A nobleman went into a far country to receive kingly power… but his citizens hated him and sent an embassy after him saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ Luke 19:12,14.
Fr Philip North has better reason than most Anglo-Catholics to feel hurt and angry. The campaign against his appointment as a bishop was only concerned with one issue, that of his belief that women may not be priests. And unlike Fr Jeffrey John and his foiled appointment, Fr North is not going to find Parliament and the secular liberals on his side in the support of ‘justice’.
It is perhaps surprising that he advocates in a recent article in New Directions, the magazine of ‘Forward in Faith’, a re-engagement by those Anglo-Catholics who remain in the C of E ‘to convince the Church of England of its catholic identity.’ I believe Fr North to be mistaken , both in his analysis of what has happened to the C of E over the last forty years, and in what he proposes for his fellow Catholics still in the C of E.
I disagree with his assertion that we (Anglo-Catholics) ‘allowed ourselves to become respectable and establishment’ and at the same time maintained ‘an ethos of exclusivity, a feeling that (we) alone were in possession of the truth and displayed an archness, even a distance, to those of other persuasions.’ Rather, my memory of the 70’s and 80’s was of a Movement renewing itself and growing in confidence. It had taken on board the spirit and reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and was willing to engage with the rest of the C of E through the parishes and synods. Much of this happened outside (the diocese) of London, and I am afraid that beyond the capital we looked disdainfully at the ‘lace and biretta’ brigade and the ageing laity running the ‘Catholic Societies’. In leaving the ghetto in order to go to Diocesan Synod we believed that we could contribute ‘richly and constructively to the life of the wider church.’ Yes, we believed that we had much to give, and that the C of E had much it needed to receive!
Were we naïve? I think we were. Most of us were really much more interested in our parishes and their people than in sitting through debates in Synod. But it was there that an agenda was being advanced to change the C of E, and in such a way that it would make it clear for everyone that the C of E was most certainly not what Anglo-Catholics had doggedly maintained i.e. a part of the whole Catholic Church, sharing a fundamental identity with the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. Of course, we had nearly succeeded in doing this: that was what was so worrying. For decades we had produced the theologians, the thinkers, the ordinands, as well as being willing to go to some of the roughest and toughest parishes in the land. So the liberals, although they quite liked us for not being evangelicals, grasped the new doctrine of ‘equality’ which was becoming fashionable in secular society, and applied it to the Church’s ministry. No matter what, women must be priests. Some of them really believed that, once we had them, England would turn back to its National Church. In spite of all the evidence, some still believe it will happen when there are women bishops. The evangelicals came at this from a different angle, and quickly realised that if they voted for women ‘priests’, they could actually rid the C of E of ‘priesthood’, and put a stop for ever to the Anglo-Catholic claim that our priests were the same as the Roman Catholics. This is the real significance of the 1992 vote, and the following action of bishops in proceeding to ordain women to the priesthood. It was the most devastating action of the Church of England since the break with Rome in the 16th century. It turned the Church of England irreversibly away from the historic Communions of East and West, and in upon itself. Conformity by the Church with the secular establishment had been asserted. The English Church had submitted, as it did to Henry VIII, to Elizabeth 1, and to Parliament under William and Mary.
I disagree again with Fr North when he describes ‘the bitter half-life we have lived since 1992.’ This was the second half of my ministry as an Anglican priest, and it had many times of sweetness and full-life! We learnt a new relationship with our (flying) bishops, one based on respect and trust. The fraternity among priests was strong, and we taught with a new urgency and clarity. Our congregations grew in numbers and faith. But other parts of the C of E were not happy. It was they who had voted in the system which gave us alternative bishops, but as a former Bishop of Southwark remarked to a group of us, ‘If I had realised that I was not going to be able to celebrate the Eucharist in your churches, I would never have voted for it.’ Clearly he had voted for a gesture, to make the majority look magnanimous, but only to last for a few years while the Anglo-Catholics conformed or left. It was not our refusal to allow him to preside, so much as our renewed strength and growth which horrified him. As Geoffrey Kirk pointed out to me when we were neighbours in Lewisham, our two churches had more people worshipping in them on Sundays than the whole of the rest of the Deanery put together. In any other field we would have been ‘models of good practise.’ But rather like the railways and the leaves, our two parishes were producing the ‘wrong sort of growth’. I went to Synod and Chapter, I was courteous to my women colleagues, I wrote and spoke about mission and I called for reform and renewal – but I was constantly faced with the fact that, in order to participate in any way in the life of the diocese, one had to accept the ministry of women priests. It was deliberate and coercive.
Fr North ends with a stirring cry to Anglo-Catholics to enter the fray again. I responded to such calls as a young priest in the 70’s. I picked myself up again in middle age and entered the struggle (gladly, not bitterly) in the 90’s. And now I have gone where Anglo-Catholics have always longed to be, which is in restored communion with the worldwide Catholic Church. Pope Benedict held out an invitation, and I have yet to hear a convincing argument against accepting it. Fr North, having said, ‘We have declined it’ gives no reasons. He is right when he says that in saying ‘no’ ‘we have re-committed ourselves to an Anglican future.’ But that Anglican future is not a Catholic future – and now never can be. The two opinions are not ‘threatening to leave and then never quite doing so.’ The two opinions are being a member of the Catholic Church, and being a member of the established Church of England. Once I thought I could be both: now I believe you can’t. To re-write Father’s last sentence: ‘the Church of England changed, the Anglo-Catholics left, and those who stayed are facing death.’