Comment Opinion & Features

I was an Anglican bishop. Then the Pope made an offer I couldn’t refuse

Mgr Newton (on the right of the three ordinands) at his ordination to the Catholic priesthood at Westminster Cathedral in 2010

It hardly seems possible that it has been 10 years since the publication of the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus. This allowed for a diocese-like structure to be created for former Anglicans so that they could bring into the Universal Church something of the pastoral, liturgical and spiritual traditions which had formed them over the years.

I vividly remember the day of the announcement. It was something that many of us had been praying for, for a very long time.

In my study, there is a large painting of Mgr Graham Leonard when he was the Anglican Bishop of Truro. In the 1990s, when the Church of England decided to ordain women priests, Bishop Leonard wrote a letter to the Catholic Herald in which he expressed the hope that some structure could be formed, perhaps a personal prelature, to allow former Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church corporately. Years later his hopes were fulfilled by Pope Benedict XVI in a way in that we never could have imagined.

When I read the apostolic constitution for the first time I was overjoyed, if not a little surprised, at the generosity of the Holy See in providing a distinctive place in the Universal Church for those who had been nurtured as Christians in the Church of England.

The following months were frantic and exciting. Anglican bishops who had made approaches to the Holy See about the possibility of a corporate way of entering into full communion received a letter from Cardinal William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explaining that Anglicanorum coetibus was the Holy See’s definitive response to those requests.

As a suffragan bishop to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, I informed him that I would be travelling to Rome to meet Cardinal Levada and glean more practical information. This led to another meeting in Rome, in April 2010, to plan for the future, which included Anglican bishops from England and Wales, Australia and the United States, as well as the then bishops of Fulham and Ebbsfleet. We kept both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster fully informed, so I was dismayed when returning home to read in the Sunday Times that we had been to Rome behind their backs. This was simply not true.

It was difficult to walk the tightrope of being loyal to the Archbishop of Canterbury while trying to respond with growing excitement to this new possibility. Archbishop Williams agreed we could take informal soundings with some of our priests. Those who showed interest met regularly to look at some of the practical issues involved in reception, ordination and arrangements for finding stipends and housing.  In November of that year, I was invited by Benedict XVI to be the Ordinary of the first ordinariate to be set up, in England, Wales and Scotland.

Rather daunted by this prospect, I asked for time to pray and consult other people, including my wife. They all responded similarly: when you are a Catholic, how can you turn down an invitation from the Pope?

I was ordained to the Catholic priesthood on January 15, 2010, when the first ordinariate was erected. It was not easy beginning something without any precedent and few resources. There have been many problems and challenges along the way. But there has also been the joy and excitement of being in full communion with the Catholic Church – a joy that was emphasised for many of our priests in Rome last month at the canonisation of St John Henry Newman.

Ten years is a significant anniversary and we will be marking it on November 9 at Precious Blood, London Bridge, with a Solemn Votive Mass of St John Henry Newman at which Cardinal Vincent Nichols will be the preacher.

Mgr Keith Newton is the Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham