Wednesday, 6 May 2015

An Anglican future in the Catholic Church - Fr. Aidan Nichols

Here is a look back at an article by Fr. Aidan Nichols written in 2010 for NEW DIRECTIONS when the Ordinariates had not yet been formed. It is interesting to note how far we have come since then.



It is easier for the Church of England to become Catholic than for the Church of Rome in England to become English... If England is ever to be in any appreciable degree converted to Christianity, it can only be through the Church of England.’

I quote these words of T.S. Eliot towards the end of my small book The Realm, the subtitle of which runs A Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England. My aspirations for the conversion of England are the key to the way I personally approach the Ordinariate project. So I must begin from there.

I am keen on the idea of the conversion of England [as well as Canada and elsewhere] for reasons both theoretical and pragmatic. There are two theoretical reasons: the first, as Evangelicals would surely agree, is the Great Commission at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel [28.19] which bids the apostles make disciples of ‘all the nations’.

The second is more specific to Catholics because it turns on the concept of Christendom, which is the concept of an evangelized people naturally expressing its faith in a corporate culture that extends to every aspect of life, from the aesthetic to the political.

I also have two pragmatic reasons for being enthused by the idea of the conversion ofEngland. The first is based on a simple psychological observation. If you don’t encourage people to share their Christian convictions with others – or worse, if you deliberately discourage them by saying, that’s against the spirit of pluralism in a multi-cultural society, or it is contrary to the vocation of each individual to find his or her own way in life – the natural result is going to be declining confidence in the value of the Christian convictions concerned. How can I possibly be in possession of the most important truth in the world if I’m not supposed to share it with my neighbour? De-emphasizing apostolic zeal leads inevitably, or so it seems to me, to a depreciation in the value of faith.

My second pragmatic reason for supporting the idea of the conversion of England comes not so much from psychological observation as from sociological. When a Church ceases to claim to provide a sacred canopy for all the activities of society, it soon retreats into one or both of two unenviable positions. Either, it regards itself as something people access in their private lives, or it becomes simply a critic of society, pontificating from the sidelines.

When the Church withdraws its claim to be the animator of culture, religion becomes in these ways a somewhat stunted affair. It survives only as personal therapy or as social critique – and does so, therefore, at the margins of an increasingly de-Christianized society where a secular culture can patronize it as proof of how wonderfully tolerant modernity is. Meanwhile, the virtues that depend on the restoration of fallen humanity by grace, and the practices, nurtured by the Church, that assist in the formation of those virtues, drain out of the common life, producing the moral wasteland described in (not least) Eliot’s poetry.


What, then, can be done about the conversion of England? In The Realm I put forward a scheme of what I called ‘integral evangelization’. It re-cycles, in the perspective of the conversion of England, an analysis worked out at the start of the twentieth century by the lay theologian Friedrich von Hügel when he spoke of the three key elements of Christianity as ‘intellectual’, ‘mystical’ and ‘institutional’. Basically, it is evangelization understood as drawing simultaneously on all the resources the Church has to offer by way of an inspiring truth (intellectual), an inspiring worship (mystical) and inspiration for life together (institutional).

I also considered the possibility that the Roman Catholic Church in England could spearhead such an evangelizing movement dedicated to re-converting England. In that connection, I argued that the present-day weakness of the English embodiment of Roman Catholicism lies in a decline of confidence bound up with the abandonment of the imperative to convert England which was such a pervasive feature of the ‘Second Spring’, from c.1840 to c.1960, a period which of course coincided (not accidentally) with the Oxford Movement and the heyday of Anglo-Catholicism.

That decline of confidence opened the way for inroads to be made by secular modes of thinking, with the consequent attenuation of Roman Catholic identity and life. Those inroads, I believe, testify to the subversive consequences of abandoning the apostolic imperative far more than they do to any intrinsic defects in the doctrinal orthodoxy, liturgical tradition, and moral programme of historic Catholicism.

