A New Look at the Roman Option  

Dating from 2007, the Ebbsfleet years, this shows some of the thinking at the time.

ONE OF the prime objectives of Forward in Faith’s self-understanding, at least as far as the British leadership is concerned, is corporate reconciliation with the Holy See.  This has been an objective, at times covert and at times overt, and one of the catchphrases has been that the Free Province – an objective in itself – is ‘a Catholic solution to a Catholic problem’.  This catchphrase, in my view, has been problematic for two reasons.  One is that it states as a ‘solution’ – i.e. an objective – that which the rhetoric at other times would claim to be no more than a stage towards the real solution, namely corporate reconciliation with the Holy See.  The second is that what is proposed is, in essence, a Protestant solution to a Catholic problem.  That is to say: it has been the Protestant denominations which have sprung from newly-formed and break-off groups, based on soundness of faith and doctrine, order and moral life.  The Catholic solution to the problem of disorder is to cleave to whatever seems to be the primary focus of orthodoxy – pope, patriarch, metropolitan or bishop  – and persist within the body.  (It is interesting that this distinction would render ‘Protestant’ the schismatic bodies within – or formerly within – the Catholic fold who maintain the Faith in a sede vacante mentality, regarding the reigning Pope as heretical.  This is not a purely quixotic point because the rhetoric of classical Anglicanism with regard to the Pope and the Church of Rome has certain similarities with modern Roman Catholic schismatics: that is, if the Lefèvrists are not Protestants, neither are the Anglicans).


A Free Province?

Whether or not there is an ecclesiological problem with the Free Province ‘solution’ regarding itself as a ‘Catholic’ solution, there is equally an ecclesiological problem or two with the Free Province regarding itself as authentically Anglican.  For one thing, it would be in ‘impaired communion’ (to use the normal phrase, which is of course problematical) with the Archbishop of Canterbury, if he (or indeed she) presided over a college of bishops which ordained and admitted women bishops to its number.  For another thing, it would be basing its independent ecclesiological stance on the doctrine of provincial autonomy, the very doctrine whose premises and consequences Forward in Faith was established to oppose.


There is also a problem with the word ‘free’, useful as it has been for polemical purposes.  For one thing, it suggests a ‘break out’ or a ‘break away’.  A ‘free province’ wrested from the Anglican Communion or from the Church of England would be no more and no less than a continuing church, either another member of the Continuum or joining up with a member of the Continuum.  As we have seen, that is not a ‘Catholic’ solution and, despite much excitement and talk, especially following the decision of the bishops of the Traditional Anglican Communion in autumn 2007 to seek corporate reconciliation, there is no precedent, to date, of a ‘continuing church’ being corporately reconciled with Rome.  Substitute ‘new’ for ‘free’ and posit a decision by the Church of England to reorganise itself so that those who disagreed with the decision to ordain women to the priesthood and episcopate were constituted into a provincial grouping and we avoid this little difficulty.  Equally, to avoid the tendentious word ‘province’ which, as Colin Podmore has shown,[1] anyway has different meanings and weight in different parts of the Church, a circumlocution might be used to describe the ‘new’ ecclesial group which was authentically Anglican, because it was established by the General Synod, and yet remained faithful to the ARCIC vision and formed, as it were, an advance party in that process.


The Manchester Process

The most likely outcome of the Manchester Group – the working party under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Manchester currently (2007) looking at the possibility of inclusive legislation on the topic of women bishops – is that solutions will be proposed which, despite their generosity, do not adequately provide ecclesiologically for the traditionalist rump.  One imagines, as with the proposals before the Governing Board of the Church in Wales in 2007, actual pragmatic protection, for the time being, of parish priests and parishes which do not accept the episcopal and priestly ministry of women but no truly adequate ecclesial framework.   Truth to tell, there may be no ecclesial framework logically possible for an ecclesiola which does not accept the orders of the ecclesia of which it is a part.   The fundamental problem would seem to be that, though it is perfectly possible for a larger group – the Anglican Communion – to contain within itself those who have a restricted view of who should belong (in this case, those who would restrict priesthood and episcopate to men), it is not so possible for the small group to accept the authenticity of the order and sacramental life of the parent body, increasingly depending as it would on that which originated in those whose orders were in doubt.  Needless to say this is not intrinsically about gender: something of the same problem has existed and would exist – for instance at the beginning of the Church of South India scheme – were ministries which were not episcopally ordered received and integrated without episcopal ordination.


