Where are they now?

Robbie Low examines the list of those lost to the Church of England

We have just entered the tenth year of the Church of England's self-inflicted internal schism. In all the accelerated decline that has engulfed the Church since that fateful decision, the one group that has remained numerically constant, according to independent statistics and against all the odds, is the Anglo-Catholics. Given that the overwhelming majority of resignations and departures (clergy and lay) came from this group, it is all the more remarkable. I had to rehearse these facts and figures recently for a woman priest friend who is a lecturer at theological college. She had just been telling me how the Anglo-catholics had just about disappeared off the map. Undoubtedly, this is true of her experience, but she seemed blissfully unaware that she might have had anything to do with it. I explained, as courteously as you would expect, that one or two other colleges still harboured an uncomfortable number of these throwbacks. We remained friends, but I'm not sure she believed me.

It was just another reminder that, as non-persons, the most helpful and ‘loyal’ thing that orthodox believers can do is to be so self-effacing that they conform to the propaganda of their demise.

This convenient air-brushing from history is not new. In the first year after the schism I went to three inductions. Young men were replacing two older men who had resigned, and one who had taken early retirement in the wake of 1992. All three departing priests had served long and well and built and maintained substantial parish congregations, two of them in very difficult areas. Each one of them had departed without acrimony or publicity. Their reward? Thinly veiled hostility. Their epitaph? Silence.

Not one of the inducting diocesans broached the subject of the parish's sorrow and loss. Not one extended a grateful word for the achievements of the ‘traitor’s’ ministry. Each spoke of the new incumbency as a kind of liberation from some nameless and oppressive past.

A fond farewell?

I subsequently discovered that each man's hand-delivered letter of resignation was received with no more attention than signing for a recorded delivery. No sorrow at parting, no word of encouragement, no enquiry about the lot of the man's family, future plans, how they would manage etc., etc. And this calculated indifference from men who pretended to the office of Chief Pastor! Two of the three parishes have since passed A, B and C and their bright young incumbents have consequently entered the official ecclesiastical limbo of their predecessors.

The following year I needed to get hold of addresses of three other men who had resigned equally quietly. In no case was the respective diocesan office apparently able to help me. ‘I'm afraid we don't keep information about people like that,’ one, all too honestly, told me. The others were as cold but more careful in their language. Non-people do not have forwarding addresses. The diocesan apparatchiks were merely reflecting the mood of their masters.

Towards the end of the decade I have had enough conversations with the resigners and senior members of churches to which they have gone to observe another unpleasant pattern emerging. The few, against whom there were serious questions of moral probity, were warmly commended by our hierarchy as if sending an unexploded bomb into the enemy (fellow Christian) camp. Those with considerable records of faithful work in the parish but public dissent from the episcopal governing class had been undermined by cross-border references of faint praise, ‘nagging doubts’ and the ultimate the damning Anglican ‘but’. As in ‘a well-meaning man but…’

Leaving home

In our own constituency the response to those who have departed has not been entirely uniform either. A few have felt let down, a few, in the best traditions of Anglican tribalism, cannot understand how anyone could become a ‘Roman’ or a ‘Greek’. But for the most part, people have understood only too well the principled motivation of those who have given up everything and assumed that God is just and repositioning his loyal troops where he needs them for the work of the Kingdom.

Quite what has happened to the approximately 500 priests and thousands of laity who have left is largely unknown to their Anglican brothers and sisters, who remain in a Church even more hostile to them than a decade ago. It would have been easy to publish some articles in 1993 when a reflection on their new homes would have been, as yet, immature. Now, a decade on, we have asked three of our friends to reflect honestly on their post-Anglican experience. Two priests and one lay person write about their journeys to Rome and Orthodoxy and travels with the Continuing Anglicans. Each of them has had a far from easy road, but each has made a considerable contribution to the work of the Church, firstly as Anglicans, and now in their new homes. If, as we have persistently argued, the future of Christianity in the West lies in a fundamental realignment, then it is important that we do not lose touch with our brothers and sisters in the other Communions. The orthodox must work together and leave the liberals to play with, and ultimately deconstruct, whatever religion they are currently inventing.

Voice One: An Unofficial Anglican

My story is one of association with the Anglican Diaspora, the people who have chosen to live in a wilderness rather than bear the agony of mind and soul inside the new liberal Churches. It is a story about the laity.

After more than 30 years as a parish priest in England, I resigned the living that I had served happily for 21 of those years. The reasons were many, among the most important for me was an inability to lead the laity down the path and feed them the pasturage the Church of England seemed determined to require me to serve. My sense of priesthood, the teaching and nurture of the scattered flock, has been richer in the exile with them, than I ever imagined.

We have all been helped greatly by friends and contacts in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic support, which understood the spirit of a people exiled. My first contacts were with former priest colleagues in North America, who twenty years before had been driven out of their parishes, and whose sad and public story of division was well known. We had held out great hope for the movement called ‘Continuing Anglicanism’. What is not so well known is the determination and commitment of laymen and women to ensure the survival of a traditional Anglican presence.

Commitment

The initiatives back in the early 1970s came from the laity. Large numbers of them had for years been turning away from the outrageous activities of the mainstream Churches. From this group came the momentum for the St Louis Declaration setting up the foundations for the classical alternative jurisdiction. A belief prevails that the takeover of this movement by clergy was the single cause for the problems. The sense in the laity has always been the restoration of discipline and purity of life among the clergy and people, of basic biblical teaching and catecheses and of an ordered liturgy. To enable this to take place the majority of the laity will often travel two to three hours on Sundays worshipping in converted buildings. They will accept the discipline of tithing both for the local congregation and the national mission. They will make their homes available for evening study and the instruction of new members who may wish to transfer from other churches. It was my experience that the tougher the message and discipline required the stronger the group became. The bland sign of the Episcopal Church welcoming all was not the message these laity wanted to convey today but rather welcome to all that would tread the narrow way or take up the cross. As a result of this approach these groups are still growing. Men are willing to submit themselves to the training for the permanent diaconate. Deacons will have been required to undertake a full reading course with examinations and work with their priests. They are the mainstays of the developing parishes and the overall mission. Priests are normally required to have a residential seminary of two to three years. There has been talk, but tragically no action yet, to restore the office of the deaconess, which I believe would complete the picture.

