The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady Walsingham was established on 15 January 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI in accordance with the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus to enable Anglicans to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church while retaining much of their heritage.
Monsignor Keith Newton, formerly the Anglican Bishop of Richborough, was named the first Ordinary and in March 2011 appointed a Protonotary Apostolic. Since the inception in 2011, a total of 106 other men have been ordained as Catholic priests in the British Ordinariate. Currently two men are in formation for the Catholic priesthood at Allen Hall and two other men have recently received permission from Rome to begin formation at Allen Hall in September. Three of these men are under 40. This is a record many a secular diocese would be proud of.
An early request from the CDF in Rome to the Archdiocese of Westminster was for a central London church to be made available to the Ordinariate. The first building offered was the round St Anne, Laxton Place, built 1970, and described by Damian Thompson in the Daily Telegraph as “a cross between a public lavatory and a Christian Science Reading Room”. The injunction in Psalm 29 – “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” – would have been problematical to fulfil in such a building. The offer was politely turned down.
The next offer, in 2013, was the much more satisfactory one of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Warwick Street, near Piccadilly Circus. The parish is very small geographically with a consequent lack of residential population, and had in the recent past had a rather unhappy time.
The church at Warwick Street started life in 1724 as the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy. From 1747 onwards it became the chapel of the Bavarian Embassy. Burnt down in 1780 in the Gordon Riots, it was rebuilt. In 1788, Bishop Talbot, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, purchased the lease and built a new church designed by Joseph Bonomi and opened in 1790.
The outside of the church was designed to be as self-effacing as possible in order to avoid provoking anti-Catholic feeling. The modest brick west front has not been improved by the addition of low relief gilded figures of angels in the 1950s. The western part of the church with its galleries retains its essentially 18th-century character. The apse was redesigned by JF Bentley, but completed after his death. The glorious mosaic work in the semi-dome depicts the Coronation of the Virgin. Below are mosaics of saints enriched with marbles. The gilt altar rails were given by the Duke of Norfolk in 1908. The high altar was moved forward in 1976 but otherwise the church has not suffered too badly from reordering.
Father Mark Elliott Smith (previously an Anglican clergyman in Tottenham) is the Rector (Parish Priest). Each Sunday the 10.30am Solemn Mass is celebrated in the Ordinariate use. It still seems mildly strange to hear the words of Cranmer in a legitimate Roman Mass: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us… 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. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy… we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son. (All Catholics are of course welcome to receive communion.)
The excellent music is mainly in the Anglican tradition – the strains of Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, Stanford, Darke, Parry, Howells etc, whether joyous or plangent, can all be heard, drifting up from the west gallery to the ceiling.
The tradition of Anglican hospitality is maintained, in normal times, by an enjoyable reception after Mass in the restored Challoner Room downstairs. (Alcohol is available). The same room is used for an early-morning breakfast club for the homeless on Wednesday mornings, run by the Order of Malta.
The church and parish of The Most Precious Blood, O’Meara Street, Borough were put into the care of the Ordinariate in 2013 by Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark. Father Christopher Pearson, sometime Anglican Vicar of St Agnes, Kennington, was appointed Priest-in-Charge. Quite a number of his congregation accompanied him into the Catholic Church. The Catholic parish had previously been in the care of the Salvatorians, who had moved to Plumsted.
The site is unprepossessing. O’Meara Street is a narrow road south of Southwark Street. The church lies next door to a busy railway viaduct. It was designed on an economical basis in London stock brick in a neo-Romanesque style by FA Walters in 1891-2. The church does not lack in gravitas or scale. The chief internal furnishing is the huge timber painted baldacchino, modelled in part on that of San Giorgio in Velabro, appropriately the titular church of St John Henry Newman.
There is a liturgical difference with Warwick Street in that Father Pearson has continued, as was his previous practice as an Anglican, to celebrate the 11.00am Sunday Mass in the modern Roman rite. The parish is flourishing under his care and the congregation has considerably increased. He has done a remarkable work of restoration on the church, raising the necessary funds. The baldacchino and the walls have been beautifully repainted, and where necessary gilded. The rood is now behind the altar. The pews have been cleaned and a new marble font installed. A fine “Anglican” organ is en route from The Ascension, Lavender Hill.
The third church, that of St Agatha, Landport in Portsmouth, came to the use of the Ordinariate through a very different route. Landport in the late 19th century was a very rough slum. The heroic Anglo-Catholic priest Father Dolling arrived here in 1885. His architect, Joseph Henry Ball of Southsea, designed a red-brick early-Christian-style basilica for him as “an open Bible – which even the most unlearned and ignorant may read”. Father Dolling was effectively forced to leave by the Bishop of Winchester in 1896. Six years later, the nave apse and semi-dome were decorated with sgraffito of Christ in Majesty above with saints and prophets below; Pevsner described this as “Portsmouth’s only major work of art”.
In 1954, the church closed and became a naval storehouse. Ten years later the greater part of the Lady Chapel was demolished to allow a possible new dual carriageway.
However, salvation was at hand and in 1987 the St Agatha’s Trust was formed to lease the building from Hampshire County Council. Father John Maunder, then of the Traditional Anglican Communion, took over the liturgical running of the church. He joined the Ordinariate in 2012. Mass is celebrated with full ceremonial and traditional language at 11.00am on Sundays. The church is a treasure house of fittings from other churches, including some by Ninian Comper and Martin Travers. This is probably the only Catholic church which rejoices in a bust of King Charles the Martyr. There are plans afoot to restore the mutilated Lady Chapel and provide a community centre for the homeless. Laus Deo!
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