VEMBER 11, 1992 Nd)
was a momentous ay in the history of Christianity in Britain. Nearly five years on, as more ex—Anglican priests are still being received into the Catholic Church, the date on which the General Synod sanctioned the ordination of women priests is still deeply significant.
The Synod's ruling placed one section of the broad Anglican communion in an immediate dilemma. Until then AngloCatholics had maintained a fine balance between Anglican discipline and Catholic teaching. They followed Roman ritual fastidiously, while remaining steadfastly loyal to their Anglican bishop. The ruling of the Synod, however, upset this delicate equilibrium.
Anglo-Catholics were forced to wrestle with their consciences to determine their ultimate allegiance. Should they remain within the Anglican Church, which now clearly diverged from Catholic tradition, or apply to the Roman Catholic authorities for reception? This choice was painful and admitted no easy resolution. If AngloCatholics obeyed their consciences on the ordination of women and crossed the Tiber, then they would lose what for centuries has made them a distinctive feature of British Christianity, namely their imaginative synthesis of Anglicanism and Catholicism.
In the past five years almost 500 Anglican clergymen have sought reception into the Catholic Church. Many more of their parishioners have followed them. Such a large and sudden movement of conversion initially raised the triumphant expectation among some Catholics that parishes might be received in their entirety — not only the priest and laity, but the building as well. However, such expectalions have been disappointed.
Early commentators overlooked a fundamental obstacle to the process. The triplet of the priest, laity and building has profoundly shaped the Anglican tradition and religious outlook. Even in places where the priest and laity have converted, the building has remained largely in Anglican hands. Catholics have underestimated the Anglican attachment to their Churches. Anglicans see their Churches as more than bricks and mortar; they are also a repository of history, tradition, prayer and community.
Fr Michael Seed, the Ecumenical Officer at Archbishop's House, Westminster, formulates it in these terms: "Anglicans have a much closer affinity and loyalty to their buildings. They look after them and treasure them. Anglicans have a much higher sense of parish." This can be seen clearly in the case of St. Matthew's, Bethnal Green. The congregation of this east end Church was among the first Churches to seek the Roman Option. The majority of parishioners (estimates vary between 120 and 150) wished to convert. They were lead by the Fr. Christopher Bedford. Fr. Stephen Willis, who was also received and is currently assistant priest at St. Patrick's, Soho, was curate at St. Matthew's when the Church decided to approach the Catholic authorities. No one had expected the situation at the time. It took us by surprise," he explains. "Fr Christopher had taken the church from nothing. He had built it up with Catholic teaching. St Matthew's was modern Catholic. We followed the Missa Normativa and prayed for the Pope."
With a foundation of Catholic teaching and liturgy and in the optimistic climate °fele ARCIC dialogues between Anglican and Catholic theologians, St Matthew's decided to pursue the path more directly. Besides St Matthew's, four other central London churches approached the Catholic authorities at this time They were St Mary Magdalene, Munster Square; Holy Cross, Cromer Street; St Chad, Haggerston and its close neighbour, Holy Trinity, Hoxton. They were joined later by St. Stephen's, Gloucester Road, which houses a shrine and numbers T. S. Eliot among its former churchwardens.
Together these churches formed an axis across central London; their prominent locations and historical identity undoubtedly made the process of reception much more complicated. St Matthew's stood out among the six churches because the vast majority of the congregation wished to convert. As a result the local bishop, Victor Guazzelli, was able to perform their official reception in the church.
In the other cases, however, the parish was less unanimous and the converts were received in the neighbouring Catholic church. After their reception, the Catholic congregation of St Matthew's thought the next step would be the transfer of their building to the Catholic authorities. In Anglican terms, however, this was a non sequitur.
The Anglican authorities were unwilling to give up the deeds to the church and the process ground to a halt. The Catholic hierarchy sought a diplomatic solution to the situation. As a result Catholic services are still said at St Matthew's, but the church remains under Anglican auspices. The cause of this impasse was the Anglican minority who wished to preserve the church for Anglican worship.
Whatever the motives or the composition of the group, their presence made the reception of the church by the Catholic authorities impossible. However, Fr Willis stresses that the parishioners of St. Matthew's are content with the compromise agreed by the Anglican and Catholic authorities. "The friendship still holds. The Anglican church is generously allowing us to have Mass." Anglicans and Catholics work together on a community project, involving outreach to the local community among children, the elderly and the lonely. Yet Fr Willis doesn't smooth over the fact that "it took time. It was painful going through it." The transition from the rarefied world of high church Anglicanism to the pragmatic realm of Roman Catholicism has not been straightforward. "It isn't the same world. It took some growing into."
