Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness
Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness

Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness

Catherine Utley FAITH MAGAZINE September - October 2015

Catherine Utley interviews Father Ed Tomlinson.


In purely aesthetic terms, it’s hard to imagine a starker contrast than which Father Ed Tomlinson and his family and flock must have felt four years ago when, as a group, they left their Anglican parish church of St Barnabas in Tunbridge Wells, where Father Tomlinson was vicar, entered the Catholic Church through the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and began their new life at St Anselm’s in the nearby village of Pembury.

Behind them, they had left the magnificent Anglo-Catholic edifice of St Barnabas, built, with no expense spared, in the late nineteenth century and further glorified over subsequent decades with the addition of rich furnishings: a dazzling reredos in the Italianate style, a fine collection of stained glass, ornate statues and glittering banners. Their new home, in the Catholic Church, was a small 1960’s concrete dual use hall/chapel with a tiny altar (on wheels), a pool table stored in the confessional and a defunct freezer in the sacristy used for laying out the vestments. 

It’s not a contrast, however, on which Father Ed – now a Catholic priest of the Ordinariate serving both his Ordinariate group and diocesan Catholics at St Anselm’s – dwells. ‘It was clear that an awful lot needed doing to beautify the church, so we got on with it,’ he says. 


Four years on, and something akin to a small miracle has taken place at St Anselm’s. Funded largely by St Anselm’s parishioners with the help of loans from neighbouring diocesan parishes and some grants, a new parish hall has been built so that the church is now used exclusively for worship. A narthex has been added and a garden has replaced what had been a dense forest of trees, giving a pleasing sense of openness to the site. A restored antique lychgate will eventually form the new entrance to the church. Inside, a fine, permanent altar beautifully decked stands in place of the one on wheels. Stations of the Cross, communion rails and a pulpit have been installed, there are coloured hassocks, new candles and a new entrance bell and a vestment press has replaced the freezer in the sacristy.  

I have come to the house near St Anselm’s where Father Ed lives with his wife, Hayley, and three children. Jemima, 8, and Benedict, 5, are at school, so Augustine – an unusually hospitable 3 year old (the cradle Catholic of the family) – happily assigns to himself the task of entertaining me while Father Ed and Hayley prepare lunch. After lunch, Father Ed settles down to talk to me about his remarkable spiritual journey to the Ordinariate – the structure set up by Pope Benedict to allow former Anglicans to become Catholics, bringing with them some of their Anglican traditions – and about what he sees as its particular mission, to revive authentic, English spirituality in the Catholic Church.

‘The beautification project at St Anselm’s is very much at the heart of the Ordinariate vision. We want to make our church look like a quintessential English parish, to return traditional treasures to the people and to re-capture that distinctive English spirituality that was lost to the Catholic Church at the Reformation’, he says. 

Father Ed Tomlinson was born into an Evangelical, Protestant family in North West England when his father was coming to the end of his curacy there in the 1970s. The strong, biblical foundation which took root in his childhood has remained an important influence throughout his life, but by the time he went up to Cambridge, he was having doubts about whether evangelical Protestantism was for him. ‘It was a period of wilderness. I tried for a bit to be an atheist, but found I wasn’t very good at it. I kept finding myself popping into churches; God wasn’t letting me go.’ From Cambridge, he went to Colchester to teach and it was there that he encountered the Anglo-Catholic tradition and fell in love with Catholic spirituality. ‘I realised that there was a profound truth being taught and it began me on a journey, very similar to John Henry Newman’s, which led me ultimately to understand that the fullness of truth lay with the Holy Catholic Church’. 

By the end of his Anglican curacy, disillusionment with the liberal, almost secularist, approach which he had found in some of his fellow churchmen, niggling doubts about the validity of Anglican orders and the dawning realisation that the C of E was attempting the impossible by trying to serve both God and State, had convinced Father Ed that he was in the wrong Church. Hayley, by now his wife, felt the same way. In 2007 he went to see the Catholic Bishop of Brentwood to discuss becoming a Catholic. 

‘So I was all set at that stage to become a solo swimmer, but then a googley was thrown. Keith Newton, then the Anglican bishop looking after traditionalist clergy of the Catholic persuasion [now the Ordinary of the Ordinariate], asked me to go and look at the parish of St Barnabas in Tunbridge Wells and the minute I walked through the door, I had an enormous sense that I was meant to be there. I had no doubt at all that God was calling me to this parish’. Installed there as vicar, there followed, for Father Ed, a period of two years of inner turmoil and ‘getting cross with God’ in his prayers.  ‘I didn’t understand why I was feeling both this burning call to be Catholic and yet, also, this overwhelming conviction that it was right that I was at St Barnabas. It was then that suddenly this incredible offer came from Pope Benedict XVl to join the ordinariates – a possibility, not to come on my own, to escape, if you like, from the Church of England, but a moment of exodus, to bring my people with me’. 