The truth is that many thousands are leaving the liberal Churches, others hold on with nowhere to go. Some just stop going to church at all. But where a good alternative classical Anglican Church exists, even with the difficulties, there will be found a strong and determined body of people determined to find a way forward. I have always prayed that these people would not simply see themselves as a preservation society but as a pilgrim group looking for ways back to the Church of God. For me these groups are an inspiration and continued contact with them must be a priority for us all.

Voice Two: A Path to Rome

Life is full of obstacles but when your church starts to build them, it is time to wake up to what is going on. For me, in my outwardly appearing Catholic country parish, the wake up call was the infamous Readers Digest article in which it was suggested that those who opposed the ordination of women were heretics. Do you remember that? I can remember reading it and almost immediately going to one of the priests in the parish asking what was going on? Well, I suppose all converts ask similar questions. Often it is one issue that wakes you up but it cannot be the sole reason for making your decision. Becoming a Catholic was something I thought most Anglo-Catholics wanted. The surprise has been the negative reactions of some who have not yet made the journey.

Well what did I find and has it helped my own spiritual journey? Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. Sometimes the liturgy is not well presented and the faithful seem irreverent in the practice of their faith. I think this has been helped by the influx of ex-Anglican clergy and laity who have brought a fresh and positive attitude to the Catholic Church.

Felix

The positives are numerous with certainty being the most obvious. We do not have to worry about whether so and so is or is not an ordained priest – they just are. This means you do not have to worry about the effect of the sacraments – they just are. You do not have to worry about whether your neighbour in the pew believes what you believe – they just do. In the seven years since my own reception I cannot recall any one occasion when I have gone home wondering ‘what did that preacher say?’ As an Anglican I was treated to ‘the Creed’s very nice but you don’t have to believe it’; ‘I have put my crosses away because it offends people’; ‘Where does it say in the Bible about marriage’ and ‘I cannot make up my mind about same sex marriages’. I could go on. The cat now does not have to hide after Mass for fear I might want to kick him (or her!)!

The cultures of the Churches are different. Presbyteries and priests are usually far busier in the Catholic Church than their counterparts in the Church of England, because they have larger parishes and more people to serve. Masses are well attended, although like all Western Churches, not as it used to be. The laity play important roles within parishes – far more than perhaps the average Anglican would believe. But there is a lack of democratic governance with which many of you I suspect would not be entirely happy. But are you really happy with the debates and acrimony that arises within synodical government? Are you sure that the debate is directed by the Holy Spirit or is it something about political correctness? None of that I miss. I can just go to Mass and say my prayers and get on with living.

The Catholic Church does have warts because it contains humans. This is something you have to accept. It knows it has imperfections but that is what Christianity is all about, gathering the sinners together and not the righteous. God bless you all in your pilgrim journey.

Voice Three: Orthodoxy; orthopraxis.

Becoming Orthodox was the hardest and most costly experience of my life – and the pain still goes on. Although the inevitability of becoming Orthodox had been growing in my mind and heart since 1976 I went at the process too quickly; perhaps because it was settled in my head and had been for some time. Everything went wrong. The priest in charge of the jurisdiction we first approached knew little or nothing about Orthodoxy. It was a kind of Eastern rite Anglicanism it seemed. His first visit was a disaster. Half of us went – two back to the Church of England and the rest to Rome. He called off his second visit to us – dumped us – at three hours notice with equally devastating effects. We were then left to find someone who would take us on. By the mercy of God, we found someone and we are all now safely aboard. I bear witness now to the loving care we have received from our bishop and the priests and lay folk since we became Orthodox.

Coming Home

If you want to make sense of the experience of becoming Orthodox – and survive it – forget all the talk about the beauty of the Liturgy. It is beautiful but one’s first experience is of unbelievable length and confusing complexity. The beauty of Orthodoxy lies in its truth; the simple confidence with which that truth is professed and the courage with which it is lived out. The thing to concentrate on is that ‘God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ Everything in the Church’s life is designed to give full effect to that reconciliation in the life of each Orthodox. Nothing else matters. We worship and pray and venerate the icons so that we will come to know the wonder of God’s love, live in it and come to our salvation. It is this – and the knowledge that the whole Church subsists in each faithful Orthodox – that sustains one. Wretched sinners that we are, the whole Tradition and Life of the Church – of all the Fathers and the Saints, of the Blessed Virgin and of our Blessed Saviour – lives in each of us when we are faithful and repentant. The Liturgy and our prayers weave profound repentance and transcendent glory together so that we ‘keep our minds on Hell and despair not’ and doing that taste and know Heaven.

No words can encompass the reality of being Orthodox because it truly is – with all the funny foreign words, long hours of standing, grumpy priests and slightly mad mamushkas – life in the Holy Trinity.

After a long wait – the oldest member of our mission is ninety – we are home. We shall always miss the things about the Church of England that we loved but we would not leave the Orthodox Church now. Once one has tasted the wonder of Heaven nothing else will do, there is no alternative. There is nothing we could give up which would not be small compared to it.

Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s He is grateful to many friends who have shared their experiences with him.

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