I wish the Pope’s new offer to Anglicans had been available when I became a Catholic 15 years ago. It would have helped avoid many misunderstandings.
In modern times, most Anglicans converting to Roman Catholicism are not trying to repudiate their existing beliefs. Instead, they are recognising that the logic of those beliefs leads them to become Catholics.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult for those close to them to see this. They can feel rejected. Conversion, a word now frowned on by the authorities, sounds sudden and absolute, when in fact the process is neither. The old phrase about ‘the parting of friends’ has a baleful ring. Parents, in particular, often imagine an implicit criticism of them, and ask, as they do when their children become drug addicts, ‘Where did we go wrong?’
None of these problems can be entirely abolished, particularly so long as the non-Catholic world persists in the illusion that becoming a Catholic means sacrificing your freedom to make up your own mind. But they can be mitigated if, wherever possible, the continuity is emphasised.
This is particularly true for the clergy. They have faithfully given their lives, as Anglican priests, to serving God and their flocks. The most difficult thing for them remains Rome’s view that their priestly orders are ‘null and void’. They therefore have to be re-ordained if they wish to serve as Catholic priests. But it helps them greatly if the liturgy and spiritual traditions and leadership which they have followed can be accepted by the Vatican. They are making a critical decision to find a new home. It is much less daunting if the welcome is warm and the surroundings familiar. Their orders may have been invalid: their deeds and prayers were not, and their spiritual traditions can enrich the universal Church.
As I understand it, that is what the new ‘ordinariate’ will offer. In spiritual temper and forms of prayer, they can go on being Anglican, but Anglicans who are, at last, fully Catholic.
There is no exact secular analogy, but here is a slightly silly one. It is a bit like the relationship between the Channel Islands and the United Kingdom — you have the same sovereign, but you govern yourself in your own way (sadly, though, there are no tax advantages).
In my own case, I never wanted to become a Roman Catholic for aesthetic or liturgical reasons. Indeed, I did not want to become a Catholic at all. I hoped that I could stay an Anglican, and in certain respects I have: 90 per cent of the Christian words which echo in my head are from the Authorised Version of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer or from Anglican hymns. I hope that Pope Benedict’s new tolerance for Anglican traditions will allow me to have the Prayer Book form for the Burial of the Dead at my funeral. Subject to grace, I only became a Catholic because I thought what the Church said about itself as being the society which Jesus intended was true. It does what it says on the tin, or rather, the pyx. What is true may not always be agreeable, but it should not be resisted.
I was sorry that my wife, Caroline, decided not to convert. But she is a much better-instructed Anglican than I ever was and so, living with her, I enjoy all the advantages of the Anglican spirit without being driven mad by the ecclesial contradictions. You could say that I have been living in a one-household ‘ordinariate’ for the past 15 years. It sometimes feels like getting the best of both worlds.
‘Men of sense,’ opined the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, ‘are really but of one religion.’ Overhearing this, a lady of his family posed the obvious question, ‘Pray, my lord, what religion is that which men of sense agree in?’ ‘Madam,’ says the Earl, ‘men of sense never tell it.’
This is a profoundly English, post-Civil War answer. Religious reticence in England runs deep, and for good reason. English Protestantism has always been shaped by its turbulent history, which is why Queen Elizabeth I stated that she ‘had no desire’ to ‘make windows into men’s souls’.
Without making windows into my English soul, I did mind when my husband decided to become Catholic. We had worshipped together for 15 years, married and brought up our children together in the Church of England. Communion goes beyond a matter of shared language or liturgy to the deepest shared assumptions; so of course I minded. I minded so much that I took Catholic instruction, and nearly became a Catholic myself. I read and reread Cardinal Newman; and I desperately wanted to believe that a faith in ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’ could seamlessly segue into a fuller belief in Roman Catholicism as the ‘one true Church’.
The moment when I realised that I could not become a Roman Catholic took place in a restaurant in Islington, when we were arguing about the Roman view of Anglican orders being ‘null and void’. It shot in upon me, with terrible force, that I could not join a church that taught that George Herbert was no true priest. The image I had been clinging to (and which the Pope now seems to offer to Anglicans) was of walking from a small room to a larger and richer hall, remaining Anglican, but becoming Catholic. But conversion that insists upon re-ordination slams a door between them.
Roman Catholicism is truly catholic, which makes it is profoundly and sweetly inclusive; but it is also thoroughly Roman, which can be triumphantly and repellently exclusive. I found I could not believe that Absolute Truth is embodied in any earthly institution that believes it alone is right. The Nicene Creed states that we believe in ‘one holy, catholic and apostolic Church’; and the visible church, the Church in this world, is intended by God to be one, and should strive to be so. But it will always fail.
The only True Church is the Church Invisible — the ‘communion of the saints’, whose precise membership is known only to God. It is because the one true Church can never be found upon this earth that ‘our conversation is in heaven’. There is a deep felicity in this King James Version of Philippians iii 20, which translates politeuma, or citizen state, as ‘conversation’. Ideas of citizenship, of belonging, and of a true society are bound up with the notion of many voices in discourse.
The Anglican Church has never maintained that it offers the only true path to God. Hooker, indeed, states explicitly that Catholics could be saved.
Hooker offers two ‘pillars’ of authority for the Anglican — the Scriptures and Tradition. Both scripture and tradition in the Anglican tradition are infinitely rich, and infinitely flexible, yet are rigorously explicated. There is nothing woolly in the exemplary diversity of the great sermons of the 17th century, which encompass the surprisingly sweet-natured English Calvinism of Perkins or Sibbes, the scrupulous Armenianism of Taylor, the passionate linguistic exactness of Andrewes, the intellectual and emotional fireworks of Donne. All contribute voices to the Anglican ‘conversation’.
Donne is interesting since he was a Catholic who converted to the Church of England. In his sermons he celebrated the peculiar combination of freedom and stability that his paradoxical spirit craved, and which he evidently found combined so richly in his new-found-land of Anglicanism:
‘God loves not singularity: God bindes us to nothing, that was never said but by one. As God loves Sympathy, God loves Symphony; God loves a compassion and fellow feeling of others miseries, that is Sympathy, and God loves Harmony, and fellow-beleeving of others Doctrines, and that is Symphony. No one man alone makes a Church; no one Church alone makes a Catholique Church.R 17;