Assuming, then, an outcome from the Manchester Group that does not constitute the ejection of traditionalists but does not adequately provide for them and for their prospering, supporters of the Free Province, determined to persevere, are faced with three possibilities.  One is accepting structural defeat and retreating behind the great west door of the parish church, there to order the life and worship of the local community as best they can for as long as they are spared.   A second is attempting to wrest a free province from the parent body.  A third is seeking refuge elsewhere, as individuals or groups.   The likelihood is that all three of these strategies would come in to play, depending on personal agendas, parish politics and peer group pressure.  The first, which one could caricature as ‘the pope in his own parish’, is not dissimilar to what has happened elsewhere in the Anglican Communion and has established itself as a non-regenerating, obsolescent model.  Asked what he was going to do about the Vicar who celebrated the Parish Mass in Latin, the late Bishop F R Barry reputedly said, ‘Let him die’. ( Die he eventually did and the parish returned to its former vigour and instituted that regenerative liturgy of the mid-twentieth century, the Parish Communion. )  The second possibility is that a body like Forward in Faith, if not Forward in Faith itself, simply acted as though it had got its province.  There would be wars over parish quotas, increased isolation from diocesan and deanery structures and a certain feeling, not uncommon with Anglo-Catholics, that, in their very defiance of error, they were champions of the Faith, all the more heroic as they were picked off one by one.   It is hard to see, however, how such parishes would continue to grow, or work positively for the Kingdom or, indeed, ever renew themselves in terms of priestly leadership.  Any bishop would insist, surely, that a new parish priest would bring the parish back to conformity and the customary blandishments not to say disingenuousness of archdeacons during vacancies would be replaced by even sterner admonishments and little need for disingenuousness.


Seeking the Roman Option

It is the third group – the individuals or groups seeking refuge elsewhere – which is the concern of this essay.    Whether there would be 100/150 parishes involved – that is, a third group as large as the other two – is hard to say.  The best guess is that there would be far fewer parishes, as regards whole groups, and far more parishes, as regards significant individuals, clerical and lay.  The evidence[2] is that almost no one would be seeking refuge formally in Continuing Anglicanism or in Orthodoxy.  Almost all the traffic would be Rome-wards.  Anecdotal evidence – and past experience – suggests that the pilgrimage would be heavily clerical.  The extent of the traffic would depend on what the reception was perceived to be or likely to be.  There is a stock of stories about insensitive and inappropriate reactions from Roman Catholic bishops – though, as always with anecdote, the occasional example becomes generalised and a particular instance becomes thought to be typical.  Equally there is a stock of stories about imaginative and welcoming ‘re-tread’ or ‘re-spray’ experiences, to use the argot.


What we need to ask is whether there is a way that this development – seemingly inevitable – could be managed by the Church of England and the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales to the enrichment of all concerned and to the advancement of the Kingdom of God.  Could this be – to use a Church of England phrase – a ‘fresh expression’ of ecumenism?  Could it be an engine of mission?  Could a decision to foster this development be framed as a fruit of the IARCCUM exploration, an opportunity to try something out?  Could those involved be regarded by both bodies as, to repeat a phrase used by the writer of this essay[3] at the joint meeting of the House of Bishops and the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in 2006, ‘a common treasure rather than a common problem’?


A Corporate Movement?

