During this past year I have re-read much of my collection of the detective fiction of P D James, Ruth Rendell – and of course, Agatha Christie, from whom I borrow the title of this post.
In this first year of a new papacy there is much speculation about where Pope Francis will lead the Church. Among liberal Catholics Pope Benedict was seen as attempting to turn back the clock from the liberation experienced at Vatican 2. The new Pope’s style is thought to be rather different: but what will his message be? The issues which concern liberal Catholics are contraception, remarriage after divorce, women priests, and just coming over the horizon now, gay marriage. If only the Catholic Church could move towards making the same change in thinking that the Anglican Church has, so the thinking goes, then Catholicism would be much more credible and attractive. But while it continues with its stern teaching, particularly in sexual matters, people will continue to leave.
But perhaps those who look enviously over the wall into the garden of Anglicanism should talk to those who once were Anglicans and have become Catholics. There are quite a lot of us, both those who came in the two waves around 1994 and more recently through the Ordinariate. It’s easy to dismiss us, as the press has done, as ‘disaffected’: even worse is to write us off as ‘single issue converts’ (the issue being our failure to cope with women priests!). We have first hand experience of living with the changes over the years; of thinking, debating and arguing; of coping pastorally with people under the old system and then as the C of E rapidly adopted, on issue after issue, the liberal line taken by society at large. Evans, then (or rather the Ordinariate Catholic) is the most obvious person to ask, isn’t she (or he)?
Most Catholics are unaware just how deeply liberalism has eaten into Anglicanism. I suppose that one of the defining moments in my recent faith journey, came with something as simple as a ‘Thought for the Day’ broadcast. (For those of you outside the UK, Radio 4, which is part of our publicly funded broadcasting, has a daily religious spot just before 8 am in which it invites speakers from the major faiths to talk for a few minutes. It is rather anodyne most of the time, but incurs the fury of the secularists with regular campaigns to have it removed.) Anyway, it was Ash Wednesday, and the speaker was a well-known Anglican dignitary. I didn’t hear it, but two people in my congregation (two women in fact, with generally liberal views) were concerned that he had denied Christian belief in personal resurrection and eternal life. I reassured them, as I felt sure they had misunderstood, but I checked the text, and found that they were right. I was shaken by this, and even more so that there was no rebuke. I contrasted in my mind the suspension of an Anglican assistant bishop who had made some unguarded comment about the then forthcoming royal marriage.
The approach to the major moral issues of the past fifty years has been deeply influenced by what is usually called ‘situation ethics’. Popularised by the American Anglican cleric Joseph Fletcher in the 1960’s, ‘situation ethics’ placed ‘love’ in opposition to ‘rules’. In a notorious example he cited the case of a young sailor, troubled by his sexuality, who goes to a prostitute. With her he finds release, affection, and fulfilment of his desires. ‘Where there is healing and wholeness, ‘ writes Fletcher, ‘there is God.’ I well remember the Anglo-Catholic moral theologian E.W. Trueman Dicken commenting crisply, ‘And I suppose that when he returned home and gave his wife VD she too murmured, “Where there is healing and wholeness, there is God.”
Put like that I imagine that most Catholics and many Anglicans would be appalled. But if not the extremes of ‘situation ethics’ then many of us will have sat through Synods where ‘morality by anecdote’ has swung the vote. I recall a debate on the re-marriage of divorcees in which one clergyman took us through an emotional account of his decision to marry a couple where one or both of the parties had been married before. His story ended with the death of the husband just six months later in a major disaster. The speaker left the podium believing that he had made the point that somehow re-marriage after divorce should be permitted because of what had happened. It showed nothing of the sort! I might well contrast it with a story which has remained with me for thirty years. A woman I knew supported her husband through the loss of his job and moving home, believing that he was having an emotional and spiritual crisis. Some months later he admitted that he had been having a lengthy affair, and since his mistress was now pregnant he was leaving his wife and children. Six months later man and mistress were married in church. Yet this anecdote no more ‘proves’ that re-marriage after divorce should not be permitted. What it might do is to make Catholics a little more cautious in calling for the lengthy and careful process of annulment, well removed from the parish, to be replaced by a talk with the vicar. People do not tell the truth, not to others, not to the clergy and often not to themselves, especially if they badly want something and are determined to have it.
Lastly, I need to point out to Catholics just what happens when the Church becomes too closely linked with the State in what we usually call in England, ‘Establishment’. Forty years ago ‘dis-establishment’ was a serious and respectable issue, certainly among Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. Curiously it is the liberals who have remained most determined to preserve the establishment of the C of E. During the debate on women priests it was made clear in the courts that the beliefs of the C of E are ultimately decided by the British Parliament. This was reinforced by the furious reactions of some Members of Parliament to the General Synod’s recent rejection of women bishops. The close links of C of E liberals with government, media and the chattering classes, must surely lead Catholics to ask whether the independence of the Christian voice can be maintained.
But what has this to do with those who have left for the Catholic Church? Is it not impertinent of us to continue to make our opinions felt? I maintain, rather, that it is of vital importance to Catholics in England. For if the Established Church speaks only with the voice of liberalism, and with a liberalism ever more closely conformed to the spirit of the age, then the Catholic Church will find itself standing alone, disadvantaged and vilified. The experience of Anglo-Catholics in their last years in the Church of England, (and those who continue to witness within the Anglican Communion) where they were marginalised and viewed with increasing anger for continuing to ask awkward questions, is surely worth considering.
As much as anything else we bring this part of the ‘Patrimony’ with us, even if it is the darker side, and in reflecting on it we may be able to advise, help and counsel. Is our experience to be ignored?