It was nearly 30 years ago when Cardinal Basil Hume acknowledged almost excitedly that a realignment was taking place within English Christianity.
“This could be a big moment of grace, it could be conversion of England for which we have prayed all these years,” he disclosed in February of 1993. “Now it could be happening – a realignment of Christianity to bring us closer together.”
With hindsight, he might have been overly optimistic but in 1994, Graham Leonard, the Anglican Bishop of London, was ordained a Catholic priest, followed that same year by Conrad Meyer, Bishop of Dorchester, and Richard Rutt, the Bishop of Leicester (once described as “perhaps the last in the line of scholar missionaries”). In 1996, they were joined by Bishop John Klyberg of Fulham.
All of this happened amid the tumult that followed the Church of England’s decision to ordain women as priests, a time when such prominent Anglicans as the Duchess of Kent, Ann Widdecombe and Charles Moore became Catholics.
Their decision to leave the Church of England revealed that women’s ordination presented an insurmountable obstacle to the full unity that had been hoped for.
This prompted William Oddie, a former editor of the Catholic Herald, to propose the corporate reception of entire parishes in his prescient work, The Roman Option, published in 1997, some 12 years before Pope Benedict XVI issued Anglicanorum coetibus to allow the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham to come into existence.
In the period in between, the tensions that led to the original exodus did not dissipate but were contained by the experiment of flying bishops to minister to flocks who could not accept practices with no basis in tradition.
It was a peace made all the more uneasy by a realignment also under way in the Church of England and which made Anglo-Catholics feel increasingly unwelcome, again a development predicted by Oddie.
“For the first time since the Reformation,” he wrote in The Roman Option, “the Church of England had the potential to become what some within it had always wanted it to be, an unambiguously Protestant denomination.
“This would mean that the Catholic tendency within Anglicanism now had ultimately only one place to go: to Rome.”
He continued by saying: “An exhausted Church of England will come to see what it should have accepted already – that it cannot move forward until it has allowed these people to take to the boats.”
That moment came in 2011 when Bishops Andrew Burnham of Ebbsfleet, John Broadhurst of Fulham and Keith Newton of Richborough joined, and led, the newly formed ordinariate.
Paul Richardson, the Assistant Bishop of Newcastle, had become a Catholic two years earlier, after he controversially predicted the death of the Church of England, but he was also ordained priest in 2011.
There has, in fact, always been traffic to and fro and it is possible to find examples of high-profile conversions around the Reformation.
Take Geoffrey Goodman, the Anglican Bishop of Gloucester, for example, who became a Catholic in the 1650s after he was deprived of his see because of his popish leanings.
Throughout the 19th century, high-profile former Anglican clerics such as Fr Ignatius Spencer, St John Henry Newman (both vicars), Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (previously the Archdeacon of Chichester), along with impressive former Anglican women such as Frances Taylor and Elizabeth Prout, breathed life into the second spring of English Catholicism.
Many Anglicans became Catholic bishops – Cardinal William Heard, William Brownlow of Clifton, William Wheeler and Henry Poskitt of Leeds, Alan Hopes of East Anglia, Robert Coffin of Southwark, and Laurence Youens and Charles Grant of Northampton, and, most recently the Archbishop of Southwark, John Wilson.
Often, each wave can be explained in retrospect – to some degree – by certain historical or cultural developments.
The reception of former bishops such as Gavin Ashenden in 2019 and Jonathan Goodall of Ebbsfleet, John Goddard of Burnley and Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester this year have, therefore, prompted much speculation about their motivation.
Some have explained themselves lucidly, with Fr Nazir-Ali telling the Mail on Sunday that liberalising or “faddish” reforms within the Church of England meant it was no longer “the church I joined”.
Perhaps it indicates that some Evangelicals, like him, might be glancing furtively to Rome amid the unpicking of Christian moral teaching. Oddie predicted this too. The realignment looks certain to continue.
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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