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Britain’s Ordinariate is in peril. Here is how to save it

The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham is a canonical structure for ex-Anglican clergy and lay people who have been granted – by a mighty and irrevocable decree of Pope Benedict XVI – their own English Missal based partly on The Book of Common Prayer.

The experiment has not been a runaway success, as members of the Ordinariate readily admit. Ever since the body came into being five and a half years ago, I’ve been listening to Ordinariate clergy predicting that it can’t last.

One priest was still wearing his Mass robes as he declared, à la Private Frazer, that “we’re dooomed!”

If so, there will be few tears shed by the bishops of England and Wales. They are queuing up to preside at its Requiem Mass. (They can do nothing about its sister ordinariate in America, now flourishing under its own 41-year-old bishop, Steven Lopes.)

In the words of one supporter of the Ordinariate, “the English hierarchy seems to have decided that the Catholic prohibition against ‘assisted dying’ doesn’t apply to corporate bodies.”

The bishops’ hostility dates back to 20 October 2009, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced – with flamboyant disregard for ecumenical etiquette – that Anglicans coming over to Rome could have an entirely new church structure free from the meddling of local bishops.

(The CDF didn’t put it like that, but you only had to look at the faces of English Catholic prelates as they pretended to “welcome” the Holy Father’s initiative to guess how pleased they were.)

In 2011, three former Anglican bishops were ordained priests and made monsignors. The boss, the “Ordinary”, is Mgr Keith Newton, former Bishop of Richborough. He can’t be a bishop, because he’s married, but he basically has episcopal jurisdiction and wears a mitre.

That ordination in Westminster Cathedral seemed to herald a miracle: a parting of the waters of the Tiber to allow Catholic-minded Anglicans to cross over without sacrificing the cadences of Cranmer and Choral Evensong.

But, even then, lots of us had our doubts. And, sure enough, here we are in 2016 and this revolutionary structure has just 1,000 lay members in this country, scattered in tiny communities.

So it’s the size of a large parish, but one with around 80 ex-Anglican priests to support. Which it cannot do.

When the Catholic Herald asked me to write this article, I wasn’t enthusiastic. Having noisily championed the Ordinariate from day one, I wasn’t keen to hear – yet again – its own faithful tell me that, well, it was a nice idea, but everyone hates us and even some of our own priests aren’t really on board.

Sure enough, that is exactly what I’ve been told and I’m now convinced that the Ordinariate in its present form will wither away.

But note the qualification: in its present form. Those 80 priests include visionaries who believe that the Ordinariate can reinvent itself.

By that, they mean that the fantasy of group conversions needs to be ditched. Also, Ordinariate priests and laity who never liked their unique Missal, Divine Worship, should slip quietly into the Catholic mainstream.

Only then will a smaller Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham enrich the whole Church with the radiant Divine Worship, revive moribund parishes and evangelise with the vigour of its Anglo-Catholic forebears. That sounds like wishful thinking – but the people who believe in it make a stronger practical case for this Ordinariate Mark II than anyone ever did for the launch model.

What no one disputes now is that the founding vision of an Anglican-but-Catholic organisation mopping up whole Church of England parishes was a non-starter. There are four main reasons for this.

First, there has never been an appetite among lay members of the C of E for coming over en masse. You can disguise a new body as much as you like, but if it reports to the Pope then it is “Roman Catholic” and that’s not something most Anglicans want to be.

Second, those Anglo-Catholic clergy most likely to convert tend to be the sort who spent their careers in the C of E playing at being “Roman”, using our Missal where they could get away with it.

Divine Worship is just too Anglican for them. It includes, for example, the Prayer Book’s Prayer of Humble Access, which begins:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.

These words are beloved by traditional Anglicans – but not by hardline Anglo-Catholics, who can’t forget that they were set down by the hated Thomas Cranmer.

Bizarrely, though, some of these ultra-Roman Anglicans did join the Ordinariate and then promptly refused to use Divine Worship. That hasn’t helped.

The third obstacle for the Ordinariate was the worst: the aforementioned wily obstructiveness of the Bishops of England and Wales. A single statistic speaks volumes. Pope Benedict urged them to be generous. How many disused or near-empty churches did the bishops give the Ordinariate? None.

“The bishops pretend they’re being generous, but in reality we’re under siege,” says one Ordinariate priest. “We can’t support ourselves, so we have to take diocesan jobs in parishes, schools or prisons that might be 45 miles away from the nearest Ordinariate Mass centre.”

