Thursday, 15 December 2011

Dressed to Deceive

In the past couple of weeks, there has been some heated internet discussion on the subject of Anglican clergy who, either by actively misleading people or by letting incorrect assumptions remain uncorrected, preside over situations where Catholics receive communion in their churches.

First of all, I must say that this is something that I do not think I have ever come across personally. I have certainly heard of a Vicar X or or a Rector Y who regularly has one-time visiting Catholics who do not realise that his church is not part of the Catholic Church, but deliberate deception of visiting Catholics is not something I have ever witnessed myself, at least as far as I am aware.

Catholic commentators, such as Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, have expressed forcefully and clearly that this kind of active deception should stop.   This is not really a discussion about the use of the new translation of the Roman Rite in the Church of England and the Diocese of London in particular (such as discussed in our most popular ever blogpost), but there is a link, since an Anglican clergyman has cited the familiarity of the Roman Rite to visiting Catholics as an argument in favour of using the Roman Rite in the Church of England. (as mentioned in our blogpost The End of the Year).  Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith views this as potentially deceitful, and taking the specific case of the Anglican Diocese of London, he rightly points out that neither the Catholic Bishop of the diocese covering the area (ie the Archbishop of Westminster) nor the Anglican Bishop of London (Dr Richard Chartres) have given their permission for the Roman Rite to be used in Anglican parishes.

The main counterargument (or defence against the charges of deception) that I have spotted on the internet appears to be along the lines of "Oh yes, I have several Catholics who come to my church, and they prefer it here because the Romans are so unfriendly to them and we are much more understanding about X or Y or Z".  One can agree or disagree with what those Catholics are doing, but ultimately they are making an informed choice on the basis of their reaction to their particular situation.  In these cases, no-one is deceiving anyone else (although some might wish to say that the Catholics receiving communion in an Anglican church might be deceiving themselves).  This is a matter of personal choice and religious freedom, and as such is most definitely not the target of Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith's article.  It is, therefore, no answer to his point.

Equally, we all know that London has a very large population of Continenental Europeans, who if croyant and pratiquant, each attach more or less importance to whether they attend a Catholic church on a Sunday morning or whether they go to one of the very dignified Anglican establishments, with their fine choirs, fine buildings and, depending on the venue and the Anglican churchmanship, fine vestments and ceremonial.  This will as often as not be a French phenomenon, although there are plenty of other nations represented too (there seems to be some kind of very effective preparation given in Poland to Poles departing for the UK that greatly minimises this among the Polish population).  State Mattins at St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey or even the Royal Hospital in Chelsea can appeal strongly to some people: there is no denying that, even if it is not the Mass.  Moreover, it would be utterly hypocritical of those of us in the Marylebone Ordinariate Group if we were to pretend that the eucharistic liturgies (whether or not approved of by Dr Chartres) in some of London's Anglo-Catholic shrines did not have some considerable outward appeal.  We do not think that Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith had these people in mind either : these are people, in possession of the facts, making a choice, with which we are free to agree or disagree, that they will not attend a Catholic church but instead they will "go local" and enjoy what is on offer in London in the Church of England.  It is their call.

Neither are we talking about a casual visitor to a Church of England parish who doesn't spot the difference, who doesn't understand the subtleties of, how shall I put it, our country's rich ecclesial history, and who, for that one-time visit only, unthinkingly receives communion.  These things happen.  Short of introducing Paisleyite notices at the start of services proclaiming that the Bishop of Rome hath no dominion in this land, or even something along the lines of, as the old but rather unkind and mean-spirited joke about the more florid and extravagant forms of Anglo-Catholic ceremonial goes, "No Popery here, only Pot Pourri", there is no way it can be avoided.
No, this is about what must be a small and probably dwindling minority of Anglican clergy who will answer the polite question of e.g. a visiting Spaniard "Is this a Catholic church?" with a simple "Yes."  The person giving the response may very well wholeheartedly believe, hand on heart, that they are indeed part of the one universal Church, but equally they know very well that the individual putting the question to them means something very specific when they use the phrase "Is this a Catholic church?".  The visiting Spaniard is asking whether the church is in communion with Rome, and emphatically not whether the Vicar still manages to convince himself of the continuing claims of the Anglo-Catholic movement to be a partly separate branch of the Church.

