When they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?’ He answered, ‘Yes Lord, you know that I love you.’ … Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ John 21:15,17. (NJB)
Soon after my reception into the Church, I met up with three old friends, all of them former Anglicans and now Catholic priests.. Two of them had been at theological college with me training for the Anglican ministry in the late 60’s; the third had been a fellow curate in Sheffield in the 1970’s. In the course our conversations it dawned on us that every man in our college class was now a Roman Catholic, and that the same was true for all of us who who had served together as parish clergy in Sheffield. What had happened that such a group, very representative of the young, Anglo-Catholics who were being ordained at that time, should find themselves, forty years later, no longer Anglicans but Catholics.
It is certainly true that major changes in the Church of England, and in the worldwide Anglican Communion, have contributed to our move. It would be unjust – and untrue – to suggest that we have simply sought a safe haven from women priests! The pilgrimage into full Communion with the Catholic Church, so wonderfully achieved (though by no means completed) in the Ordinariate, has its roots in the Catholic Revival in the Church of England. For the fathers of the Oxford Movement defined the Church of England, not as the spiritual department of the English state, but as a part of the Catholic Church. Note that well – a part – not the whole; and if a part, then belonging ultimately to the whole from which it had become separated. The imperative for unity is there from the start of the Revival – and it is unity understood as reunion, that is the restoration of communion in which the Church of England would return to the rock from which it was hewn.
It is often suggested that a confused and ageing Catholic Movement in the Church England, already out of touch with a rapidly changing British society, was further thrown off course by the Second Vatican Council. My memory is that many of us embraced the spirit of renewal enthusiastically. We believed that our hopes for reunion were now achievable. In the early 70’s, in what the introduction to the Customary describes as ‘a rare moment of near unanimity’ the Anglo-Catholics adopted the Divine Office and the new Roman Missal (perhaps with the Eucharistic Prayer of the Church of England pasted in for use on Sundays). It was this pattern of liturgical prayer which formed us for the next forty years. Certainly it differentiated us from the new Church of England which was now redefining itself in agreements with the Reformed churches of northern Europe. I believe that it further prepared the way for the appeal to Pope Benedict to receive us back into communion.
The arguments over liturgical language (Cranmer or modern – thee or you) which obsessed the Church of England at this time seemed largely to pass Anglo-Catholics (at least the younger ones) by. All over the country, and, it seemed, in the north especially, parishes were being renewed and revived by a generation inspired by Vatican 2 and with the expectation of reunion, surely by the end of the century.
Just one brief example of this parish renewal must suffice. The huge housing estate of Parson Cross on the outskirts of Sheffield had proved a tough nut over the years for the Church of England. Yet with the Company of Mission Priests taking it over in the 1960’s communicants rose to 200 every Sunday (cradle-Catholics need to understand that such a number is large in the C of E – especially in a working class parish) and three quarters of that number came to Confession at Christmas and Easter. People were being genuinely converted to Christ, people who had never been near the Church in their lives. They were praying and reading their Bibles, and were proud to bring their friends. And the curates trained in this parish and under this system were being appointed to moribund parishes elsewhere, and were not afraid to introduce radical changes rght from day one.
The wider Church of England was becoming increasingly absorbed in arguments over its ministry. Could women be ordained to its three-fold order of Bishop, Priest and Deacon? The Anglo-Catholics, believing that the C of E, by the skin of its teeth, had preserved the succession through the Reformation, said that they could not. Moreover, they were sure that nothing could now turn back the movement for reunion with the Catholic Church. This is not the place to recount the story of those years, which led to the decision of the General Synod to proceed to ordain women to the priesthood of the Church of England. But twenty years later we can see that it sounded the death knell of the Catholic Movement.
But while we may regret that, we shall, I think, looking back see that the imperative for unity was not lost. In the aftermath of the Synod vote some 400 Anglican clergy and an unknown number of laity made their pilgrimage into full communion with the Catholic Church. Just when it seemed that the impetus might be slowing Pope Benedict XVI created the Ordinariates as a fresh call to unity.
The Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham stands as a pilgrim way of unity. It acts also as a reminder of the hopes of generations of Anglo-Catholics that the Reformation wounds might be healed. I and my friends who have entered it are deeply conscious that we have been given much more than we can ever know. Perhaps too, we may bring something from our life as Anglicans – above all what we have struggled to do so that the people of our nation may hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. We tried to do this although we were cut off from Peter. Perhaps it will be our deep happiness in now being able to live the Catholic life in all its fulness which will inspire those who have been Catholics all their lives to renew their faith, rejoice in their Church, and commit themselves again to the new Evangelisation in this Year of Faith.
This should be seen as a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans & Catholics. It helps us set out sights on the restoration of full ecclesial communion. Let us continue to pray and work unceasingly in order to hasten the joyful day when the goal can be accomplished.
Pope Benedict XVI