It seems to be part of the job description of a Provincial Episcopal Vicar not only to care for those unable to accept the development of doctrine represented by the ordination of women as priest and bishop but also to seek out and promote ecclesially coherent solutions to the problem of what is handily, if absurdly, called the co-existence of ‘two integrities’.  Given the premise of most Anglo-Catholics, that the trajectory of ARCIC and the goal of reunion with the Holy See must not be compromised, it is surely actual reunion with the Holy See which is the ‘Catholic solution to a Catholic problem’.   Anything less than that, to borrow a couple of Titanic metaphors already heavily over-used in the endless discussions which have been part of the Anglo-Catholic bereavement experience, is somewhere between rearranging the deckchairs and climbing into the lifeboat.


So what could a corporate movement, managed by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, look like?  It would need to be small enough and flexible enough to be experimental and expandable enough to cope with further growth.  It would be something that people looked on with fascination and saw others undergo before it seemed workable as a future project to them.  It would need to respect the integrity – in the right sense of that word – of the participating bodies.  Those who came under Roman Catholic jurisdiction in the process would need to be subject to Roman Catholic canons, able to confess the faith, live the moral life and accept the traditional disciplines.  If it were truly to be a corporate process they would need to arrive with gifts and not empty-handed: the Anglican patrimony is a rich inheritance and not to be squandered.  There may be enough constraints implicit in all this to ensure that the experiment would be small but a decision would need to be taken whether this would be something that would be tried at a national level or in one particular Roman Catholic province or Church of England region.


Anglican Patrimony

It is perhaps appropriate at this point further to consider Anglican patrimony and the viability of this becoming an uncontroversial gift, an enrichment of the one partner by the other.   There are controversial things to bring which cannot and sometimes even should not be brought.  By this is meant the ability of some Anglicans to sit light to devotion and doctrine, to take a low view of Bible or Creed, to routinely ignore contradictory life-styles or in the name of inclusion, tolerate casual use of the sacraments.   Roman Catholics will have problems of their own in these areas and these are not matters for ecumenical re-enforcement.  Amongst the good things, clearly gifts from any perspective, are such things as historic buildings,[4] church bells, church choirs, and fine hymn singing, the Parish Eucharist as a solemn celebration and primary focus of the liturgical week.  There is considerable Anglican hinterland which is part of the context.  Anglo-Catholic clergy no longer regularly gather so readily, perhaps, birettas in hand, to study the Sunday Gospel in Greek, and they are less familiar than their forebears were with the spirituality recently best represented by a collection like Love’s Redeeming Work[5] and with the hagiography recently best represented by Robert Atwell’s Celebrating the Saints.[6]  Nevertheless the over-romanticised group memory of the work of Anglo-Catholic priests in slum areas, fighting plague and prejudice, and living on a pittance continues to inform and inspire the best of work.  We may have few lessons to teach about the work of the single priest on soulless council estates – Roman Catholics know this one well – but there is plenty of good practice encapsulated in the notion of the parish priest having the cure of souls for the whole population of his parish.  Sometimes this is represented by a civic involvement, often by involvement in Church neighbourhood schools in which there is otherwise little or no Christian life,  always by an openness to read banns and bury, if not always to baptise or marry all comers on demand.  Many parishes have premises which are used more generally by the community and in many parishes ‘the Vicar’ is still something of a local point of reference, even for those of other faiths.


What all of this adds up to may be best described, after all, not so much by the hinterland metaphor but by the phrase ‘Anglican DNA’, something shared by clergy and parishes of wildly different theological backgrounds.  At its worst, as has often been observed, this DNA programmes clergy and parishes for maintenance and survival, however unpropitious the statistics or the trends.  At its best, this DNA equips the Church of England for mission and evangelism, persevering in casting the net.  Neither the Church of England’s Decade of Evangelism nor the Roman Catholic Church’s international Decade of Evangelisation is generally reckoned to have been a success – though who knows where we would have been had these initiatives not been taken in the 1990s? – but what is instructive for our purposes here is the focus of each.  Both of vital importance, the Roman Catholic Church focus was on rekindling the interest of lapsed Catholics and stimulating a return to practice, the Church of England focus was on telling the story to those who were not familiar with it, breaking new ground.  Interestingly, Catholics nowadays are talking about mission and evangelism more generally and Anglicans, though keen on ‘fresh expressions’ as we have seen, have been investing heavily – and promisingly – in ‘Back to Church Sunday’ initiatives.


