From the Banks of the Tiber

Andrew Burnham offers a personal view of the events leading up to the establishment of the Ordinariate

It was good to be invited by the Editor to speak once more through the columns of NEW DIRECTIONS and I am not only glad of the opportunity but find that, after four years of what courtesy requires me to call a ‘Roman Catholic’, it takes me some time to think myself back into how things were, and where I left things. I was the third Bishop of Ebbsfleet, and you are now on to your fifth, so clearly much has changed.

Viewed as subversive

When I left, I think I had somewhat exasperated the Anglican establishment, by referring to ‘the See of Ebbsfleet’, calling it an ‘apostolic district’, much as the Roman Catholics called their administrative areas before the re-establishing of the hierarchy. We were applauded by successive archbishops for having a Council of Priests, a good deanery structure, a Lay Council, and a flourishing annual Lay Congress. Yet other bishops, probably with some justification, viewed these things as dangerously subversive of a proper acceptance of Church of England structures and patterns.

It became obvious to me that we would never be granted the much talked-about ‘Free Province’, with an independent ecumenical agenda of reconciliation with the Holy See, and it became no less obvious that, even were this granted, it would not have been financially viable. Like so many Church of England parishes, small Anglo-Catholic congregations of less than 100 souls were dependent on the giving of large Evangelical parishes. The kind of mutual interdependence that represented was, and is, godly, but not a basis on which to fund an ecclesiologically separatist movement and certainly not the basis for an ecclesiologically distinct structure.

Visit to Rome

The story of my visit to Rome in April 2008 has often been told. It was widely misunderstood and, perhaps, it is time to set the record straight. For one thing, it was not a secret visit. The Archbishop of Canterbury knew that Bishop Keith Newton and I were going and whom we would be meeting. Nor was it the first of such meetings: various other bishops, mainly diocesans, had been along earlier, as the press reported. The difference was that those bishops were presumably playing a political game, whereas we – the flying bishops – were simply petitioners, asking for the help of the Holy See.

Lambeth Conference

Another misunderstanding – and this is a misunderstanding that the Roman curia shared – was the rôle of the Lambeth Conference. It was not to be a crisis summit about women bishops. The Vatican sent along its heavy guns. Cardinal Ivan Dias, from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, came along and accused Anglicans of senile dementia: forgetting their own history and ecclesiology. Cardinal Walter Kasper, from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, came along and said that ordaining women as bishops would be an ecumenical breaking point. In fact, Lambeth 2008 was not remotely concerned with women bishops. Most of those who did not accept women bishops were from what became known as the GAFCON sphere of influence, and they had boycotted Lambeth 2008. The neuralgic point at Lambeth 2008 was homosexual marriage, already solemnized by the Episcopal Church.

Issue of Holy Order

The greatest misunderstanding of my position – and I can speak only personally – was when it was assumed that I was acting out of some difficulty relating to women and women ministers. In fact, in the 1980s, somewhat mistakenly I must now say, I was a campaigner for women deacons, the development of which I saw as a distinct and eirenic way forward. When women in the diocese of Southwell, in which I was serving at the time, were ordained priest, I sent each of them a card of congratulations. At a human level, I was happy for them. Even now, I have a female colleague in the parish in which I serve and we get on well. The issue, for me, was about Holy Order, as one of the points of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, and I regarded the Church of England as being in error by thinking that it could distinguish between theological and ecumenical arguments about Holy Order. The ecumenical argument against acting alone in this matter is a theological one.

Something similar also must be said, incidentally, about how homosexuality is viewed. Different communions can have different nuances and different ways of handling pastoral matters but the theology of the human body has an ecumenical dimension. What has the Church said about this through the ages? What does the Church now say, throughout the world?

The 2012 vote

Another misunderstanding about my position was that I acted as I did because of the impending final vote on women bishops, then thought to be due in 2012. The Anglo-Catholic Church of England bishops at Lambeth 2008 all signed a letter, to the effect that the 2012 vote would mark a kind of Doomsday. Had that vote been taken decisively in 2012, one must presume that those bishops would have been as good as their word. In fact, as we know, it all worked out somewhat differently, and the Church of England, whether by luck or by judgement, defused the crisis and the final decision happened a couple of years later, without Doomsday threats, and after much skilful conflict-management by the first Archbishop of Canterbury since Dr Fisher whom I have not personally known. One cannot but admire this achievement.