I further suggested that the way the Roman Catholic Church in England combines native elements with immigrant elements in a melting-pot was, rightly considered, not another weakness but a strength where the conversion of England is concerned. The combination of insiders who have a spontaneous feel for the culture and outsiders who can perceive more clearly its limitations could be a winning formula which recreates the successful recipe of the Anglo-Saxon conversion – not just Cuthbert and Wilfrid but Augustine and Theodore.


So much – very schematically, of course – for the conversion of England, but this in fact brings me to the second key term in this article, which is the Ordinariate. As a Latin Catholic, what to me is the potential significance of the Ordinariate in the perspective of the conversion of England? Its significance lies in its ability to neutralize the effect of the ‘black legend’ of Catholicism in the Protestant national consciousness, a ‘legend’ with an ongoing afterlife in contemporary English secularism.

The black legend, essentially the result of Tudor propaganda, has it that Catholicism is essentially alien, intrinsically un-English or un-British, and, moreover, an unnatural imposition on an organism all of whose healthy instincts reject it. Has the black legend survived the marginalization of doctrinal Protestantism in our culture? Patently it has, to 
judge from the buildup to the forthcoming visit to England of Benedict XVI. Even though the typical secular objections to Roman Catholicism chiefly concern moral teachings once common to all Christian bodies, and still largely shared with Evangelical Protestantism, the blogosphere and the print media bear witness to the continuance of a much more visceral, xenophobic, dislike.

This is where, for me, the Ordinariate comes in. An Anglican Catholicism in full union with the Holy See and collaborating on a basis of parity with the Latin bishops in England, utilizing post-Reformation theological, liturgical, musical and literary resources, would not just boost the indigenous element in the present-day Roman Catholic Church.
It would make it almost impossible for the black legend subsequently to perpetuate itself over time.

Of course, much Anglo-Catholicism has presented itself as the complete religion of the Western patriarchate, minus only visible communion with the Pope. But that has been, in large part, so as to assert its catholicity as unmistakably as possible. On my view, that vocation of the Anglo-Catholic movement within the Church of England will naturally undergo a degree of reconfiguration insofar as the movement passes into an Ordinariate. Although the charter of the Ordinariate, Anglicanorum coetibus, allows for the continued use in Ordinariate parishes of the Roman liturgical books, the rationale of the Ordinariate – not least in the evangelistic perspective I am proposing – surely means this would be the exception rather than the rule.

That, then, in brief, is what the Ordinariate means for a sympathetic Latin Catholic. But what does it mean for Anglo-Catholics themselves . . . I would say that the Ordinariate implies the failure of Tractarianism but not the failure of Anglo-Catholicism as such. Allow me to explain. The Tractarians aimed to bring the Church of England in its entirety to an awareness of its Catholic identity, judged by reference to the atristic consensus. They were not interested in sustaining a distinct movement within Anglicanism but in the alteration of the outlook of the whole.


True, at the high-point of Anglo- Catholic expectations in the 1920s and the early 1930s when Eliot made the remark from which I started, there was a hope of re-making the entire Church in the Catholic image. But, or so it seems to me, Anglo-Catholicism has never depended for its sense of meaning and purpose on that hope being fulfilled in the way that Tractarianism did.

The negative response of the bishops and the Oxford heads of houses to Tract 90 took the stuffing out of Newman, but its equivalent in later official ecclesiastical disapproval had, if anything, the opposite effect on Anglo-Catholics. It put new fire in their bellies (‘Fight for your tabernacles!’). The formation of a distinctively organized Anglican Catholicism in union with the apostolic see of the West could thus be considered a successful outcome of the historic Anglo-Catholic movement even were the rest of the Church of England to go its own way, as indeed of course it will.