Another priest told me: “If you’re busy working in a non-Ordinariate parish, there’s pressure to just drop out and become a regular diocesan priest – which is what the Bishops’ Conference is hoping for.”

A third Ordinariate priest: “We know that Cardinal Nichols isn’t our friend. He’s like Baked Alaska – warm on the outside, cold on the inside.”

Finally, the Ordinariate has had to put up with the carping and mockery of Anglo-Catholics still loyal to Canterbury. These latter are unhappy people. They squirm when asked why, if they don’t recognise women bishops, they still celebrate lavish Roman rituals in a church that ordains them. Poking fun at the struggling Ordinariate is a way of deflecting that one.

Add up these factors, and is it any wonder that some demoralised Ordinariate priests are just waiting for the end? Others are wracking their brains for a solution but haven’t necessarily hit on the right one.

Fr David Palmer, who runs the Nottingham Ordinariate group, thinks the answer is to “unchain” Divine Worship – that is, to allow any Catholic priest to say its Mass. “It has prayers at the foot of the altar, the option for a last Gospel. In many ways it offers the cross-fertilisation between old and new forms of the Roman Rite that Pope Benedict hoped for,” he argues.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, a cradle Catholic theologian, recently preached at an Ordinariate Mass. “I was struck by its nobility,” he says. “How refreshing to hear a translation of the Canon written by someone whose first language is English. If the Church is serious about ‘celebrating diversity’, then it should allow priests like me to say it.”

That won’t happen. A Mass that draws so heavily on medieval English piety represents the wrong sort of diversity for “go-ahead” bishops. Although they can’t ban diocesan priests celebrating in the Extraordinary Form, they can stop them using Divine Worship.

But they absolutely cannot stop Ordinariate priests from saying their own Mass, or cradle Catholics from attending it. And this is where the Ordinariate Mark II comes in.

Very soon, the network of Ordinariate communities will disintegrate like a piece of old lace. What will not disintegrate is the papal legislation setting up ordinariates in America and Australia as well as Britain.

If an Ordinariate priest in England is determined enough, he can find a way of taking charge of a parish and offering a Divine Worship Sunday Mass.

When Fr Ed Tomlinson, former Vicar of St Barnabas, Tunbridge Wells, joined the Ordinariate he was sent to St Anselm’s, Pembury, Kent – an unlovely community hall with a chapel where the congregation sat on plastic chairs and knelt on linoleum.

Fr Ed – a rugby-obsessed married father of three with un-PC views on the evil of Islamism and the wimpishness of liberal bishops – decided this wasn’t good enough for God.

Five years on, on a tiny budget, he has acquired two altars, altar candles, pews, a lectern, a pulpit, Stations of the Cross, altar rails, vestments, chalices, icons, a reredos, an organ, a confessional and stalls. (Our pictures show stages in the transformation, which is not complete.)

As for the Divine Worship Mass, his cradle Catholic parishioners mostly love it. “It’s a fabulous liturgy and I’m passionate about it,” he says. Weekly attendance has risen to 130 while the average age of parishioners has dropped sharply thanks to an influx of children.

Now imagine that, in five years’ time, Fr Tomlinson’s success has been replicated in a handful of English parishes. The Oratorians have surprised everyone by exporting their worship – once considered impossibly exotic – to failing churches that mysteriously stop failing once they arrive. Each punches above its weight.

What is to stop Ordinariate priests from doing likewise? Only two things. Spanners thrown into the works by unfriendly bishops, and their own lack of confidence.

My unexpectedly upbeat conclusion, after taking a fresh look at an initiative I thought was dying, is that an Ordinariate Mark II can spring to life once its leaders see that these problems feed off each other.

Anti-Ordinariate bishops herd members of the ecclesial structure into remote “Mass centres” where they don’t want to be and won’t survive. It’s time our new fellow Catholics turned round and reminded their Lordships that they have no jurisdiction over them – and that, if the Church in England and Wales continues its deplorably mean policy of hanging on to every last parish building, then they will buy their own churches.

But first we have to sort out the money, say the permanently anxious old guard of the Ordinariate.

No. First, you need risk-taking local leaders with a mission that attracts donors.

In July, Fr Tomlinson took his family on a camping trip to France, wondering how he was going to find £9,000 to complete the beautification of the sanctuary.

“I got back to find a message from a disabled man who was fed up with the boring worship in his own parish and had decided to give us 10,000 quid,” Fr Tomlinson says. “Now tell me that’s not God at work.”

This article first appeared in the August 26 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.