Friday, 31 August 2012

One Year On

The Feast of St Gregory the Great on 3rd September will mark the first anniversary of the reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church of three of us who were formerly members of the congregation of the Anglican church of St Mary’s Bourne Street, and of our formation of the Marylebone Ordinariate Group at St James’s, Spanish Place. 

At the time that this initial group of three was received, most members of the Ordinariate were being (or perhaps had already been) received as a single parish group accompanied by one or more of their former Anglican priests, or had joined with others, lay and clerical, from the same locality to form a new group. For the most part these groups now worship together in a local Catholic church at a mass celebrated by their Ordinariate priest using, to some extent, distinctive liturgical rites and traditions which, while consonant with the Catholic Faith, represent part of their Anglican patrimony.

The Marylebone Ordinariate Group has remained unusual among Ordinariate groups in that its members are few, were received without an accompanying priest and, even if very much involved in wider Ordinariate events such as the Ordinariate's Anniversary Evensong or the upcoming Pilgrimage to Walsingham, share in parish masses (in a parish run by a clergy team made up of former Anglicans) rather than in a specifically Ordinariate mass. We were permitted to form in this way as it was recognised that our experience of a very particular style of Anglo Catholic worship in a central London church fitted rather better to form a group within the distinctive character of St James’s than with those who had had the benefit of a more conventional, albeit equally Anglo-Catholic, parish background in the Church of England.

From St James’s we aim to reach out to those who might also not be part of a larger group preparing to move to the Ordinariate, and who are perhaps from a similarly unconventional ecclesiastical background, uncertain as to their future, nervous of leaving the Church of England, and in need of our prayers, reassurance and support to bring them home to Holy Mother Church.

Our reception into the Catholic Church has been a source of great joy, a joy we very much want to share. Even beyond the help we have received from Ordinariate clergy, the support and encouragement given to our group and to the Ordinariate in general by Fr Colven and his fellow clergy, together with the warmth of our welcome from the congregation, has made what we had feared would be a difficult move the easiest and happiest of steps. There have been no regrets, except for those left behind and for the loss of their regular society, and no temptation to look back.

We look forward resolutely, now that we are finally set on the right path, but though it would be easier never to look back and to question ourselves, some of us at least must now surely ask the question, why did it take so long?

From its earliest days, St Mary’s Bourne Street, under the leadership of its churchwarden the 2nd Viscount Halifax, was in the vanguard of the movement for the corporate reunion of the Church of England with the Catholic Church.

The culmination of a lifetime’s work for Lord Halifax was the Malines Conversations, a series of meetings held in the 1920s between senior members of the Church of England and the Catholic Church, with the tacit approval of both hierarchies. Although those meetings ended in failure it was ever afterwards the ardent prayer of St Mary’s that Rome and Canterbury should again be one. If challenged, as one often was, about the role of St Mary’s in modern ecumenism it was usual to reply that St Mary’s was a bridge leading from Canterbury to Rome (a phrase that appears in a 1999 book issued to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of the dedication of the church); a bridge very well-trodden over the years.

However, now we stand, so to speak, on the other side, we find ourselves sharing the wonder and surprise expressed by Blessed John Henry Newman in his Discourses to Mixed Congregations.
When we consider the beauty, the majesty, the completeness, the resources, the consolations, of the Catholic Religion, it may strike us with wonder, my brethren, that it does not convert the multitude of those who come in its way. Perhaps you have felt this surprise yourselves; especially those of you who have been recently converted;……… but what may fairly surprise those who enjoy the fullness of Catholic blessings is, that those who see the Church ever so distantly, who see even gleams or the faint lustre of her majesty, nevertheless should not be so far attracted by what they see as to seek to see more, should not at least put themselves in the way to be led on to the Truth, which of course is not ordinarily recognised in its Divine authority except by degrees.
Those words are, of course, a challenge also to us, for we too had seen the Church ever so distantly, some of us for many years and some of us indeed not so distantly, and had failed to seek to see more.  We were the very people Blessed John Henry Newman addressed in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, as quoted in a previous blogpost.
So month has gone on after month, and year after year; and you have again and again vowed obedience to your own Church, and you have protested against those who left her, and you have thought you found in them what you liked not, and you have prophesied evil about them and good about yourselves; and your plans seemed prospering and your influence extending, and great things were to be; and yet, strange to say, at the end of the time you have found yourselves steadily advanced in the direction which you feared, and never were nearer to the promised land than you are now.
We stayed because we were very comfortable as we were, we enjoyed celebrating what we genuinely believed to be the externals of the Catholic faith, we enjoyed being part of a small, eccentric (indeed exuberant, as Rowan Williams said) group within the wider Church of England, we loved (and still love) the place and the people, but above all perhaps we enjoyed being different. It was our show and we ran it in our own way.  Fr Whitby, a towering figure in St Mary's history and Vicar from 1916-1948 is said to have wanted St Mary's to be how the Church of England might have been, had the reformation never happened: in a similar way, we, with generally like-minded friends, lay and clerical, ran St Mary's as our vision of how things should be.  Indeed, we saw the gleam in the not too-far distance, but we hastily averted our gaze.