So why did we ‘jump the gun’ – as one might say – in 2008? Why did we apparently precipitate Anglicanorum cœtibus and the setting up of the Ordinariates? I say ‘apparently’ because, of course, there were others too. Bishop Jeffrey Steenson had resigned from the Episcopal Church and some former Episcopalians had been restless. And there was all the sound and fury of the Traditional Anglican Communion, which in the end proved to be largely a front-of-stage activity while the real negotiating went on back stage.

Mutual acceptance

Again, I can speak only personally. First, I was not involved in the creation of Anglicanorum cœtibus. My instruction was simply to wait. As a bishop my motto was Expectans expectavi (I waited patiently for the Lord) – and that is what I did. Second, I should have been entirely content, along with those who came with me, to be integrated into the existing Roman Catholic diocesan structures. We asked to be accepted in groups – for the sake of the laity and the mutual support of the clergy – but the Ordinariate ecclesiology was new to me.

Greater than all this – and this was the motive for my visit in 2008 – was my conviction that no communion can survive where there is not the mutual acceptance of ministries and sacraments. At St Stephen’s House, where I taught before I became a bishop in 2002, there were conflicting ecclesiologies, necessitating separate celebrations of the Eucharist. Working with my colleagues, I gradually, over a decade, came to see that this was never going to be satisfactory. When Archbishop George Carey invited me to be Bishop of Ebbsfleet in 2000, I accepted provided he understood my view that, as a bishop, one ceased to be able to respond individually to the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus and instead would be required to respond ecclesiologically. He accepted this and, at the time, it seemed to me that the Church of England really meant what it said about Reception and Communion. Later, Archbishop Rowan Williams himself professed that this whole matter was an eschatological one – resolvable only in the End-Time – and accused me, very genially, of trying to put my foot on the ecumenical accelerator.

Where are we now?

So, where are we now? When I was bishopping, I asked all the clergy to fill in a questionnaire on the presenting issue. What they would do if the Church of England proceeded with women bishops? All agreed, I think – whether they were ecumenists or impossibilists – that it would be the end for them. One priest thought he would join the TAC and one or two the Orthodox Church. Most said they would become Roman Catholics. Almost all my Council of Priests took that last view. What became clear, however, was that there was a whole series of end-points, and no agreed one. Some thought it would be a synodical vote. Others when a woman bishop was consecrated. Others when a woman bishop was appointed to their diocese. Others when they were required in law to accept

the ministry of a woman bishop. What one could see was the scenario that had already been acted out in the wider Anglican Communion. What had happened in North America, would now be happening in England. Finally there would be redoubts, where traditional parsons drew up the drawbridge, which is where it has more or less got to elsewhere in the world.


A great deal more could be said but, in the end, what one observes is that, since the days of Blessed John Henry Newman, there have been waves of ‘converts’ (not really an appropriate word) at various crisis points. Each time there has been a small exodus, there has been an influx of new ordinands, convinced of the possibility of making a go of Catholicism, against the odds, in the Anglican Church. I was nearly in the wave of 1994, and, to my knowledge, no Roman Catholics were rude about those who stayed behind then, believing in the cause, and supporting their families. Now I am one of those who did leave in the wave of 2011, I am far from critical of those who stayed behind. Some will come later. Others will not. I used to say RITA – Rome is the Answer – and I meant it. We should try not to say it if we don’t mean it, and, to end with a very mild criticism, I would just say that I knew that people had not meant what they said when, in the Forward! newspaper, it was remarked of the new Bishops of Ebbsfleet and Richborough that these would be the leaders of the movement, even when the Act of Synod rescinded. That showed that people largely would be staying put and, just as importantly, it was a white flag to the Church of England, a sign that the rhetoric of alternative episcopal oversight was gone. The authors of that rhetoric, and its leading sustainers, meanwhile, did the decent thing and ‘defected’ (like ‘convert’ also an inappropriate word) to Rome. ND

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