The Beginnings

First published in the Catholic Herald in July 2013 and published in the Advent 2013 edition of The Friends of the Ordinariate Newsletter.


COMING down to breakfast in a small hotel on the Borge Pio, I was greeted enthusiastically by an elderly American tourist.  ‘Good morning, Your Excellency!’ he said, no doubt noticing the pectoral cross I was wearing over my black suit and clerical shirt.   When my wife and daughter joined me, a few moments’ later, the American’s smile turned into a scowl.   Whether he thought that this bishop had brought along an irregular household or guessed correctly that this person whom he had assumed to be a Catholic prelate was really a Protestant I never found out.

It was April 2008 and, having just celebrated my sixtieth birthday, I had gone to Rome for a holiday.  I had never been before – despite being Bishop of Ebbsfleet, a ‘flying bishop’, I neither fly nor enjoy travelling far – but thought that I really must visit the Eternal City, the focus of so much of my ecclesiological angst.  Though it was a holiday – with overnight stops in Beaune and Nice and Florence and Assisi – it was also an opportunity to make some contacts.  If I were to make enquiries, would anyone at the Vatican see me?  I imagined that the answer would be ‘yes’ and that some lowly monsignor at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) would sympathise, over an espresso, with my own longings for High Church Anglicans – those who call themselves ‘Anglo-Catholic’ or ‘Catholic Anglican’ – to be received into the full communion of the Catholic Church, unity with the Pope, the successor of St Peter.   As it turned out, I was able to visit not only the PCPCU but also the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), formerly called ‘the Holy Office’, the body which enforces and safeguards Catholic doctrine, the body of which the then Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, had been Cardinal Prefect.  More than simply visiting these curial departments, I discovered that I should be received at the highest level in them, each time by the Cardinal in charge, surrounded by his senior staff.  I had rather forgotten that, as a Provincial Episcopal Visitor (‘flying bishop’) and suffragan (auxiliary) of the Archbishop of Canterbury, any visit I made to the Vatican deserved to be taken seriously.  And, indeed, once the appointments had been made, my fellow ‘flying bishop’, Keith Newton, Bishop of Richborough, arranged to fly out and join me.

We were not the first Anglican bishops to visit on this kind of mission – seeking out the possibility of reconciliation with the Holy See in the midst of a certain amount of confusion and disintegration within Anglicanism.  Before we had been, there were stories in the press about various English diocesans making secret visits though, as it turned out, these seem to have been strategic attempts to manipulate the politics of the Church of England rather than serious endeavours in the search for Christian Unity.  At any rate, none of those bishops (at any rate yet) has been reconciled with the Catholic Church.  And there were bishops from the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) – mostly from America or Australia – who, drawing inspiration from the  Affirmation of St. Louis (1977), had parted company with the Archbishop of Canterbury and mainstream Anglicanism.  These TAC bishops had signed up to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in order to be received into full Communion with the Catholic Church, at St Agatha’s Portsmouth, in October 2007, and at the time of our visit to Rome, it seemed probable that this would come to fruition.  Bishop Newton and I were not attempting to manipulate the politics of the Church of England, nor were we promising, like some reports of the TAC overture suggested, 400,000 converts.  We were enquiring seriously whether our priests with their congregations could be received into the Catholic Church, not as defectors from the Church of England (as we came to be labeled) but as what Anglicans had always claimed to be, a bridge between the two communions, or as we put it, a treasure to be shared.

I am not at liberty to reveal any of the conversations that took place five years ago in the Vatican, except to say that we were reassured that the Holy Father had taken a keen interest in us, and in our plight in the Church of England, since 1992, the year when unilaterally the Church of England ordained women to the priesthood and thus effectively ended the coming together of Catholics and Anglicans within the foreseeable future.  We were told simply to wait and see what happened as a result of our visit.  It is important to say that both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the leadership of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales were kept fully informed by us of what we were doing – though it made a much more interesting story to suggest that we had gone behind their backs.

Five years on, and we have seen the publication of Anglicanorum cœtibus, providing for ‘personal ordinariates for Anglicans entering into full communion with the Catholic Church’.   Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Constitution was promulged on 4th November 2009, the feast of St Charles Borromeo, the sixteenth century reformer whose task it was to combat the divisive effects of the Protestant Reformation.

So far there are three ordinariates – the UK, North America, and Australia – each presided over by an Ordinary who, though not a bishop, has the juridical powers of a bishop.  The ordinariates themselves, though not dioceses, have much of the character of dioceses, as regards culture, independence and management.   Keith Newton, the youngest and fittest of the three serving Anglican bishops who crossed the Tiber, became the Ordinary in the UK and he is assisted by the former Bishop of Fulham, John Broadhurst, Chairman of the campaigning group, Forward in Faith, and by me.  We have called the bluff of Anglicans who loudly profess the desire to be reconciled with the Holy See but who, faced with the opportunity, turn it down.  We are few, like Gideon’s men (Judges 6), but the bravery of eighty priests, most of whom have lost stipend and some future pension benefits, and the thirty or forty groups of lay people, who have lost their habitual time and place of worship and nowadays go to church at a less convenient time and to a less convenient place, is, we believe, the beginning of something new and something magnificent.  It is not just Choral Evensong and all that, though the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham provides that for us, it is a step towards the healing of one of the most damaging wounds of history, the dividing of Christ’s Body the Church, here in England.

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