MICHAEL Seed comments sensitively and perceptively on the Anglo-Catholic dilemma. "There is a sense of bereavement and serious loss. As Roman Catholics we should be aware of how much these people are giving up." Of the five other churches that applied for total or partial reception into the Catholic Church, only one still celebrates a regular Mass. At St Stephen's, Gloucester Road, a Mass is celebrated each Saturday for Roman Catholics in the parish. At St Mary Magdalene, Munster Square, a Mass was held on consecutive Sundays for six months to ease transition. Catholic converts now worship in the neighbouring Catholic church. It should be noted that the Roman Catholic church is directly next door to St Mary Magdalene. The contrast between the two is sharp. St Mary Magdalene combines splendid architecture with an esteemed heritage. It was here that Cardinal Manning preached one of his last sermons as an Anglican, before himself taking the Roman option. Just a year after St Mary Magdalene's construction, in 1852, a Catholic Church was built on the neighbouring plot. So at the height of the Anglo-Catholic revival the two buildings stood together a symbol of the reconciliation of Anglicanism and Catholicism.
Nowadays the two buildings still represent the comparative states of the Anglican and Catholic Churches. St Mary Magdalene remains an august and estimable Church, but much of its congregation worship next door at the Catholic Church, which was rebuilt in the nineteen-seventies in a brutalist style so ugly that even Prince Charles would be lost for words to describe it.
The reception of the congregation of St Mary Magdalene, with their priest, Fr Michael Markey, took place in the Catholic Church in 1995. The procession into the aesthetically challenged church set the tone of the evening. It was accompanied by the strains of a remote-controlled organ, which played the entrance hymn at an unpredictable speed, skipping verses liberally. This brought pained amusement to the congregation, which included several distinguished organists. Cardinal Manning must have been turning in his tomb in Westminster.
At Holy Trinity, Hoxton, the reception was less eventful. Anglo-Catholic converts now worship at the local Catholic church. The incumbent, the Rev lain Young, who was himself briefly received before returning to the Anglican fold, commented: "There is no acri mony. Those who decided to stay stayed and those who decided to go went.n Yet the reality is that the communion of the Church has been broken. Fr. Seed accepts that the Catholic authorities bear some responsibility for the divisive outcome at Holy Trinity and the other churches. "I don't think the Catholic Church was prepared for this on the scale that it happened." Fr. Seed mentions Charitable exchanges between Cardinal Hume and the then Anglican Bishop of London, David Hope (now the Archbishop of York), but nonetheless the issue was a testing point of Episcopal friendship.Even with several years of very serious discussions, Fr Seed recognises that there were omissions. "There was probably not enough contact with local Roman Catholic people — the clergy and the faithful. We should have had greater rootedness in the situation from the beginning. The feelings of ordinary Anglican worshippers were overlooked during the process of high-level negotiation: "Whatever happened there was going to be a degree of pain. It can be like a divorce. It's an intimate family matter.n Many clergy and laity have been displaced by the affair. Numerous clerics I sought to contact had taken up new appointments. Churches have been merged, services rearranged and many parishioners uprooted. AngloCatholics who have had to join their local Catholic congregation are liable to feel anonymous, disoriented and, possibly, inferior. No one of the Anglo-Catholic persuasion stands in the same place that they did before November 1992. They have had to modify their stance in relation to the events of the past five years.
Yet there may be positive aspects to this outwardly unfortunate episode. According to Fr. Seed, the number one thing that Anglicans and Catholics all felt was that this was a wonderful opportunity to evangelise together. We have seen that at St. Matthew's the congregation has risen above the protracted and often trying negotiations to serve the local community. As Fr Seed notes, if one's Christianity is anything it all it should transcend these difficulties.
Y five years on, the implications of the ruling of the General Synod continue to ramify through the Church of England. The wave of AngloCatholic conversions is simply one of its most immediate consequences. Its full import has yet to be realised. "It is an historical event, but we are still living in it I believe this will continue for a few years to come," comments Fr Seed.
The past few years have seen the conversion of many public figures -cab ministers, actresses, the chief of the armed fortes and even a member of the Royal Family. England's Establishment is turning to Roman Catholicism in increasing numbers. Fr Seed suggests we are seeing a development of the original theme of the Tractarian movement
Are we perhaps witnessing a return of the spirit ofJohn Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning, who followed the Anglo-Catholic path all the way to Rome? The evidence thus far is inconclusive is there. However many feel today as Newman did before his own conversion, when he wrote the following to a Catholic friend: "The unity of the Church Catholic is very near my heart, only I do not see any prospect of it in our time, and I despair of its being effected without sacrifices on all hands."