It was after coming home last night from having attended the 5.30pm Sung Mass at Westminster Cathedral, the "mother church" of the diocese in which our Ordinariate Group is based, that I happened upon the Ordinariate Portal's news update on Facebook that some comments by Archbishop Vincent Nichols on the subject of the Ordinariate and a possible "principal church" for it had been reported on the Ordinariate Portal's website.
The Mass itself had been very good. The usual dignified style, a stirring hymn to kick things off (Hail to the Lord's Anointed, the same Advent hymn discussed by Monsignor Andrew Burnham on the Oxford Ordinariate blog), the plainsong to Mass XVIII sung congregationally, and a good homily on happiness (we are all obsessed by trying to find it, perhaps prayer and spirituality are very effective ways to get nearer to it, Gaudete!). It was a little more restrained, all in all, than the Beethoven in C mass setting that resounded around St James's yesterday morning, but there is a place for everything.
Although I couldn't place him at the time, I now realise that the celebrant and homilist was Fr Alexander Masters, the Precentor of Westminster Cathedral, who sang so beautifully for the recent Radio 3 live broadcast of the Requiem Mass for All Souls' Day. You can find a little information on Fr Masters here, but the reason I recognised him in the end is that his identical twin brother was at University with me.
A couple of photos from last night are shown below. I am very pleased with the first one, a rare example of my taking a reasonably good picture, whereas the second is of note only because it shows the Cathedral High Altar with the rose pink altar frontal appropriate to Gaudete Sunday.
One can imagine that the subject of a principal church for the Ordinariate is something that the Archbishop of Westminster is asked about quite frequently. It is also, no doubt, a question that is addressed by and put to Monsignor Newton fairly often (the topic cropped up in the meeting described here, and is covered at the end of Monsignor Newton's long address described in the 2 October 2011 post over at the Catholic League blog.
From our discussions with other Catholics, both members and non-members of the Ordinariate, we are aware that there is some strength of feeling on this.
There are those who see the establishment of the principal church as being likely to add definition to the Ordinariate, and thereby to add to its appeal to former Anglicans. They see it as a key part of the mission of the Ordinariate. They note that although the Ordinariate is not, by any means, awash with cash, the hard work of the Friends of the Ordinariate in particular is starting to bear fruit. They consider that the Holy Father's intention is that the Ordinariate must have a principal church, and that we should press ahead with it.
The ever-interesting and ever-forthright Damian Thompson put it like this recently. He wonders if the Bishops of England and Wales are doing all that they could be. The Catholic Herald also expressed a similar view in a recent editorial. It is certainly hard to detect a sense of driving urgency and enthusiasm in the reported words of the Archbishop of Westminster on this topic, but is the obvious caution of the Bishops' Conference really such a totally bad thing?
The counterargument to the admirable drive to find a principle church asap is far from totally watertight, but it does contain a few points that cannot be swept aside without any thought. I do not suggest that the obstacles are insurmountable, far from it, and indeed the courage that Damian Thompson and the Catholic Herald call for might help overcome them, but they do most certainly exist and will need to be dealt with.
First, there is the question of the building. There is certainly a small number of vacant or little used Catholic churches in London, but the list is not endless. One imagines that the Bishops' Conference would be wary of proposing something in too poor a condition, or too far out of the way, for fear of appearing to be trying to fob the Ordinariate off, or of appearing to be trying to rid themselves of something no longer wanted rather than offering something of value to assist a personal project of the Holy Father. Equally, as indeed hinted at by Archbishop Nichols, the Ordinariate would probably not want to take on the financial burden of a building in a state of considerable disrepair. A couple of months ago, we put up a blogpost covering our thoughts on the support given by the Bishops of England and Wales. Whether or not there is room for greater levels of wholehearted support for the Holy Father's intentions for the Ordinariate in some quarters there, we know for sure that the Anglican Diocese of London is not going to offer any space whatsoever. "Why should they?" some ask : and that does indeed seem to be the attitude of Dr Chartres.
Second, there is the question of attendance. There are members of the Ordinariate in Central London, and some of them, with other ordinariate members and some interested Anglicans, would come together to build a congregation for a principal church. There would of course also be other Catholics, both those interested specifically in the Ordinariate (perhaps being former Anglicans themselves) and those who happen to live or work in the area. Any Catholic church in Central London benefits from there being a significant core Catholic population. Even with all this combined, which would be more than the average Church of England parish in Central London could muster, would it be enough? Nobody wants to set up a principal church that ends up, even in the early stages of its life, like the sad but familiar spectacle of a dying Anglo-Catholic shrine with more people in the sanctuary than in the nave.
Third there is the question of funding. Very simply, as Archbishop Nichols asked, has the Ordinariate reached a position where this can be paid for? We are certainly at the stage where it is right not to be too gung-ho, but we are also at the stage where we are genuinely able to begin explore possibilities with a realistic expectation of being able to implement them, if it seems appropriate.
So where does this leave us? It seems that the cautious approach is going to continue, and we can only guess the extent to which the possibilities of finding somewhere in the immediate future are being actively explored. We hope that they are being explored, and that if they don't make sense they will be rejected (there is no need to go for the first thing that comes along), and that if they do, people will start doing some soul-searching and some number-crunching, and will have the courage called for by Damian Thompson and the Catholic Herald.
One further thought. Although his remark in no way diminishes the imperative of establishing a principal church in the right way at the right time and in the right place, Archbishop Nichols is absolutely right in our case at least to say that, for now, we are more than happy in our diocesan church. St James's is a wonderful place, especially for former Anglicans (all the parish clergy are former Anglicans, though not members of the Ordinariate (perhaps some honorary memberships should be handed out?)).
That rather flippant reflection leads to a more serious one : the Oratorians, the Jesuits and others run parishes throughout the land, the Ordinariate runs the quasi-parish of St Anselm's Pembury (the Tunbridge Wells Ordinariate Group) : why might not the Ordinariate do the same thing for its principal church in London? Perhaps the anxiety about the funding of a principal church comes from the assumption that it might be Ordinariate only, or at least largely Ordinariate only, with a few local and visiting Catholics from elsewhere to make up the numbers. I don't think that that needs to be the case.
Not everyone at the London Oratory is an Oratorian, and not everyone at Farm Street is a Jesuit. For that matter, not everyone at St Anselm's in Pembury is a member of the Ordinariate. What they are is all Catholics, just like everyone around me at Westminster Cathedral last night.