That, however, is only part of the reason we stayed so long.  Those responsible for our teaching over the years, and much of it was very good teaching from very good and learned souls, took great care never directly to address those issues which might touch on the Church and its unity. Fierce argument might be had about the validity of holy orders for Anglican women; touch but lightly on the subject of the validity of orders for Anglican men and one would receive a withering rebuke or, more likely, a studied silence. Indeed, now that the game is clearly up and one sees Anglican clergy - and not a few of the laity - falling over themselves in their rush to reverse long-held, much-vaunted positions, one finds it hard to resist the conclusion that, for many Anglo Catholics, recent debates have been a fortunate distraction from the more fundamental issue of the increasingly fragile claims of the Church of England to catholicity.

At no point was this refusal to face uncomfortable facts seen more clearly than with the promulgation of Anglicanorum coetibus. This was, or should have been, the most important œcumenical development in the lives of all Anglo Catholics. For St Mary’s Bourne Street in particular, we thought that it represented the potential coming to fruition of seeds planted 90 year ago by Lord Halifax. Here truly was a subject at the very least worthy of debate, whatever that debate's conclusion: a subject surely demanding of response, whatever that response might be. In the end, it received not even a mention.

While in some parishes Anglican clergy led (and in some parishes, still do lead) Ordinariate Exploration Groups, or at least explained (some with their minds already made up, others most definitely not) what was going on and why it was or was not relevant, in many other places across the Church of England even clergy who had signed the famous open letter to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 2008 had no desire to mention the word Ordinariate, let alone discuss what it might mean or offer.

Some, if they spoke on the matter at all, even indulged in a particularly weak tu quoque argument, saying that the Ordinariate was pointless and that Ordinariate members should just become "proper Catholics".  For those deniers, this mudslinging at the Ordinariate was a poorly disguised means to deflect the same criticisms from being levelled at them to much greater effect.

In the pews at Bourne Street, while acknowledging that there were strongly and honestly held views on all sides of the debate, and that quite probably we were in the minority, we waited for guidance and discussion, but answer came there none, even in a place where barely 15 years earlier the Cardinal Archbishop of Malines and the Anglican Bishop of London had attended Solemn Vespers to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Malines Conversations. 

More broadly in the part of the Anglo-Catholic movement that was determined to stay but had not joined the ranks of Affirming Catholicism, this became the time to rehearse not the arguments for corporate reunion but rather to begin the quest for those glib excuses for doing nothing we hear uttered with such relentless regularity today, while not forgetting, many of them, hastily to revise their communion rite so it would fall in line with the revisions in the Catholic ChurchOld principles they did revoke and set conscience at a distance.

For it now appears that the bridge from some parts of Anglo Catholicism to the Catholic Church has turned out to be a drawbridge. It may have come down from time to time to allow for brief undemanding exchanges, to allow those for whom the faint lustre had become the shining vision to slip away, but now it has been pulled up with a resounding bang leaving those inside somewhat bitter together. We who are safely away now realise an awful truth; some key element of Anglo Catholicism had developed so as to be about disunity, not unity, about congregationalism not catholicity, about outward appearance and personal views about how things should be, not objective Truth.

The extraordinary gesture of love and welcome shown by Pope Benedict in Anglicanorum coetibus signalled a great outpouring of grace for which we in the Marylebone Ordinariate Group shall ever give thanks. As Blessed John Henry Newman put it:
What thanks ought we to render to Almighty God, my dear brethren, that He has made us what we are! It is a matter of grace. There are, to be sure, many cogent arguments to lead one to join the Catholic Church, but they do not force the will. We may know them, and not be moved to act upon them. We may be convinced without being persuaded. The two things are quite distinct from each other, seeing you ought to believe, and believing; reason, if left to itself, will bring you to the conclusion that you have sufficient grounds for believing, but belief is the gift of grace. You are then what you are, not from any excellence or merit of your own, but by the grace of God who has chosen you to believe. …….God gives not the same measure of grace to all. Has He not visited you with over-abundant grace? And was it not necessary for your hard hearts to receive more than other people? Praise and bless Him continually for the benefit; do not forget, as time goes on, that it is of grace; do not pride yourselves upon it; pray ever not to lose it; and do your best to make others partakers of it.
We pray with him for, and ask his prayers for, our separated brethren, those whom he addressed as :
You my brethren...who are not as yet Catholics, but who by your coming hither seem to show your interest in our teaching, and you wish to know more about it, you too remember, that though you may not yet have faith in the Church, still God has brought you into the way of obtaining it. You are under the influence of His grace; He has brought you a step on your journey; He wishes to bring you further, He wishes to bestow on you the fullness of His blessings, and to make you Catholics.
In honour then of St Gregory the Great, upon whose Feast Day in 2011 we finally crossed that bridge and sought to see more, here is the well known hymn in his honour, written by St Peter Damian, eleventh century Bishop, Saint, and Doctor of the Church, with its famous wordplay on anglorum and angelorum.

Anglorum iam apostolus,
nunc angelorum socius,
ut tunc, Gregori, gentibus,
succurre iam credentibus.

Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us
St James the Great, pray for us
St Gregory the Great, pray for us
Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us

Deo gratias.

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