Page 6, 7th November 1997

7th November 1997
Page 6
Page 6, 7th November 1997 — Two steps forward, one step back

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Locations: London, Rome


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Two steps forward, one step back

Early expectations that something like the American Pastoral Provision for Anglicans (in which groups and even whole parishes may be received into the Catholic Church and stay together afterwards) might be installed here were dashed in Low Week 1993, when the Catholic bishops published unexpectedly cautious proposals. In the second of two extracts from his new book, The Roman Option, WILLIAM ODDIE (pictured right) argues that that should not be the end of the matter...

IN MANY Anglo-Catholics, the Low Week statement and its aftermath aroused not merely disappointment but mortification, even resentment. Feelings were not wholly unlike those of a man who has always loved a particular woman who after years of rejection and coldness has unexpectedly given him reason for hope but has then, after a brief but blissful interval, calmly explained that though his aspirations were always absurd in that way, she will always consider him a friend. There were a lot of hurt feelings. "It did a lot of damage on our side," one Anglican priest told me. "The message that everybody picked up was 'they don't really want you, chaps'. I mean, I don't think anybody wanted flags to be waved. And I think, certainly, nobody expected wild concessions. But I do think that people were thinking that it would grow into something proper and organised and welcoming in a way that it wasn't, was it? I mean, it was half-hearted."

But to some extent, that depended in which Catholic diocese you happened to find yourself. Over the next two (in some cases three) years, all over the country, clergy explored the possibility envisaged in the November statement that a group might be enabled "to stay together for as long as it wishes not only during a period of enquiry and exploration, and in the process leading up to reception into the Catholic Church, but also... after that point" [my italics]. Most were unsuccessful. In London, "after that point" was not being encouraged south of the river in the Archdiocese of Southwark (as in most of the country); but in the Archdiocese of Westminster, things were more hopeful and there were very limited though real results in setting up parish groups which continued their communal life before, during and after reception.

THIS WAS important. For most Anglican Catholic laity, whose faith was (in precisely the spirit of Vatican II) an essentially corporate matter, "staying together" was an essential ingredient in a viable Roman Option; and far too many now felt they had to stay where they were, hoping for better times. Quite simply, they were not given the generous pastoral response for which the Pope had asked, a response in which Catholic elements in the Anglican tradition might be "united not absorbed" (the phrase from the Malines Conversations which in Rome was

Towards a fateful decisi "kept constantly in mind").

It is now time for the process to move forward once more. Despite the deliberately limited operation of the Roman Option in its first half-decade, it has become clear that the fears and insecurities of many of the Catholic bishops have been dispelled by events. many Catholic bishops underwent, in the words of one of them, a "very steep learning curve" about the beliefs and capacities of the Anglican clergy with whom they now had to deal. Above all, the ministerial experience and qualities of the former Anglicans came into their own once they were operating once more as pastors.

MANY OBSERVERS said at the time that the bishops were too cautious; and the wisdom of hindsight surely confirms their judgement. But this was not their last chance to get it

right. One of the lessons of history is that real changes, historical "realignments" of this kind, tend to happen not as it can seem in retrospect at a given moment, but in a series of convulsions which finally bring the process to critical mass.

The Low Week statement of the Catholic bishops was presented as it had to be as the only possible final outcome of the discussions that had preceded it. The public speculations in the spring of 1993 about a corporate Roman Option for Anglicans were now dismissed as the kind of thing which occurs only in the minds of those who do not know how these things are done. The fact is, however, that a corporate solution was not then and is not now unthinkable: for both in Westminster and in Rome itself this approach was taken very seriously indeed. The unthinkable was thought; and it will, I believe, be thought again. With the Low Week statement, we may yet prove to have witnessed the first tentative movement towards the reunion of the Roman Catholic Church with what Aidan Nicholls in his book The Panther and the Hind calls "Anglicanism selectively defined". The concessions allowed in England by the Catholic bishops were limited (so limited, indeed, that in Rome the supposed reactionary, Cardinal Ratzinger, was moved to ask "What are the English bishops afraid of?") These limited concessions enabled, nevertheless, a series of experiments and clarifications to unfold which little by little stilled the fears and suspicions of many, including some of the most obdurate opponents, thus preparing the way for a more effective and comprehensive settlement.

In the Church of England, the problem posed by a large dissident minority has not been solved but has grown more intractable. The minority has not, as it was supposed they would, withdrawn their objections to the ordination of women and become reabsorbed into the life of the Church of England. They have, on the contrary, been consolidated into a separate and identifiable constituency, with its own bishops and internal communications.

Thus, when the next convulsion within Anglicanism supervenes, the Roman Catholic bishops will find that the pastoral challenge with which they are faced will be both more clearly defined and on a very much greater scale than that of the period 1992-3. But they will also find that events have removed many of the crippling fears and anxieties of the Roman Option's initial phase, enabling them given courage and vision boldly to respond to the Kairos, to God's moment. Will they be prepared? There remains at the time of writing some time left; but the sands are running out.

THE SAME question can be put to the Anglican bishops. Will they be prepared? Will they have the vision to accommodate the Anglican Catholics in an orderly manner, to understand that their separation (and in the end almost certainly their exodus) is necessary if the Church of England is to be empowered to fulfil its historic vocation in uniting the Churches of the Reformation?

The answer is that probably there will have to be at least one more major emergency before they can be brought to this point. The process of realignment would be so much simpler if Anglicans, Free Churchmen and Roman Catholics would simply sit round a table and make rational decisions. But that is not how great historical movements proceed, at least, not at first. The great peace treaties are ratified only after major convulsions. There will be further, and deeper crises: that is how the great clarifications of Christian history unfold. Events will be infinitely more complicated than any of the simple scenarios I have outlined. There, will be more pain and more healing, more petty stupidity and more inspired vision; ancestral insecurities and resentments will again manifest themselves on the Church's unimpressive human face: but in the end all this will be cast aside by the glorious Grace of God, sweeping through his people and bringing them at last safe home. E The Roman Option is published by HarperCollins on November 10 at D6.99 OCharterhouse Chronicle Page 10

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