a keenness to pursue Catholic unity and truth. For them, the decision of the Church of England to proceed to the ordination of women bishops without providing adequately for traditionalists renders the claims of the Church of England to be part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church shaky or simply untenable. … The synodical process for traditional Anglo-Catholics is over. Some will try to draw new lines in the sand. But what the General Synod of the Church of England [has] demonstrated… is that… it has decided that it is unilaterally competent to alter Holy Order. …What we must humbly askfor now is for magnanimous gestures from our Catholic friends, especially from the Holy Father, who well understands our longing for unity, and from the hierarchy of England and Wales. Most of all we ask for ways that allow us to bring our folk with us. Meanwhile we retreat into the wilderness and watch and pray.” (My italics).

To this, some will respond that the General Synod “demonstrated” all that in the early 90s. And even at that point, the die was surely already cast: those Anglo-Catholics who fought tooth and nail to prevent the 1991 vote in the Synod – and who then “crossed the Tiber” – had, if we are being rigorist about this, already sold the pass since they had, by getting involved in the Synodical game, accepted the fundamental principle that the C of E had the authority to make the decision in the frst place. They would (many if not most) have stayed in the C of E if the vote had gone the other way. I (if I may interject my own experience at this point) went before the vote, since there had been a clear de facto arrogation of authority to decide on a matter over which the Pope himself hassaid he has no authority (thus unilaterally establishing an entirely new ecclesiological identity from that which Anglicanism had always claimed to possess). I had realised it was no longer possible, for me at any rate, to believe that I could be a Catholic without being in communion with the Holy See. But I wouldn’t, nevertheless, dream of saying that any of the conversions which followed the vote were unprincipled. There is, surely, no such thing as an illegitimate conversion. There are many reasons to convert: but once in full communion with the Catholic Church all that is in the past. One has come home, and everything is changed, changed utterly: “Behold, I make all things new”.

How, then, will the Church respond to the appeal of those Anglo-Catholic clergy who wish to bring their people with them? Will there be “a more creative view of the corporate nature of [their] present existence”? It is possible that this time Rome will not allow the negativity emanating from some liberal bishops in England to undermine such a response. Damian Thompson presented a number of what he described as “informed guesses”. My own instinct – as one who has in his time given a good deal of attention to the history of Rome’s responses to Anglo-Catholics wanting solutions which, in Bishop Burnham’s words “allow us to bring our folk with us” – is that these are more than disconnected guesses, since taken together they constitute a coherent strategy of a not entirely unfamiliar kind.Here are his frst fve “guesses”:

1 Rome will set up an “Apostolic Administration” under a Catholic bishop to offer pastoral care to former Anglican priests and their parishioners.
2 The ex-Anglicans will form an umbrella organisation called something like the Fellowship of St Gregory the Great. The Fellowship, under the guidance of their new Catholic bishop, will consist of former Anglican priests who have been ordained into the Catholic
priesthood. Their parishes, though open to anyone, will consist largely of ex-Anglicans.
3 Some Fellowship parishes will occupy their former church buildings, though this will require an unprecedented degree of co-operation with the Church of England.
4 Former Anglican communities may – if they wish – be allowed to use parts of the Book of Common Prayer adapted for Catholic use, as in a few American parishes. In practice, there will be little demand for this concession, I suspect.
5 Former Anglican priests will undergo an accelerated programme of study allowing them to be swiftly ordained. (Conditional ordination is unlikely to be on offer.) Marriage will be no bar to ordination, but no actively gay priest will be knowingly ordained, and this will be strictly enforced.

This last policy has of course been up and running since the last exodus, that over women-priests: but it would have to be continued now. Thompson claims that his “guesses” are “informed”; my own information is that they are. But we have been here before. Plans are agreed; then there is a long silence from Rome. This time, “Rome”, or at least, that part of Rome keener on propagating the faith than on meaningless ecumenical goodwill towards the disintegrating Anglicans (the Pontifcal Council for Promoting Christian Unity are likely to oppose these concessions) should be proactive in supporting the scheme. We have a pastoral responsibility to those outside the Catholic Church who long for the conditions which will allow them into full communion without failing in their own pastoralresponsibilities. This time we must not fail them.

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