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It hasn’t been easy. But ten years on, the ordinariate is a success story

Mgr Keith Newton presides at Solemn Evensong and Benediction at St James's, Spanish Place, London (Charlotte Bromley Davenport)

In 2009 Benedict XVI invited Anglicans to become Catholic. The project has been a success – but not an easy one

Following the announcement 10 years ago of the creation of ordinariates for groups of former Anglicans who wished to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, substantial interest was to be expected. Since the Church of England’s decision to ordain women in 1992, large numbers of Anglican clergy had been ordained Catholic priests, with special permission being given for married men to do so.

Meanwhile, others had held back: strong bonds of duty and friendship to Anglican parishioners, affection for the beautiful buildings and a sense that Catholicism was “not really English” were all part of it.

For years various Anglican bishops and other leading figures had had meetings in Rome, conveying messages to the effect that, if only something specific could be done to cherish and preserve the best of Anglicanism, then large numbers – perhaps including whole dioceses – might cross the Tiber.

It was with this background, and amid the hopes and expectations thus aroused, that Benedict XVI issued the apostolic exhortation Anglicanorum coetibus, “to groups of Anglicans”, offering something new. Clergy need not abandon their flocks: all could enter, together, into full communion with Rome, bringing with them everything they cherished, including their liturgical traditions, parish structures, Sunday Schools, Evensong, much-loved hymns, and even Cranmer’s prose. The whole Church would be enriched, and a break of 400 years healed with a recognition that in those centuries Anglicanism had achieved things that should not be ignored or undervalued.

“When I heard the announcement I just couldn’t believe how wonderful it was,” recalls a founder member of the South London ordinariate group. “ I flew to the phone and there was general rejoicing among so many friends. It was the answer to all our prayers.”

A meeting of Forward in Faith, a network of orthodox Anglicans and the leading organisation on the scene, was quickly summoned. And that was when disappointment set in. The reaction of many was not what had been expected.

“We couldn’t believe it,” the ordinariate member recalls. “Speaker after speaker rose to say, ‘Oh, I don’t know … I don’t think this is for me,’ or words to that effect. Where some of us had assumed a general rejoicing and some practical plans on how to go ahead, there was just a flatness, a sort of bland rejection without any real reasons given.”

But where there was enthusiasm, it engendered speedy action. In London, a large part of the congregation of St Agnes, Kennington Park, joined their vicar, the Rev Christopher Pearson, to form an ordinariate group. Along with others across Britain, this group began the journey into full communion, structured to include a period of instruction, Confirmation for each individual, and ordination for the clergy.

It wasn’t easy. Early hopes that such groups would be allowed continued use of cherished churches – perhaps under sharing arrangements as already experienced in, for example, rural areas over recent decades – were dashed. Instead, ordinariate Masses were held in Catholic churches, often (inevitably) at slightly inconvenient times in order to fit in with existing parish timetables.  Catholic reactions ranged from polite interest to baffled curiosity.

And now? There are success stories. The Darlington Ordinariate led by Fr Ian Grieves – for 25 years the vicar of St James, Darlington – now serves the Catholic parish of St Osmund, Gainford. There is a thriving congregation, glorious music, and a parish life with celebrations for all the feasts of the Church’s year in superb style. I was a guest at a St George’s Day feast which included the arrival of St George in armour.

In Kent, Fr Ed Tomlinson and his team have transformed a bleak hall at Pembury into a charming village church with packed Masses, processions around the village and a Sunday school, plus a range of activities in the newly built parish centre alongside.

At London Bridge, the Church of the Most Precious Blood has been superbly renovated and at packed Masses has a children’s choir singing traditional Anglican settings plus Latin plainchant.

But what of the future? The “pool” of possible Anglican joiners is getting smaller as Anglican church attendance slumps. There are strong Evangelical churches, notably those sponsored from Holy Trinity, Brompton, but they do not noticeably include any “Anglican patrimony” and have their own style, with singalongs and spontaneous prayer. Clergy and laity alike would see no need to be part of the Catholic Church, which they view with goodwill but as simply a different way of being Christian.

Older Anglicans often have a deep attachment to their own church building – a bond so strong that they will often not attend church at all when they happen to be elsewhere on a particular Sunday.

It has long been said that most people in England, not having any particular beliefs, nevertheless felt comfortable writing “Cof E” in a slot asking for religious affiliation. But now increasing numbers, especially of the young, are comfortable writing “none”.

What of the United States and Australia? The ordinariates there are small. In the US the big achievement took place some years earlier, with the establishment of “Anglican Use” parishes under John Paul II. These, including the Church of Our Lady of Walsingham in Texas, have now teamed up with the ordinariate. But the number of Episcopalians interested in the ordinariate project has been minimal. In Australia, vast distances separate the small ordinariate groups and, as in Britain, no church buildings have been offered by Anglicans.

Has the venture worked? Paradoxically, it may prove successful in a way not envisaged when it was launched. Catholics are used to talking about falling Mass attendance. When we think about mission, we tend to think of seeking out the lapsed. Ordinariate members have a wider vision: they bring with them a sense of responsibility for a whole local area. Where parishes are in ordinariate care, the growth in numbers has been substantial. It includes all sorts of people and mostly not former Anglicans.

Ordinariate groups formed a decade ago were small and, in many ways, not at all typically Anglican. They were more like some of the Catholic new movements: enthusiastic, project-orientated, dedicated, unembarrassed about their faith. What has been achieved is small but notable; what happens next seems likely to be much the same.

Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and historian