My last posting about those Catholics who attend Anglican services thinking that they are Catholic services generated rather a lot of comments, one of which gave me pause. I am unable to find this comment in the plethora of contributions, but it was from an Anglican vicar who said that up to half of the congregation in one of his churches consisted of former Roman Catholics.
Indeed this is a recognised phenomenon and I too have come across it: people who swim the Tiber in reverse. We are not talking here of those tourists in London who go to a service in an Anglo-Catholic Anglican Church which they assume is High Mass, but rather those Catholics who live here and who have joined Anglican parishes, effectively becoming ex-Catholics.
Some, I think, would rather like to ignore this trend, or claim that the numbers are too few to be worth talking about; but I think it would make sense to ask ourselves why this happens, and see if there is anything we can do to improve our own parishes, if indeed people are leaving because of dissatisfaction with their parishes.
Here are a few reasons why Catholics become Anglicans, in my experience:
Firstly, marriage, and in recent times, civil partnerships: Because the Anglican church will often bless unions the Catholic Church does not recognise, some people have gone to the vicar for weddings or services of blessing and then stayed with the vicar’s community.
Secondly, aesthetic reasons: I know of some who have decided that their pretty village church with its warm-hearted community is the place where they want to be. Many of these people, in my experience, have not been particularly religious. While they may consider themselves parishioners, they would but infrequently go to the Anglican Church.
Thirdly, church politics: usually when people have a blazing row with the parish priest over the positioning of the hymn board or some other cutting edge matter, they vamoose to another parish. Sometimes, though I have heard of only one case, they storm off “to join the other lot”, as they put it.
Fourthly, female ordination: some Catholic women have left the Church to join the Anglicans so that they can be ordained. Some lay people may have joined the Anglicans because they support female ordination.
The above would all be significant but relatively small groups of people. The single largest phalanx of ex-Catholics, as far as I can gather, as those lukewarm Catholics who have been evangelised by Anglicans and have joined a thriving and lively evangelical congregation. My evidence for this is anecdotal, but my guess is that a place like Holy Trinity Brompton contains a significant number of people who were baptised Catholics, but who have now come to Jesus through the Alpha course. So, what should we do?
Instead of getting hot under the collar, I think we should all agree that there is no substitute for good liturgy and good pastoral practice; and that we should try and make our parishes as welcoming and as friendly as possible. And we should not turn our noses up and providing a good aesthetic experience for the glory of God.
But it must go further. We also need to realise that there has to be sound teaching and sound learning of the doctrine of the faith. And we need to take a leaf out of the book of churches like Holy Trinity Brompton. We have got to be more evangelical. And as I write this, I am conscious of just how much I fail to be sufficiently evangelical. Catholics, and especially Catholic clergy, who scoff at the evangelicals make a huge mistake. We have got a lot to learn from them: their dedication, their sound adherence to the Creeds and the Bible, their strong moral positions, their pastoral planning and methodology, their deep personal faith, all these have much to recommend them.
So, I think we can learn from the Rev Nicky Gumbel; and from St Charles Borromeo too, come to think of it, and the Curé of Ars, and all the other great pastoral saints in our tradition.
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