Anglo-Catholic Baggage

Assuming Anglicans seeking corporate reunion will not arrive empty-handed, and are therefore worth rescuing from the lifeboat and hauling aboard the ocean-going liner, we need to look at what’s in it for the Churches – the Church of England, in particular, who in one sense would be ‘losing’ clergy and parishes – and how it could be done without, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church having to recant its formally expressed views on Anglican Orders[7] or on the essentially post-Reformation nature of Anglicanism.[8]  Those looking for reunion are not arriving with mutually acknowledged, let alone recognised, priestly orders, nor are they arriving from a sister Church, despite the respect inspired by the ‘ecclesial community’ from which they come.   The liberal end of the hospitality party cannot help thinking that the Anglicans would be best off where they are and where, in terms of word and sacrament, they are already making an effective, and probably sacramentally valid, contribution.   This liberal end fears a fresh infusion for ultramontanism.   The conservative end of the hospitality party welcomes a black-suited band, reinforcing some aspects of traditional Roman Catholic faith and practice, but worries about the counter-cultural and transgressive mentality of Anglo-Catholics.[9]  Both liberals and conservatives worry about being overwhelmed by the material needs – not to say occasional marital problems – arising from married clergy, by the gay sub-culture to which some of the single clergy belong (reinforcing their own problems in this area), and by the disturbing and undermining of the relationship of the Churches.  How, for instance, can the Roman Catholic hierarchy be selective about whom it has, without being thought to be ‘cherry-picking’ or making rude implications about the Church of England’s selection procedures and the parochial experience of its clergy?  What are the consequences for the ecumenical endeavour, the ongoing work of ARCIC, the relationship of Canterbury and Rome?


Neither an Anglican Use….

To some extent these are questions that have already been tackled in the aftermath of 1992, the opening to women of ordination to the Church of England priesthood.  Lessons on both sides have been learnt about being too trusting and not being trusting enough.  What we have to ask here is what are the distinct, practical problems of corporate reception, which would be a new venture.  What we have to rule out immediately is provision similar to that made for the Anglican Use in the United States.  Time will tell how authentic that experiment was but it is important to realise that it was particularly American and particularly of its time.  For one thing, it was essentially to do with liturgical taste and the culture of choice.  Most Anglo-Catholics in England either use the breviary and missal in full or use as much of them as they reasonably can.  There is no call for a distinct ‘Use’.  For another thing, the Anglican Use in the United States is having understandable problems with growing and reproducing itself.  It is hard to see where new priests would come from and where they would be trained.  As the congregations’ memory of American Episcopalianism fade, their need for a distinctly Anglican Use also fades.  What will remain, one imagines, is a residue of accomplished, classical liturgical celebration, well-executed and commending itself not because of liturgical affinity to Anglicanism but because of its quality.     English Anglo-Catholics often too produce liturgical worship of accomplishment and élan, perhaps reflecting an Anglican predilection for planning and rehearsal as contrasted with a Catholic (and indeed Orthodox) preference for sorting things out as you go.  Some, at least, of this is what might be called fish-knife Catholicism, where everything is so correct that the overall result is rather unlike that which it is seeking to imitate.  So, no place for an ‘Anglican Use’, though one could imagine ‘Solemn Evensong and Benediction’, continuing to meet a need.  (It is hard, however, to imagine anyone objecting more to the final part of such a service than the compiler of the first part, Archbishop Cranmer).   The nearest one might get to an ‘Anglican Use’ might be a knapsack of Anglican material – canticles, hymns, prayers and psalms – together with, possibly, versions of the Daily Office and Pastoral Offices with which the general public is familiar.  The new English translation of Roman Catholic liturgy may well reduce the purpose of such an Anglican knapsack but in any household there should be  opportunities for bringing out of the treasury things both old and new.[10]


