Anglo-Catholic parishes are often very close-knit: the Ordinariate will preserve that

What is the Anglican “patrimony” that will be “united not absorbed” (in Pope Paul’s words) into the Church when the first Ordinariate parishes are established? Pope Paul had envisaged union with the whole Anglican Church. But it had become increasingly clear that, as Fr Aidan Nichols put it in his book The Panther and the Hind, “since Anglicanism is so very much three churches [Catholic, Evangelical and latitudinarian] within one that no satisfactory ecumenical relations can ultimately be carried out with it… what is to be done? An Anglican church united with Rome but not absorbed … is perfectly feasible, but it can only be constructed on the basis of a selection…” In the end, that turned out to be a selection by Rome of the church within a church which came to call itself the Forward in Faith movement.
So now we have, or will soon have, the Ordinariate. It will bring with it, I suggested yesterday, the Anglican pastoral tradition which its members have shared with all other Anglicans. But it will bring with it also a particular tradition unique to Anglican Catholic parishes: the close-knit character of such parishes, the sense that the people must be united with and behind their priest, since what these parishes represent is an essentially anti-establishment view of the Church which is constantly under threat from the centre.
Once appointed, an Anglo-Catholic parish priest (he would tend not to describe himself as a “vicar”) would often stay in his parish for many decades so as to establish ever more firmly its Catholic ethos, an ethos which could in theory be swept away (such cases have been known) by a new vicar with more Protestant inclinations. This ever-present danger led to the establishment of such bodies as the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith which, as it explains on its website, “exercises the right of presentation to over eighty Livings throughout the country”.
Such “Livings” may be bought and sold, and the SMF bought them up with the very clear purpose described by its title: once a parish had been Catholicised, the process was to be rendered irreversible. But if Anglican bishops do not necessarily have the right to appoint Livings, they often have influence, though where they do, they are often sensitive to the wishes of the parish and to traditions already established. But the patron of a Living may well fall in with a bishop’s wishes to effect a radical change, as the patrons of the famous Anglo-Catholic parish of St Mary Magdalen in Oxford (an influential centre of the opposition to women priests) did when its parish priest, the famous Canon Charles Smith, “crossed the Tiber”: they made a point of replacing him with a priest known to be in favour of women’s ordination.
The close-knit character of Anglo-Catholic parishes may thus seem to be somewhat defensive; it has to be said in reply to such an argument that a communal perception that the faith has to be defended against those perceived as hostile to it has been one of Christianity’s great sources of strength through the ages. And in my experience, there was always the much stronger perception that the real centre of community was the common sharing of the Eucharist, that in St Paul’s words, “though we are many, we are one bread, one body”. It was what we were always very insistent on calling “the Mass” that held us together.
There was one more factor: in contrast to the sometimes huge size of Catholic congregations and parish churches in England, in which the parish priest cannot possibly know all his people, Anglican parishes (because of the much greater number of churches and their generally smaller size) are more intimate: priest and people can much more easily form a close community of faith, from which individuals are reluctant to be plucked.
In the early 1990s, I asked Fr Christopher Colven, whose Anglican parish, and then ex-Anglican Catholic, parish of St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, I have referred to several times, whether he agreed with other formerly Anglican and now Catholic priests that in some ways many Anglican communities were closer to the Conciliar pastoral ideal than some very large urban Catholic parishes. He agreed: “I think there’s a particular tradition of pastoral care. I suppose that it’s based on a smaller community where the group is small enough for the pastors to know their people intimately.”
This sense of pastoral intimacy is a very powerful spiritual force where it exists, and the Ordinariate will be built on it. It will be attractive to many cradle Catholics (Fr Colven’s Catholic parish attracted a number of lapsed Catholics back to the Faith). But it will not, I think be a divisive force; on the contrary. In many ways, it will be the most valuable part of the “worthy” Anglican patrimony which Pope Paul was so hopeful to unite with the Catholic Church without absorbing it: an absorption which would have amounted to its destruction.
No such destruction will now take place. Because of Anglicanorum coetibus, the pastoral gift of a deeply pastoral Pope, the reconciliation of (in the end, I believe) some thousands of souls with the Catholic Church will take place in such a way that nothing that God has given them will be taken away.