“Hundreds of priests and parishioners,” reported the Telegraph this week, “are expected to take up the Pope’s offer to convert to Roman Catholicism and join a new body for Anglicans who disagree with the ordination of women bishops when it is established next year.” Well, we did know that. But then the Telegraph homed in on one of the expected difficulties in the way of the Ordinariate: where will members of these new parishes actually go to when they have left their often dearly loved church buildings?
One of the very few negative features of leaving the Church of England is that one is leaving a body of church architecture as lovely as any in Europe, and – in this country at least – joining a Church hardly notable for the architectural quality of its church buildings: many, indeed, are downright depressing. And, of course, as the Telegraph reported in its latest piece on the Ordinariate: “Church authorities have insisted that defectors will not be able to retain their parish buildings when they leave the Anglican family.”
However, in what the Telegraph calls “the prospect of a historic compromise”, William Fittall – who might be described as the Sir Humphrey Appleby of the Church of England; he is secretary general of the General Synod – said it would be “entirely possible” for those groups or parishes who join the Ordinariate to be allowed to share their former churches with Anglicans who remain in the Church of England.
I would go further: I think it highly likely. The fact is that maintaining its historic buildings is one of the Church of England’s biggest problems. Nothing is more logical than that the members of congregations who (in the Telegraph’s elegant usage) “defect” should share the building they are used to with those who elect to stay in the C of E, and should continue to contribute to its upkeep.
We have in fact seen all this before, in the case of two parishes in the Anglican diocese of London and Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster. Until they were without notice brutally closed down, these Anglican convert parishes existed successfully for around two years in the early 90s, in the aftermath of the C of E’s original decision to ordain women; both stayed happily in their original church buildings.
The suddenness of – and total lack of consultation surrounding – the Archdiocese of Westminster’s suppression of these convert parishes was scandalous; it is a precedent, indeed, which does something to explain why the potential Anglican converts do not wish, this time, to be under the direct authority of the English hierarchy. They do not trust our bishops; and I do not blame them.
One of these parishes in particular, St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, was pastorally immensely successful. Relations between the two congregations using the building were excellent. The new Catholic parish grew to over twice its original size; in the end, only about one third were members of the original parish. It had become an accessible way into the Church, not only for former Anglicans, but for lapsed Catholics to return.
I believe that this model could become normal; and my confidence that the Ordinariate will be an immensely fertile and creative pastoral enrichment of the life of the Church in this country is not based only on wishful thinking. It has happened before. And I am sure it will happen again, many times. The convert Anglicans have a great deal to learn, of course; that goes without saying. But they also have a great deal to teach.