…nor a Uniate Church

If there is no place for an ‘Anglican Use’, there is surely no place for anything like a Uniate Church.  Not only is the word ‘uniate’ proving less than helpful in the ecumenical enterprise, it really applies to a group celebrating a distinct Rite where all that has remained to be done is the reconciliation of  already recognised ministries into full communion with Peter.  The ‘uniate’ solution might have worked for the Anglican Communion, or for provinces of it, when ecumenical convergence was plain – and who is to say, under God, that that convergence will not re-occur? – but it seems implausible at present.  ‘Uniate’ status for one group of Anglicans is neither helpful to the ecumenical cause nor a realistic provision for the limited size and scale of those concerned.  There would also be the problem, which Cardinal Hume foresaw, of a third brand name on the High Street – neither Catholic nor Anglicans but a hybrid.


Something New

What is not entirely new to the High Street is the Local Ecumenical Project – hereafter LEP.  Governed, from an Anglican point of view, by the ecumenical canons (Canon B44), there have been instances of LEPs in which Roman Catholics and Anglicans have taken part together.  The question which this paper asks is whether the Church of England Canon (e.g. B44 ) and Codex Iuris Canonici 1983 (e.g. Canons 1205ff) of the Roman Catholic Church and the experience of LEP collaboration might enable the sharing of spiritualities temporalities in a way which is new but with sufficient precedent to be achievable constructively, easily, quickly and non-controversially.


Since it is essentially a canonical question, it is a question for the canonists: suffice it, for the moment, to look at some of the issues and possibilities implied in the scene as set.  Clearly the building must remain as an Anglican Parish Church as long as it is needed within Anglican parochial strategy.  (Some would continue to be needed, others plainly would not).  Clearly too the congregation or congregations continue to be responsible for the quota, which should cover the actual costs of ministry, though not necessarily the on-costs.  The parish priest would continue to reside, as appropriate, in the parsonage and, whilst he and his congregation were under full Anglican canonical obedience, he would continue to serve.   Meanwhile, with the permission of both Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, he would undergo formation and training, evaluation and inspection, for the next stage of his ministry.  If there were two congregations emerging, both would have to be pastored and provided for as directed by the bishops concerned but the priest might be permitted by the Roman Catholic bishop to officiate non-eucharistically in accordance, however, with Catholic canon law.  (That would affect, for instance, whom he might marry).  Ordained in due course as a Catholic priest (if the process were completed satisfactorily) he would then celebrate Mass, using the Catholic eucharistic rite and following Catholic eucharistic discipline.


Meanwhile the Anglican Area/Rural Dean would retain the right to provide Holy Communion services according the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England, and, whatever the Sunday arrangements, such a service would always be celebrated on Christmas Day, Ash Wednesday, Easter Day, Ascension Day and Pentecost, unless the Anglican diocesan bishop directs otherwise.  The parish priest would not celebrate the Church of England Holy Communion service and the people of the parish – those baptised and those admitted to Holy Communion – would choose whether they are on the Anglican list or the Roman Catholic list.  Transfer between the lists would be a matter referred to the local bishops or persons nominated by them.


This vision – captured in a particular scenario – poses as many questions as it answers and would require many of its more simplistic assumptions to be looked at in some detail.  There are issues of supply and succession, whether or not other denominations could be part of such an LEP too, how effectively to minister to significant minorities wishing to remain Anglican, how to present the brand message of the parish church without compromising the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, and so on.  Suffice it to say here that they are not insoluble questions and not questions which have never been asked before and partly, at least, dealt with.  The canonists would solve some of these puzzles and think of others.



