Ten years on, Peter Geldard assesses the contribution to the Catholic Church of the wave of ex-Anglicans for . whom the ordination of women was the catalyst — but not, he argues, the fundamental cause — of their conversion hen one
looks back in retrospect at the life of the Catholic Church in England over the last 150 years one can read ily see that at certain crucial moments she was wonderfully blessed by receiving into herself substantial numbers of Anglican converts — lay and clerical. Many of these were people of outstand ing quality — intellectually, spiritually and in leadership.
Such was clearly the case in the 1850s, when converts from the Oxford Movement brought into the life of the Church names like Henry Manning, John Henry Newman, Ambrose de Lisle, Frederick. Faber.
The same phenomenon occurred early in the 20th century with people like Ronald Knox, Robert Benson, Gilbert Chesterton, Cyril Martindale, and Christopher Dawson.
When history comes to be written, the same will be said of many of the converts, (irrespective of whether this is the right use of the word, this is what we will always be in the eyes of most people) who were received into the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the decision of the Church of England to ordain women as priests in 1992.
It is difficult to realise that this was now some 10 years ago. It
seems a long time ago since I walked down Ambrosden Avenue and tentatively knocked on the door of Arch bishop's House requesting whether I might explore with Cardinal Hume the possibility of groups, of people and parishes being reconciled to the Catholic Church — only to be informed that already many others had made similar overtures.
Since then many hundreds of Anglican priests — together with thousands of their laity — have come into full communion with the Catholic Church. Often very quietly, but nearly always successfully, they have enriched her life.
The radical nature of those early times can easily be forgotten. It is now taken for granted that the process of assessing ex-Anglicans for ordination should be done by a triumvirate here in England and not by the Curia in Rome. We accept the ordination of married men as an actuality, whereas then it was almost unknown in the world and completely untried in England. So much so, that the (unfounded) fear by some bishops, that such priests would not be acceptable by ordinary parishes, could only be appeased by the specific restriction that they should not be appointed as actual parish priests. Today we have whole families living in presbyteries.
For anyone who has shared the joy of an ex-Anglican's ordination it almost goes without notice that there is included within that rite a specific prayer "thanking God for that person's past sacramental life". How many were the hours of deliberation that were needed for that to be included? But initially it was not always quite like that. From 10 years on the agony and the glory of those times can quickly be forgotten.
I recall with pain how one Catholic bishop questioned whether we were traitors and troublemakers, and alleged that in reality we were only one-issue ultra-conservatives. How often one had to say then (and has to sometimes even today), that the events of 11 November 1992 (when the measure to ordain Anglican women-priests came into effect) were only the catalyst. The real issues that were exposed were those of authority; the true nature of the Church; and, in the haunting words of Newman. that "the spell of the Church of England has been broken". One quickly forgets that
Many of those ex-Anglicans who have become Catholics in the last 10 years — clergy and laity — are now exercising their gifts and strengths in the daily life of the Church in a variety of ways. All are contributing to the Mission of the Church and building up the Body of Christ.
Fathers Oliver McTeman, Sean Hall and three other priests circulated an open letter, publicly disassociating themselves from our explorations and describing Cardinal Hume's conversations as deeply disturbing, and a potential for disruption and confusion. The method of our possible receptions was described as divisive, and subversive.
One could take comfort that historically such similar outbursts and hostility had been shown before to previous generations of Anglicans who had made a similar journey, but it hurt none the less. One needed always to remind oneself how easy it can be for those who are already within the fold to fail to realise the sacrifices that many ex-Anglicans (especially clergy) are required to make in order to convert: the loss of home and future; sometimes destitution and ostracism: the often impossible conflict between what in conscience they know is imperative for them and their responsibilities for their families. And above it all, quite rightly, the fact there can be no guarantee that their gifts will necessarily be used in a particular way by the Catholic Church in the future.
But God is always good. He frequently uses the agony of such circumstances for His glory. One outcome — whenever a particular decision is hard to take — is that it usually results in it only being made
by people with high qualities. This was clearly in the mind of Cardinal Basil Hume when he openly emphasised at the outcome of our discussions 10 years ago of the importance of "the gifts that such people bring" and how their future life and work "will enrich the Catholic
Church in England". And so it has proved to be.
Many of those ex-Anglicans who
have became Catholics in OK last 10 years — clergy and laity — arenow exercising theirgifts and strengths it the daily life .of the Church in a variety of ways. All are contributing to the Mission of the Church and bilding up the Body of Christ. In nany parishes some are involved in citechetical wort or admi ni stratiot in others enrichin the liturgy with heir skills in nntic. Some ex-Anglican clergy are :ow teaching in senasaries or inspiing parishes with their preachingand pastoral gifts. A few are in the arefront of leadership in the renewal or retreat movements if diocest or the Church at large. 'There areow in England ex-Anglican area ckos, as well as a dean of a catheral. Many — including married me —
are administering parishes or seicing vibrant communities in priNns,
schools or universities. Next :;:ek
one, Fr Alan Hopes, will be ordeed as an auxiliary Bishopof Westdn ster. Like ex-Anglican Bisips
Manning. Newman or Grarof Southwark in the 19t1 centuo or
Bishop Butler and other in the lih, this is not only right faits ownske but it is also a powerfulsymbel ad
reminder) of how the cloubters.ad scoffers, of 10 years ago — to their predecessors before therare being proved wrong.
We need to recall that undete grace of God, all converts toe Church enrich her became eacfscl every one of them is a inique tki of God and brings tothe Chat their own precious gifs and ties. When the history cf Englata the 1990s can finally )e writti am convinced, that as far able Catholic Church in his lapis concerned, its judgement wilonce again — be Deo ratias.
Fr Peter Geldard is Dart of a lains & Catholic Cholain, fir College, University of Kern Canterbtery Canterburl Kent