That is not to say that the formation of this new ecclesio-canonical entity will be without difficulty, even supposing that the very natural anxieties and regrets associated with any major upheaval can be borne. The Roman authorities are aware of the need to preserve, wherever possible, the triangle of parishioners, parish priest and parish church, and one side of this triangle is something they can affect. Rome could discard the normal requirement of a period in lay communion for convert clergy, thus enabling parish priest and parishioners to remain together without any hiatus.
Obviously enough, however, Rome cannot determine or even influence what is to happen to the church buildings themselves. The suggestion has been made that, granted a modicum of sympathy by diocesans, parish priests with their church wardens and parochial church councils could, after a ballot of the congregation, initiate a process of transferring the church building to the care of an independent trust, itself aligned with the purpose of the original trust by commitment to the continuance of a recognizably Anglican tradition of worship. Alternatively, there could be a formal declaration of the redundancy of certain churches.

In either case, the costs of upkeep of buildings and clergy would no longer be borne by the Church of England, and this raises the question of the financing of the Ordinariate. It is claimed that fundraising for the new body would not be problematic if there is anything in the conventional wisdom of fundraisers: namely, that one needs a cause that is clearly defined, unusual and preferably unique and a readily identifiable pool of potential donors.


What, then, does the Ordinariate mean for the Church of England? It strikes me that its erection will not greatly damage its church of origin even were the take-up to be on a considerably larger scale than is currently envisaged. The Church of England’s claim to be a comprehensive national church could survive the disappearance of both classical Anglo-Catholics and conservative Evangelicals since liberal Anglo-Catholics and moderate Evangelicals would remain to form the ends of a broad spectrum. Such a church could still claim perfectly plausibly to be the natural home of, say, George Herbert, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Temple the Younger – and in fact of the great majority of the defining figures of post-Reformation English Church history.

Thanks to its legal establishment and historically majoritarian support, the Church of England has vastly more opportunities for evangelization than does the Roman Catholic Church in England. I support the continuing establishment, a breakwater against the solvent tide of the secular, and I cannot envisage the combination of Roman Catholics and Anglo- Catholics in union with Rome as the larger part of the population of England in any foreseeable future. Why, then, do I not prefer to discuss the conversion of England in Anglican terms rather than Roman ones? And, for that matter, why do I not discourage Anglo-Catholics from entering the Ordinariate which – even when considered as co-ordinated with the Latin church in England – is a far smaller boat from which to fish?

Re-Christianization needs a church that is not only doctrinally coherent (because an intellectual battle has to be won about Christianity’s truth-claims). It needs a church that also has a moral teaching, sacramental life and spiritual practice that in all respects are congruent with doctrine. Insofar as there is positive interest in religion today, it is mainly in what I would call a ‘separated spirituality’: a therapeutic, privatized religiosity ordered to individual soul-care which has very little to do with the faith and practice of historic Christendom.

But if our theological anthropology (as orthodox Christians) is right, and human creatures are so made in the image of God that they are restless till they rest in him, we should expect that, even after ceasing to take seriously traditional expressions of the transcendent people will continue to feel the need for that other dimension, a need no substitute can ultimately satisfy.

The typical contemporary response to this experienced need is to cultivate what have been termed ‘self-expanding feelings’, possibly articulating these in ‘symbols borrowed from ancient traditions’, but without full commitment to the content of those symbols since the primary spiritual concern of late-modern or post-modern man is ‘with his own states of mind’ [Louis Dupré, ‘Has the Secularist Crisis come to an End?’, in R. Woods, O. P. (ed.), Heterodoxy/Mystical Experience, Religious Dissent and the Occult]. Such a mindset, I suggest, can only be awoken to real transcendence by a dogmatic Church offering serious catechesis like that which is made available in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church described in Anglicanorum coetibus as the common doctrinal benchmark of the Ordinariates.


Of course there will continue to be many people for whom the Church of England will provide the first glimpse of the City of God. But is it a halting-place, often of haunting beauty, or is it a final spiritual home?

No comments:

Post a Comment