Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

March 12, 2010, 5:03 pm
Filed under: Opinion | Tags: , ,

“Traditionalist” Anglo-Catholics are frequently depicted as misogynists, looking to Rome simply in order to escape from women priests and bishops in the Church of England. While this may be true of a few, for very many the opposite is true. We oppose the introduction of women priests and bishops because we see it as finally scuppering our long-held dream of reconciliation with Rome. Let me explain.

I was born in 1939 and brought up in the Church of England, although our family practice was largely attendance at Mattins in the parish church on Sundays. My early education was in Church schools, but on reaching secondary school I went through a period of adolescent doubt. However, by my middle teens I had become convinced of the truth of the Christian faith in its Catholic form, and at the age of seventeen was received into the Catholic Church by the Franciscans of St Bonaventure’s parish in Bristol. I found Catholic doctrine intellectually convincing, and Catholic practice emotionally satisfying. In due course, led by devotion to St Francis, I entered his Order and for seven years of noviciate and study I prepared for priestly ordination, which took place in 1965. During this time the initiative of Pope John XXIII in calling the Second Vatican Council deeply influenced my student days, especially the ecumenical dimension that looked for the re-uniting of all Christians. I recall reading the History of the World Council of Churches co-edited by Bishop Oliver Tomkins, finding it a fascinating story.

After ordination I was sent to Nottingham University to study mathematics and philosophy, living at the friary. In the circumstances, I was an untypical member of the community, which was largely concerned with parish ministry. I made many new friends, including married Anglican clergy, and gained a new perspective on the Church of England. Anglican life on-campus at Nottingham was strongly Anglo-Catholic, and my friends included an Anglican religious, a former curate of All Saint’s Clifton and a future vicar of the parish. Anglicanism thus presented itself to me as soundly Catholic in doctrine and practice. At the same time, developments in the wider world, such as the meeting of Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI in Rome, and the very generous language of the latter about “a beloved sister Church”, to be hopefully united with but not absorbed by Rome, made it seem entirely realistic to think of a re-union of the Churches within my own lifetime.

Dissatisfaction with community life and a certain envy of the happy domestic life of Anglican clergy friends (together with voices in the Catholic Church asserting that married priests were “only a matter of time”) made me ask whether I could not serve our Lord as well as a priest in the Anglican Church as in the Catholic. It was a difficult time for me, but I wish to emphasise that when I decided, more than forty years ago, to return to the Church of England, it was in the firm belief that the Anglo-Catholicism I admired was the authentic and main-stream expression of Anglican faith and practice, and that a reconciliation with the Holy See was only a matter of time.

After a short re-orientation at Lincoln Theological College (then also strongly Anglo-Catholic), I was appointed Curate in the Diocese of Bristol, then led by Bishop Oliver Tomkins, that pioneer of Christian Unity. The parish I served in was in the Catholic tradition, as were the parishes I moved on to as parish priest, in Swindon and Bristol. However, I soon came to realise that the Church of England as a whole was by no means exclusively Anglo-Catholic, but had strong Protestant and Liberal components as well. It was the influence of the latter I found most disturbing, as it pressed for relaxation of the Church’s position in relation to divorce and re-marriage, and in respect of the ordination of women. Naively, perhaps, I had never even considered the question of “same-sex marriage”. By this stage, I was happily married myself and a parent, a state which (I would say) had an entirely beneficial influence on my priestly ministry in a parish situation.

After forty years in the Church of England, I have sadly concluded that it is not in heart and mind a truly Catholic body after all, although parts of it are very soundly Catholic in belief and practice. Over this time, Anglicanism has become more and more affected by liberal theology, and its practice has weakened accordingly. After the decision to include women in the priesthood, I did not feel able to hold office in the Church, although the provision of alternative Episcopal care (the “flying bishops”) made it possible to carry on in priestly ministry, latterly at All Saints’ Clifton.

