A broad churchman’s calling

Robert Van de Weyer explains why – to his own astonishment – it is not only Anglo-Catholics who are enthusiastic for the possibilities of the Ordinariate

 

In the spatial imagery of the Church of England I count myself as ‘broad’ church. So I was astonished when on 1 March this year I had an overwhelming conviction of God wanting me to join the Ordinariate proposed by Pope Benedict. When I spoke nervously about this to my wife Sarah – also broad in churchmanship, though slender in shape – she understood immediately, and now shares my conviction. And as I spoke one by one to the regular churchgoers in the tiny parish in Cambridgeshire where I have been unpaid priest since 1982, they too understood; and, while some would like also to join, all will continue attending worship.

Since that date I have sought to rationalise my conviction. And I have come to believe that the Ordinariate should appeal to other traditional broad churchmen, and also to evangelicals. Indeed, the ultimate success of the Ordinariate depends on it spreading beyond the Anglo-Catholic churches that will inevitably comprise its initial core.

Like St Wilfrid

Broad churchmen are Catholic for the same reasons as St Wilfred, the leader of the Catholic side at Whitby. And this in turn means that they are strongly ecumenical, believing that we should strive to restore a global ecclesiastical structure that can discern and articulate the Spirit’s guidance. Inevitably, therefore, I was highly intrigued by the publication last November of Anglicanorum Coetibus. Pope Benedict is trying to apply to Anglicanism, albeit with some variations required by Catholic law, the ecumenical model of the uniate churches in the East, which retain their traditional liturgy and theological outlook, while entering communion with the Catholic Church – and accepting ultimate Catholic authority. This offers the only realistic means in today’s context of beginning to repeat the ecumenical miracle of Whitby.

But why, the rational broad churchman asks, should ‘catholic’ mean ‘Catholic’? Does ecumenism still mean, as it did in Whitby, accepting the primacy of Rome? For me there are two answers, one pragmatic and the other spiritual. The pragmatic answer is that a global structure requires a hierarchy, with someone as its head; and historical custom favours the bishop of Rome as head more than any other patriarch.

Power of self-renewal

The spiritual answer lies in the extraordinary power of the Catholic Church for self-renewal, which bears witness to the Spirit’s blessing. The so-called Counter-Reformation of the late sixteenth century is the most spectacular example: it dramatically reversed the spread of Protestantism in Europe; it engendered an extraordinary theological and spiritual revival, as the literature of the period demonstrates; and it led to breath-taking missionary endeavours across the world, far exceeding anything the Protestants could muster.

The Second Vatican Council is another example. Its documents demonstrate that the assembled bishops had listened to Protestant theologians, as well as their own. Thus they understood – indeed, they stated explicitly – that the universal church comprises all faithful Christians, including those not in communion with Rome. Of course, there has been a conservative backlash; but the Catholic Church today has vigour that in the earlier part of the twentieth century it was in danger of losing.

Catholicism has maintained by far the strictest moral stance of any major Christian church on a wide variety of issues, especially the sanctity of marriage, and it has opposed more vigorously the crude utilitarianism of modern society. Moreover, on the vexed question of homosexuality, which is tearing apart the Anglican Communion, the Catholic Church has remained admirably clear, refuting the notion that homosexual partnerships are morally equivalent to marriage, while condemning any kind of homophobia.

So in many vital respects the Ordinariate accords with broad church attitudes. But in one respect it challenges them. Over the centuries broad church clergy have tended to favour an open approach to pastoral ministry, wishing to make their services in church accessible to all people, regardless of the depth of their faith. In this way, so they have hoped, the church can spread its moral message as widely as possible. As a result in recent years broad church clergy like me have tended to favour family services, or ‘mangled Matins’. This has proved a resounding failure, doing nothing to stem the decline in church attendance.

Common discipleship

The truth is that churches now can only hope to flourish if they engender a strong sense of common discipleship. The evangelicals understand this well, with revivalist preaching in the context of stirring Christian pop music – plus lots of midweek house groups. The Ordinariate will also give its members a strong corporate bond, but it will be based on eucharistic liturgy. Much as I love pop music, it cannot rival the Eucharist’s spiritual nutrition – as many evangelicals come to know.

Even if (as I earnestly pray) there is an Ordinariate in Britain, it will face a perilous infancy. There are obvious financial and legal challenges to be overcome. The mainstream Roman Catholic Church will not necessarily welcome it. As a senior Catholic priest asked me recently in sceptical tones: ‘What exactly is this Anglican patrimony that the Ordinariate is supposed to preserve?’ And this in turn points to the greatest danger. The Anglo-Catholics forming its core have spent so long having to emphasize their Catholicism that they may have largely forgotten their Anglicanism. Paradoxically, in becoming Catholic they will need to learn afresh how to be Anglican. ND

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