Seventy-two of his people (‘it all felt rather biblical and wonderful, like the Lord’s sending out of the 72’) followed him. They left the Church of England on Ash Wednesday 2011, were received into the Catholic Church at Easter and later that year the group joined the similar number of diocesan Catholics who worshipped at St Anselm’s. What had been a Mass centre with no priest of its own became a quasi parish, with Father Ed in charge.


So began his part in the mission to make Pope Benedict’s vision a reality. Central to that vision, for Father Ed, is the idea that because of the Reformation the nation has forgotten that its roots are Catholic. ‘So many quintessentially English things – ancient village churches, great cathedrals and universities – have a Catholic foundation and we need to remind people of that’.  During the Reformation, he says, the recusant Catholics, with incredible bravery kept Catholicism alive in England, but they lost that distinct, English way which characterised the pre-Reformation Church. ‘It was the Church of England, which, though it broke with Rome and lost its Catholicity, took on and kept alive the English way and the English spirituality. We see it still in Harvest Festivals and carol services, and in all the pomp and pageantry that we associate with great national events.’ It is now the job of the Ordinariate, he believes, to bring Englishness back to Catholicism ‘with a deliberate emphasis, always, on reverence, beauty and a robust, unchanging tradition that transcends time’. Hence the beautification project at Pembury, the second phase of which begins in September.

The early days at St Anselm’s were challenging for all. Not surprisingly, some of the diocesan Catholics felt threatened by the sudden influx of 72 ex Anglicans and there was some disappointment, too, for some of the Ordinariate Catholics because there were people from St Barnabas who had been going to come, but did not. Four years on, though, St Anselm’s is a manifestly happy parish with a vibrant spiritual and social life. ‘We are a body that breathes with two lungs.  The beautification project has brought everyone together and diocesan Catholics and Ordinariate members are all delighting at the transformation,’ says Father Ed. 

The earlier Sunday morning Mass at St Anselm’s reflects the English spirituality, music and all that is important to the Ordinariate; the later one is geared more towards the parish’s diocesan Catholics. But all the Masses are open to everyone and people can – and do – go to either. There is also Evensong and Benediction on Sundays and, crucially, an ‘Ordinariate Use’ Mass is offered on Saturdays. This is the liturgy devised especially for the ordinariates and approved by Rome. Drawing on the traditions of the Sarum Rite, used before the Reformation, it also integrates elements of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer into the Roman Rite. ‘Like all new liturgies, it takes a while for people to get used to it but I think when they do they find it profoundly moving. For me, it’s also powerfully evangelistic because the words teach people what the Church requires of them and explain what the Sacraments do for them.’ 

Concrete signs of the success of the Pembury project are the explosion of young families that have joined the congregation in the last four years and the fact that no fewer than five former Anglican clergymen have presented themselves at St Anselm’s for reception into the Catholic Church, on their way to becoming Catholic priests. 

Plant the vision

I put it to Father Ed that another aspect of English Catholicism that was lost at the Reformation was its zeal and evangelising mission. Was that something, I ventured, that people like him could bring back? 

‘I would hope so,’ he says. ‘The Anglo-Catholics of the nineteenth century, founded by Newman, the Ordinariate’s patron, were unbelievably bold men. They went out into the slums, they built parishes. They were unashamed about what they were doing. They had zeal and that has to be what the Ordinariate is about too. We are calling England home, with pride, with passion, to say to the English people: “remember you are Catholic. Your country flourished when you were Catholic and it’s maybe since we have lost that that we have suffered with a little bit of alzheimers and that’s allowed secularism to take over”.’  

And was he optimistic that England could be won back? 

‘If you said am I optimistic that we will win this country back in 2015 I would tell you that you needed to go and lie down for a while. But you know, there is a magnificent chestnut tree outside St Anselm’s.  It has been there for hundreds of years and I always remember that that started life as a tiny seed and then a little sapling. The Ordinariate seed was only planted four years ago. That’s nothing in the history of the Church and it’s nothing compared with 500 years of Reformation history in this country. That seed has sprung into life. It’s going to need support. You have to nurture small saplings to help them grow. But I think the Ordinariate has got within it the power to do some truly amazing things. I think it changes the way in which ecumenism is done, by witnessing to what unity is all about – a return to the Church but without a loss of who we are and where we have come from and I think there is a call there to the whole of the Church of England to remember the rock from which they were hewn. So, for the next few years the Ordinariate may not be very big, but if we are talking in centuries, I think it will be huge. Our job is to plant the vision and hand it to the next generation.’


For further information about St Anselm’s, visit its website here: https://www.saintanselms.org.uk/

Fr Ed Tomlinson’s blog can be found here: https://www.tunbridgewells-ordinariate.com/blog/


Catherine Utley was a Senior Broadcast Journalist at BBC World Service News for 30 years and has also worked as the Ordinariate’s Communications Officer. She is a cradle Catholic. 



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