Over the course of this week, which began with the receptions of the first groups of Anglicans into the Church, the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsinham has grown in size. From fewer than 20 members it was set to grow to between 900 and 1000 people. Mgr Keith Newton, the ordinary, received a group in St George’s Cathedral Southwark on Monday. Groups in South Benfleet and Walthamstowalso entered into full Communion on Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday groups from Tunbridge Wells, Deal, and Oxford and at Newman House in central London entered into full Communion with the Church. More groups are expected to be received tonight, including the ordinariate group in Sevenoaks.
Mgr Andrew Burnham, the former Anglican bishop of Ebbsfleet, preached at the reception at the Oxford Oratory. His homily outlined two future scenarios for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham: one in which the structure would be simply forgotten with the passage of time, the other one in which the ordinariate played an important role in enriching the Church through the mutual exchange of gifts. It was a very interesting homily, so here it is in full:
Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?’ Matthew 26:17
The visit of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, last September continues to inspire us and, this Easter, unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church in this country has the largest number of recruits for some time. Many of these will be baptised and confirmed at the Easter Vigil, in cathedrals and churches up and down the land, and, of those baptised, most will be converts to Christianity as well as converts to the Catholic Faith. The Pope, reflecting on his visit, remarked how ‘deep a thirst there is among the British people for the Good News of Jesus Christ’.
What has undoubtedly swelled the figures is the coming into the Catholic Church this week of between 900 and 1,000 former Anglicans, such as those being received this evening, here in the Oratory. Strictly speaking, none of these people is a convert: although such is the custom that, until our dying day, we former Anglicans will be called ‘converts’. A convert is someone turns to Christ, rather as St Paul did on the Damascus Road. Most of us have been Christians all our lives.
But what we are learning to ask again is the question ‘Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover’? the question the disciples asked of Jesus. We have come to believe that the Lord asks that we should share his Passover here in the Catholic Church. Only in the Catholic Church, we have come to believe, is the full meaning of the Paschal mystery revealed, safeguarded, and celebrated. Supper, Sacrifice, Death, Burial, Resurrection, Transformation: these are themes that we shall continue to reflect on in the coming days.
Tonight I would have us reflect not on these themes but on the question of numbers. Twenty or thirty groups of former Anglicans, perhaps 60 clergy and 900 or 1,000 people nationally. This is surely small beer. None of these figures is statistically significant. Every time we hear a set of national statistics, even the statistics for rare diseases, the numbers seem to be in the 1000s and tens of thousands. What significance have twenty or thirty, 60, 900 or 1000?
There is clearly a scenario – a dangerous one – that, like the many converts this Eastertide, the groups of incoming Anglicans will simply melt into the crowd. This church, and several like it, may have a slightly larger roll, but nothing too dramatic, and the Pope’s imaginative and prophetic gesture in Anglicanorum cœtibus will have come to nothing. The most that will be said, in years to come, is that it became a bit easier for Anglicans to convert, for former Anglican clergy to become Catholic priests.
But there is a much more exciting scenario which could unfold. And here we need to go back to the first Easter. Even smaller numbers than now were involved. By the end of the Last Supper the disciples were down to eleven. By the time Jesus died on the cross there were only two there – Our Blessed Lady and John the Beloved Disciple. At the Garden of Resurrection there were ones and twos.
St Paul reports with great excitement that 500 of the brethren saw the Risen Lord. But even that larger figure is only half the number of those coming into the Catholic Church because of Anglicanorum cœtibus. From those small beginnings, Christianity moved from being a small suspiciously-Galilean, rather unfashionable Jewish sect to becoming the official religion of the known world. And not entirely successfully at first: there is no Epistle to the Athenians.
I don’t want to make claims tonight about the influence of incoming Anglicans. I pray that that elusive character – the’ mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies which will serve to enrich us all’ – as Pope Benedict put it – may indeed be a mutual enrichment. I pray that groups of former Anglicans, as here in Oxford, may grow and flourish within the fertile soil of the Catholic Church.
But the larger point is this – and it applies to every single Catholic, and every single convert this Easter time, as well as to former Anglicans – is the importance for the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ of the contribution of each one of us.
Blessed John Henry Newman, beatified by Pope Benedict XVI at Cofton Park last September, has been profoundly influential on the Holy Father. Newman was founder of the Oratory movement in England, and it is by his prayers that this Oratory Church has come into being. Formerly Vicar of the University Church, here in Oxford, Newman also longed to see his fellow Anglicans reconciled to the Church. In that sense, we can be sure that Anglicanorum cœtibus and all it entails is a miracle in response to his prayers. Indeed this may be the second miracle needed for a canonisation – not that a second miracle would be necessary if he were declared a doctor of the Church.
At this historic moment I hope that the sentiments of this prayer of Blessed John Henry Newman will be on the lips and hearts of all who come into the Church at this time.
God has created me to do him some definite service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am, a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling.
Therefore, my God, I will put myself without reserve into your hands. What have I in heaven, and apart from you what do I want upon earth? My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the God of my heart, and my portion for ever.