It was Pope Paul’s idea to preserve an Anglican heritage within the Catholic Church

Paul VI presents a 13th-century fresco of Christ to Dr Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1966 (Photo: AP)

Everyone, at the beginning of the week, was expecting an announcement from two Anglican bishops that they had resigned their episcopal office and that they would soon be received into the Catholic Church in preparation for joining the Ordinariate soon to be established; and we all knew that there were other bishops in the pipeline. But not many expected five in one go: unsurprisingly, it caused something of a stir, though not exactly jaw-dropping astonishment.

By now, the choreography of this process has become fairly clear. What is less understood is its nature. Some cradle Catholics still just don’t get it. Why do they want their own little enclave: if they want to be Catholics, why don’t they just join? What is this stuff about an Anglican “patrimony”? Isn’t that just what they want to get away from?
The first thing to say about the usage of Anglican “patrimony” is that it wasn’t coined by an Anglican, but by Pope Paul, in the days before the aspiration of an eventual corporate reunion of Canterbury and Rome (always, with the benefit of hindsight, an impossible dream) had been rudely shattered by the Anglicans’ unilateral decision fundamentally to redefine their orders in a way impossible for Catholics ever to accept.

But in those days, the ordination of women seemed a very distant – and unlikely – possibility which many (I was one of them) chose to ignore. The way forward to reunion seemed to be open; the pace seemed to be quickening. At the beatification of the English and Welsh martyrs in 1970 (which offended many Anglicans at the time), Pope Paul went out of his way to make an overture to the Anglican tradition (of which he was a genuine admirer: he used to listen to LPs of Anglican church music in moments of relaxation). “There will,” he said, “be no seeking to lessen the legitimate prestige and usage due to the Anglican Church when the Roman Catholic Church … is able to embrace firmly her ever-beloved sister in the one authentic communion of the family of Christ…” He made it clear that what he called the “worthy patrimony” of Anglicanism would be preserved in a united Church. A few years later, he said that he believed that “these words of hope ‘The Anglican Church united not absorbed’ are no longer a mere dream”.
Alas, he was wrong. The wholesale reunion of Canterbury and Rome was always a mere dream; and soon it was brutally shattered. But Pope Paul’s vision of an Anglican “patrimony” united with the Catholic Church but (like the Eastern Catholic patrimony) not wholly absorbed, were not forgotten, either in Rome (where Cardinal Ratzinger remembered them) or by those Anglicans who for nearly two decades have been talking, firstly to him at the CDF, and then to his successors at the CDF who have remained in charge of the process throughout: it was their decision, entirely justified, that the English bishops should not be consulted, since they would have done everything they could to wreck it, as they had once before in the 1990s.
But what exactly is the Anglican patrimony they hope to preserve? One Anglican vicar who plans to join the Ordinariate told Damian Thompson earlier this week: “The important thing is that the first wave of groups have their own churches – not necessarily their old parish buildings, but somewhere separate from the existing Catholic parish. We need to preserve our own ethos.”

But what is that ethos? It exists all right; and in my opinion it is worth preserving. I began to describe one aspect of it last week as it existed in an ex-Anglican parish which was allowed to survive for a year or two in the early 90s: it was a successful experiment, full of promise, prematurely ended.

But a lot more needs to be said; and I shall describing something more of that Anglican “patrimony” – and what I believe it has to contribute to the rest of us – next time.