Anglican clergy who respond to questions of that nature in that way are acting in a very plainly deceitful manner.  This has absolutely nothing to do with disputes over validity or recognition of orders, nothing at all : it is very simply a case of people quite deliberately giving misleading answers to visitors.  It is plain dishonesty.  There are one or two rather well-known Bible stories about the importance of being hospitable (and one might suggest that this includes honesty) to visitors, as the clergy in question almost certainly know.

Such clergy might defend themselves by saying that not only do they genuinely consider that they are part of the Catholic Church, even if based in a slightly separated branch, but that since they have no problem with offering eucharistic hospitality to visiting Catholics, why should they care about what the visiting Spaniard's priests or bishop might say?  If the Vicar says "I have no problem with you receiving communion, but I must advise you that your Catholic bishop would not be happy", then the information and the choice are with the individual concerned: but if he doesn't, he knows perfectly well that he is deliberately deceiving his visitor. 

Another attempt to justify not telling visitors the truth would seem to be the rather proud view that what the visitor witnesses is so much nicer in terms of music and ceremonial than what they would find at home in France or Spain that the visitor should immediately be able to tell the difference.  This strikes me as extremely unkind.  In any such circumstances, what the visitor is being told "I'm going to let you think that this is a Catholic church, and if you don't notice that it isn't, then that's just your tough luck."

We have to hope that this is an increasingly rare phenomenon.  We have to hope that Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith's article touched on something that is a folk memory of the heartier days of Anglo-Catholicism, and that it does not represent the likely experience of a Catholic visiting a Church of England church today.  My own view, flawed and imperfect as my opinions may be, suggests that this is indeed the case : let us pray that this is so.

Dishonesty is just dishonesty.  It has nothing to do with ecumenism, branch theories, ordinariates, votes of General Synod, Apostolicae Curae, Saepius Officio, translations of the Roman Rite or anything else.  It is most certainly conduct unbecoming of the office and work of a clerk in holy orders.


  1. Basically, this article is saying nothing. It is just journalism.

  2. Not sure I'd agree with you, LBS. What it is saying is that it is very very wicked for Anglican clergymen to deceive Catholics into thinking that they are attending the Catholic Church if they attend a CofE parish. The Anglican clergyman may, hand on heart, believe that he is part of the one universal Church, no-one doubts his sincerity there, but equally that Anglican clergyman knows very well what a visitor from eg France, Italy or Spain means when they ask if the church is a catholic church.

    Having said all that, you're right, some of the posts on this blog are more journalistic than anything else, merely reporting facts rather than always offering opinions. Nothing wrong with that though : the blogosphere is not short of people offering some rather direct opinions. So whether you intended your comment as a criticism or not, I do not take it as such.

  3. The deception lies with those who use the term 'Catholic Church' to mean Roman catholic Church. stop that offensive practice and there is no problem any more.

  4. We don't normally publish anonymous posts, but the one above was so off-the-wall that we thought we would.

    Anonymous, sorry, but as a matter of fact people do understand the term Catholic Church to mean the Roman Catholic Church (in your terminology). Just go and ask someone for directions to the nearest Catholic church and they won't be pointing you to the nearest CofE parish.

    Equally, and more pertinently to the post, the French or Spanish visitor means very precisely the Roman Catholic Church (in your terminology) when they ask their question about whether the building they are visiting is part of the Catholic Church. Any Anglican vicar knows that perfectly well, and is being deceitful if he responds yes, whatever his or her own personal views might be about whether or not the CofE is part of the one universal Church.

    It's sad if you find it offensive, but it is no more than the truth.