Leaving one Church for another
ARFOREIGN visrroR TO the church of Sts Mary and John, Cowley oad, Oxford, on Sunday 20 February, might well have wondered what all the fuss was about.
The vicar these 12 years, Martin Flatman, was saying his farewell Mass before departing to become a Roman Catholic lay person worshipping, as he put it, at St Anthony's, Headley Way.
The Mass was as Roman Catholic as could be, with lashings of incense, the Byrd four-part Mass excellently sung, a statue of Our Lady on the right, seven sanctuary lamps forming a twinkling arch, colourful stations of the cross and Soul of My Saviour sung lustily after communion. The church was crowded to the gunwales.
How did one know it was an Anglican church? Only by attitudes at prayer. No one knelt or stood during the Eucharistic prayer; all gazed devoutly downwards, often with closed eyes.
Nobody, so far as I could see, seemed sad. This was nothing like the day in 1845 when John Henry Newman gave his "parting of friends" address at Littlemore not so far away. There was as much joyfulness as sadness in the air.
There were the people I see every day in Tesco's, I persuaded myself. There was Labour Councillor Peter Moss, the Frank Field of East Oxford. Here was the lady from six doors away. There were the West Indians.
Only the Muslims were absent. Let me explain. When Flatman announced his intention of leaving the Church of England after the 11 November, 1992, vote on women's ordination, the committee of the Mosque wrote to Richard IIarries, Bishop of Oxford, urging him to prevent Flatman's departure.
Evidently the Muslims did not distinguish between different brands of Christianity.
In so far as they did, they preferred the mainline tradition, the Establishment. Religion and State, as the Koran recommends, combine in the Church by law established.
How long the Establishment will last, I do not know. But I think Flatman's ministry at Sts Mary and John validates it in that it has been concerned with everyone who lives here.
In his farewell article in the parish magazine, Flatman writes: "The last 12 years has seen the Cowley Road area get much rougher. Many more people are unemployed. Some of these are mentally ill and are forced to live in the community in the bed-sits of our area.
"So the new vicar (and his family if he has one) will face endless impossible demands at the vicarage door or in the street where they will feel helpless to offer much more than a kind word or a prayer or directions to the Porch or other helping agencies."
The C of E, whatever its faults, sees itself as co-terminous with the whole of society and feels responsible for it. That is the point of Establishment. I suspect that most (Roman) Catholic priests feel happier dealing with their own. "Is he one of our sort?" a Lancashire priest (duly boyhood asked.
After the final Flatman Mass there was a presentation of a spade rather than a "bloody shovel" and lunch in the parish hall. As people streamed out of the church a young man, doubtless a zealous neo-Catechumen, pressed upon them orange-coloured copies of Flatman's apologia. Most stuffed it away for later perusal.
What does it say? Though it falls somewhat short of Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, it may be said to have that Sun directness so admired by Fr Peter Verity.
From 22 February, 1994, it says, the C of E became a different Church.
Flatman goes on: "It is rather like the English football clubs deciding to change the rules of football. There is nothing to stop them, but if they do it by themselves, they can no longer play football with the rest of the world.
"In the same way, the Church of England, by changing its roles, destroys much of the work and prayer towards unity with Catholic and Orthodox Christians that has taken place in the last few years."
So it's a different ball-game. They've changed the rules. No longer a level playing field. Extraordinary how deeply these sporting metaphors have bitten.
But the soccer metaphor could be used differently. Suppose that English football clubs, while maintaining the basic rules, decide to experiment with a new version of the off-side rule.
They don't seek to impose it on everyone else. They will merely try it out to see what happens. If it makes the game more exciting, it will be accepted eventually by FIFA.
Flatman must be distinguished from the misogynists, as I'm sure his wife Frances, who preceded him into the Catholic Church by six years, would insist. Neither are opposed to women's ministry in the Church.
Indeed, they wish to see it developed. In his statement he says: "In the long run, if the whole Church (Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican) were to agree that women could be priests, I would accept it."
I sat with Frances after the presentation. She did the "vicar's wife" job to perfection, remembering the children's names, knowing whose husbands had scarpered or did not exist. God's truth is in the details.
"Why aren't you sad to lose your vicar?" I asked as we sat on chairs intended for four-year-olds. A stout lady replied: "Well, it's not a bloody surprise, is it? He told us yonks ago. We had time to get used to it. Anyway, he's not dead. He's not going far away."
Elevation of stout party. He's not going far. In the Preface of the Mass occurred a phrase which Flatman delivered a sidelong glance could it be? in my direction: "... because you have given us, Lord, the spirit of discipline whereby we triumph over evil."
People ask what difference reception into the RC Church makes. They begin to speak of the Pope, invariably dubbed, in this context, "the Holy Father". No doubt he is important. And no doubt 14,ritatis Splendor is important.
Yet I wonder if there is not something much deeper at work. The "Spirit of discipline" for which Flatman prayed is required immediately. Archbishop Couve de Murville asks that after an initial press statement, he should fall silent. He may well appear on Radio Oxford to earn some pocketmoney (joke), but he must not discuss his conversion.
That's tough. The most important thing remains to be said: Flatman exchanges the C of E for Rome. But he does it without bitterness or rancour: "I know there will still be many faithful Christians within this new body" that is, the C of E after the measure has been promulged "and that God will bless all that you try to do in his name."