It is not hard to view this scenario, in one sense, as a simple triumph for Roman Catholicism.  A supply of buildings, the temporalities of which were the responsibility of another body; an influx of experienced clergy and people; a supply of mass centres, some at least of which would have enough merit to be both edifying and, if the experiment went well, permanent;  pastoral access de facto to the general public, with a huge impetus to mission and evangelism; an appropriate and measured piece of progressive ecumenism without sacrifice of ecclesiological or theological principle: these would all be prizes for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.[11]   Would they be a wooden spoon for the Church of England, ashes instead of a garland?


The priority of mission and evangelism and the rhetoric of partnership means that the scheme as outlined would not represent a defeat for the Church of England, one of whose major objectives is furthering the missio Dei, however that is best done.  The Church of England and Roman Catholic Church are not rival grape-pickers, hurrying through the vineyard and racing to reach the finest fruit first.   Even as regards temporalities the Church of England would do well through the arrangement: quota payments reflect actual attendance at the parish church and it is easy to see some of the smaller, less viable inner urban parishes which might become involved in this enterprise paying their way more effectively.   Most particularly the Church of England would have found a solution to a significant part of its problem with ‘two integrities’.  Here would be an opportunity to lose the provisions of the Act of Synod; the new Anglican-Roman Catholic Partnership would provide for those for whom Resolutions A and B of the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure has been insufficient.  It may even be that a similar LEP model, with Protestant groupings, might be a way of providing for Reform parishes.


Romanitas is not built in a day, to adapt a phrase, and the way to proceed with this new look at the Roman Option would surely be for a group under the patronage of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster to study the proposal and discuss the emergent possibilities and then for a group of LEPs to be set up to explore the project on the ground.   A thinly-spread national group might be an embryonic Personal Administration and would need a nominated (Roman Catholic) bishop to be its prelate.  A more local experiment, for instance in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, would be even simpler.  A seven-year experiment, as allowed by Canon B44, would establish the viability of the enterprise and the worst that could happen would be that, if it came to an end, a number of clergy and people would find themselves wanting to work and worship elsewhere.


If this experiment in something new were judged successful, it would not because a be number of Anglo-Catholic parishes had metamorphosed into churches of the Roman Catholic obedience.  That would indeed be the simple outcome for some – probably those whose liturgical culture for a generation or two has never really been Anglican – and there would of course be those which, after a brief experiment, did not in fact change, beyond perhaps a change of priest.  The experiment would be truly successful if also – whether mainly or partly – a  number of vigorous LEPs emerged, with mainstream Anglican and Roman Catholic congregations meeting on the same premises, united in mission and bound together by the vision of the ARCIC and IARCCUM dialogue.  Such congregations, meeting together for non-eucharistic worship and working together catechetically, evangelistically and pastorally, would indeed be a sign of the Kingdom.





Andrew Burnham

Dry Sandford.  SS Chad & Cedd, 26th October 2007

[1] Podmore, Colin, Aspects of Anglican Identity, London 2005, pp69f

[2]from the years 1992-2007 and from the Bishop of Ebbsfleet’s confidential ‘Twenty Questions’ survey, 2005.

[3] at the joint meeting of the House of Bishops and the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in Leeds, autumn 2006

[4]  though few Anglo-Catholic parishes have mediaeval or other Grade 1 church buildings

[5] comp. Rowell, Stevenson, Williams, Love’s Redeeming Work,  Oxford 2001

[6] comp. Atwell, Celebrating the Saints, Norwich, enlarged edition 2004

[7] Apostolicae Curae (1896)

[8] Dominus Iesus (2000) 

[9] admirably explored and explained by John Shelton Reed in Glorious Battle, Nashville, 1996

[10] Matthew 13:52

[11]  If indeed  the Church in Wales followed the practice of the Church of England