Monday, 7 February 2011

The Faithful Few

Last month we witnessed a great event: Westminster Cathedral packed to witness the ordination to the priesthood of three former Anglican bishops. Since then they and others have been working hard to establish ordinariate groups 'on the ground'. One of our correspondents was deeply moved by the ordinations at Westminster, and equally struck by the enormity of the task ahead. Our correspondent's observations follow:

At the ordination Mass of the three former bishops of Ebbsfleet, Richborough and Fulham in Westminster Cathedral the opening hymn was the rousing Thy hand O God has guided thy Church from age to age and the many present, Anglican and Catholic, sang together “one Church, one Faith, one Lord”.  Edward Hayes Plumptre, its author, referred to the faith of the Church of England, and those who will follow the three former bishops will soon mean something different when they sing one Church, one Faith, one Lord, as did Catholics present at the ordination Mass.

By the time the last hymn was sung, appropriately Newman’s Praise to the Holiest in the Height, England and Wales had the world’s first Ordinariate dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham under the patronage of the Blessed John Henry Newman, and its first members. For everyone, as they spilled onto the piazza of Westminster Cathedral, a question had been lodged in their minds – will I stay in the Church of England? If the answer is yes then Plumptre’s words from the fourth verse of his hymn are worth remembering, because the future is not bright:

Through many a day of darkness,
through many a scene of strife,
the faithful few fought bravely,

The days of darkness for Anglo-Catholics especially will be nothing new. They have always sat lightly with what most people would regard as “CofE” and in the popular imagination, thanks to Dawn French, a female vicar has gone from being notable to normal. In a generation it will probably be the norm. But even prior to 1992 Anglo-Catholics have raised suspicion from many sides, both the protestant underworld and Rome. A liturgical flourish at the ordination Mass, apart from the three wives, were the three sisters who until a matter of weeks before were members of the Anglican Society of St Margaret in Walsingham (Formerly the Priory of Our Lady of Walsingham). They presented the gifts at the offertory. That they seemed so much at home in the Mass, having almost seamlessly moved from one life under Our Lady of Walsingham to another, would not have been lost on those who must now decide what to do. Walsingham has long been a place that can baffle the wanderer here below. A coach load of Italians dropped off in the village will soon be found lighting candles in the Anglican shrine and I once saw a Catholic priest shooing a group of Poles away from Benediction, oblivious to the fact that this was a chapel of the established church. For how long the Anglican shrine can continue as a bastion of Anglo-Catholic hopes remains to be seen, but on past form it has time on its hands because it has never much cared about what the wider Church of England thinks of it.

When Fr Hope Patten, the Anglican founder of the shrine, died it was noted by his bishop that he was a law unto himself, and his own strong will (he would get physically ill if seriously crossed) prevented him from accepting that he was more of an Anglican than he realised. By this I mean that, unlike a Catholic in communion with the Pope, an Anglo-Catholic chooses to believe certain things that correspond more or less to the teachings of Rome. Whatever the externals of religion, there is no compulsion to accept “the faith that comes to us from the Apostles” in its totality. Those joining an Ordinariate will become Catholic because what they believe will no longer be on the basis of what they do or do not choose. Anglo-Catholics, by this analysis, are no different to any other Anglican. Others may choose different things to believe – be they liberal or Evangelical or Prayer Book, but choice is what binds them together in the one Church, one Faith, that is the Church of England.

The test of this is quite simply the Ordinariate. For an Anglo-Catholic to believe what he or she does it is now very difficult to live in the Church of England. Rome could not have offered more, and the Church of England could not have done more, to demonstrate that there is a new home for those who hold to orthodox faith and practice. There will be women bishops in England. In time more and more churches will quietly allow a lay person to preside. At every point when Anglo Catholics object to the direction of the Church of England there will be an easy response – go to the Ordinariate. But for Anglo Catholics there is also the sheer drudgery ahead of not only fighting battles but seeking to engage with mission when their teaching can be more than ever undermined. What Anglo Catholic churches teach and the liturgy they celebrate are more than ever divorced from the wider Church of England as it becomes increasingly liberal on the one hand and evangelical on the other.  An Ordinariate parish at least will teach the Catholic faith, and its members will be grafted onto something stronger and more self confident – the Catholic Church.

Lastly there is something, perhaps obvious, about the Ordinariate that Anglo-Catholics would once have gained strength from – its novelty. The old battles of the Anglo-Catholic past came from a self-confidence and for all the battles, it could be fun. The London and South Coast Religion was once a force. Today the battles and rows don’t seem fun and an Anglo-Catholic parish today will accept as healthy a congregation that would have shocked the Anglo-Catholic priests of the past. The confidence is gone. Today it is the Ordinariate that is new. It has no buildings and little money, yet many are excited that it could become a new movement that has a profound effect on England. Movements, as Newman would tell you, need leaders and those entering the Ordinariate will be its leaders, its pioneers. They will not have to worry about what the Church of England takes next from its box of tricks. They can be secure in the faith they profess, liberated in not having to explain why they believe different things from the vicar down the road, and not least that bishop in America. Above all, given the nature of this new structure, something of the greatness of the Anglo-Catholic past can live on, not least its desire to bring people to faith. When the three former bishops at the end of the Mass processed down the nave of Westminster Cathedral it did not seem that a ministry had ended, but a ministry had begun. As Ordinariate groups pop up all over the country, something profound is taking place and it is the sheer forward looking impulse of the Ordinariate that is its most impressive dynamic.

No comments:

Post a Comment