With the imminent arrival of women bishops, and the dismantling of the provision hitherto made for dissenters, the future looks bleak for the Anglo-Catholic movement. Certainly there can be no real hope or expectation of progress towards reconciliation with Rome, our long-cherished dream. It is at this point that Pope Benedict’s offer of “corporate reunion” in a distinct Ordinariate of Anglican ethos has come like lightning from a clear sky. Those of us who have benefited from a “quasi-Ordinariate”  in the Church of England, in the form of the Sees of Ebbsleet, Richborough etc., but who will lose them under the new dispensation, see the Pope’s offer as giving us our last, best hope: the maintenance of our distinct Anglo-Catholic ethos (which is not precisely the same as the Roman ethos), yet reconciled and re-united with the See of Peter, which we recognise as the authentic instrument appointed by our Lord as the focus of unity in his Church. I do not see the Ordinariate as a second best, an escape route. It is our “Field of Dreams”. If you build it, they will come!

10 Comments so far
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Excellent post Father.

May I add my name to the list of people from Catholicism Pure and Simple, who are expressing sincere and deep regret at your shameful treatment there.

Brian (Brother Burrito)

Comment by Brother Burrito

Father Spilsbury,
May I too join with Brian in expressing my shame at your treatment on our blog. Please – forgive us.

Comment by Gertrude

Dear Friend in Christ,
I left a post on the Catholicism Pure & Simple blog (Pat Phillips) about Apostolicae Curae and Cardinal Ratzinger’s notes on Ad Tuendam Fidem. I don’t regret doing this, because it seemed there was controversy on the blog about this issue, and what I wrote is what the Roman Catholic Church teaches, so hopefully it was a clarification for all concerned. I left the Anglican communion 25 years ago (my 25th anniversary as a Catholic on 28 July 2010!) to become a Catholic and never looked back. Now tell me something – I see you are a member of the Society of the Holy Cross. I once visited a an Anglican church, at the entrance to the beach at West Wittering, Sussex, and I’m sure it was run by the Society of the Holy Cross, although I could be mistaken. Do you know this church? Is it run by your community? I’ve spent many great days on that beach! It hasn’t changed from my childhood.
God bless you, friend.

Comment by patphillips1

I’m afraid my knowledge of Sussex is minimal! The SSC was founded towards the end of the 19th century by Fr Charles Lowder, an Anglo-Catholic priest working in the East End of London. He was inspired by the example of St Vincent de Paul. We now are an international body, with over a thousand members, some married, some not. We do not live in communities (other than our own families and parishes, of course), but we meet regularly in our local Chapters, and annually in synod. After 1992, when a number of our members “crossed the Tiber”, there was an attempt to set up a Roman Catholic Province, which I personally hoped would be a successful bridgehead for further crossing. Unfortunately, there was not enough goodwill from Catholic authorities as well as Anglican to make the project work at that time. The Holy Father’s new scheme may give us all a second chance.

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC

Dear Father Spilsbury,

May I join with Brian and Gertrude in saying that I am mortified by the discourtesy shown to you on our blog.


Comment by The Raven

Thank you all (and others who posted on The Blogosphere). I did not spot where these comments had gone, since this first post is so far back! I am doing my best to foster a positive response to the Holy Father’s kind and gracious provision: a provision that reminds us of the old proverb, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Benedict XVI shows us by his example how to attract others to Christ and to his Church.

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC

I have written an email to you apologising for the way you were rudely treated on our Catholicism Pure and Simple blog. I would like to say that also thank you for giving us the opportunity to review the way we organise ourselves on our blog. Sorry and also thank you.

Comment by Frere Rabit

I have replied privately, as you know, but am very moved by the kind comments from so many! I really do not take to heart comments which are (shall we say) motivated by indiscreet zeal rather than malice. There are exciting times ahead, we must not be distracted from following the path the Lord seems clearly to be laying before us.

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC

I, too, apologise for the treatment you received from Mundabor, and a few others. They have spent too long sparring with all manner of loonies on Damian Thompson’s blog that they no longer realise when they are being rude and uncharitable.

Just be assure that all Catholics are looking forward to the day when we can welcome you all back into fold with much love and respect.

Comment by Terry

Thank you for this, too!

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC

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