Wednesday, 3 November 2010

"If the Church of England were to fail........."

Keble's Church at Hursley

I came across this passage from Owen Chadwick, the distinguished historian of the nineteenth century Church, who had a prose style which is surely the equal of R.W. Church and even Newman himself. It is in a essay "The limitations of Keble" reprinted in The Spirit of the Oxford Movement (CUP 1990):
".......A child may have ideals the easier because he or she knows not the human compromises necessary to embody those ideals in act. Keble's nobility was partly of this kind. The most characteristic of all his sayings is the dictum at the time of the Gorham case,
If the Church of England were to fail, it should be found in my parish
The stance is so squared and so real that it takes a moment to see how cloud-capped are the towers so defended.........."
Yet it is precisely this view which seems to be the fall-back position of many today standing in the ruins amidst the settling dust of the collapse of the Anglo-Catholic Movement. This is not to criticise John Keble unduly; it was precisely his lack of what many at the time would have called realism, and his refusal to admit defeat which led to the continued existence of Anglo-Catholicism itself after the crises of the 1840s and 50s.
But no one needs to have the limitations of his view spelled out to them. It was a paradoxical comment in 1850, if highly poetical and almost convincing; today it lacks even that partially saving grace. Now it can only mean a kind of 'catholic' congregationalism (see the comments of Bishop Peter Elliott here)  for one generation before the waters close over our heads.

There are some whose theology (anglo-catholic but anti-papal) leaves them little choice but to dig in, pull up the drawbridge of their parishes and try to survive as best they can, for as long as they can; but this is a desperate last ditch survival tactic not an ecclesiology (the opposite of any Catholic theology of communion), and for many of us would seem to lack the essential element of hope which alone would justify struggling on in increasing isolation in the gathering darkness. It is undoubtedly a witness, and one worthy of a certain amount of respect, and even greater sympathy, but nevertheless a somewhat nihilistic vision to have to teach to one's flock for a limited period until one's retirement, and totally devoid of any evangelistic purpose.
But the temptation now (one we should firmly resist) is for those who are able to see their path more clearly to pass judgement on those who, as yet, can't see a future at all. What one man will see as the fulfilment and consummation of a life's work and of a centuries-old tradition may be seen by another as denial and betrayal. That's simply how it is.

To me at least, one of the most fascinating aspects of Anglicanorum Coetibus is the way it has shone a searchlight on the Catholic Movement in Anglicanism and revealed just how theologically diverse a group we are, even among the 'orthodox' and (dare I say it) those societies and organisations committed to reunion with Peter, but which have also attracted members due to their prominence in the fight against women's ordination. What were once smaller and fairly cohesive groups have become wide coalitions of interest. Adversity makes strange bedfellows; that has never been more evident than at the present time. That being the case, it is not at all surprising that we have been simply incapable of a truly corporate response to a prophetic gesture such as the one which has been held out to us.

But it is the impossibility of corporate reunion which has left not a few feeling vulnerable, isolated and exposed, wondering who will decide their future and on what basis, and pondering, either aloud or to themselves, whether their useful lives are now over.
What gives me hope? Firstly, (to quote a highly distinguished blogger) that an 'elderly Bavarian gentleman' who happens both to be the most eminent living theologian, and (providentially for us) Supreme Pontiff,  has seen something in our tradition which is worthy of preservation and renewal in the service of the Universal Church.  And secondly, that he has a habit of getting his way.
We don't have many details as yet about the Ordinariates, but we are able to pray. However great has been  our disillusionment with authority in our present situations, often with very good reason, we shouldn't let that colour our view of the future as it unfolds. Christ will not abandon us.


  1. Well said, Father. You've saved me the necessity of posting yet again; instead I shall direct people to this masterly account of where we are, and what are our options. Thank you. +E

  2. I have been thinking about those anglo-catholics whom you would call "anti-papal". Often it is because they just do not understand the RC teaching about the Petrine ministry. In some of the discussions I have read on the blogs, some of the comments from those who are against the Pope show that they are either sadly misinformed, lacking in knowledge or just too infected with the old propaganda and prejudices. Hopefully, as they see the reality through the experience of those who join the ordinariate they will gain a more balanced view.

  3. As someone recently convinced away from Reformist doctrine and into the Anglo-Catholic tradition, I find myself wondering what reasons Anglo-Catholics have for remaining in Anglicanism and not going over to Rome. Obviously, some people can be convinced of Catholic doctrines on soteriology but not agree with Catholic teaching on WO or sexuality or Papal authority, but for those who do agree with Rome on those things (and are thus comfortable with the Ordinariate), what kept you within the Anglican church until now? Or did you simply find yourselves there almost by accident of birth and upbringing, and only later realised that actually your true home was the RC Church?


Anonymous comments will not be published