A Mother's Mantle

Aidan Nichols OP speaks to the FiF Assembly 2002

Right reverend bishops, reverend fathers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ: it is a great honour for me to be invited to say a few words to your gathering today.

When I joined the Study Group on Women in the Episcopate I described myself as on a steep learning curve, and that has not ceased to be the case. I was struck from the first by the determination of Forward in Faith members as well as by the theological articulateness which comes from having to re-assess a Church identity. So the first thing I would like to do is to thank you for the witness you give – in what is often, I now know, a rather conflictual situation. It is a witness to the sacramental economy of the Church as that has been inherited through the apostles from our Lord.

Gender Symbolics

The issue confronting us is not some form of cussed, 'last ditch' opposition to political correctness but obedience to the Word of God. The Word incarnate has already chosen how he wills to mediate himself in his Church-body. That is attested by the constant practice of the Church. The Holy See has made itself the mirror of that practice not only in the doctrinal statements of 1993 and 1994, but in juridical fashion a decade earlier, in 1983, in canons which clearly state the invalidity, and not merely the illiceity, of the insertion of women into the priestly office. The Lord wants his high priestly initiative of salvation to be embodied in the gender where he himself took flesh, for the sake of his Spouse, his Bride – she who, through his grace, will never cease to respond to his redemptive love and to bear fruit from it. These gender symbolics of the Christian priesthood vis-à-vis the virgin mother Church are not something we can abandon without the entire symbolic structure of the saving revelation unravelling. Naturally enough, popular opinion in civil society fails to understand this. So your stand entails not only fidelity but also courage.

The Great Tradition

That stand, however, would not make complete sense unless it formed part of a wider movement to recover and maintain the Great Tradition, the Paradosis of apostolic Christendom, it its fulness, in matters of faith and morals as a whole. The unity of Catholic Christianity is the unity of a face. In a face no one feature can be changed without altering the cast of all the rest. Contemporary orthodox-minded Roman Catholics look with admiration at those Anglican divines who, in various historical periods, sought to restore the authentic portrait of the Church and the faith of the Church.

One thinks for example of Thomas Ken and John Keble as well as, closer to our own day, Gregory Dix and Eric Mascall. These are separated doctors in whom the Church of Rome can recognize the overwhelming preponderance of the apostolic patrimony she has received. Your task is now not only the negative one of defending their work but the positive one of completing it. The Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council makes this clear. The purpose of the Ecumenical Movement is not to arrive at a lowest common denominator Christianity. It is to restore the integrity of Christendom on the basis of the total revelation given to the Church by Christ and daily rendered a living reality by the Holy Spirit.

Old Father Thames

We know how delicate in practice is the ecumenical path we tread. There is in England a wider Anglicanism with less of a common mind than yours and yet a crucial national role to play in sustaining what remains of a Christian culture in this land. We can think of this as the Anglican Thames, sweeping down to the Westminster of Parliament, to Whitehall and beyond, out to the North Sea and the entrances to the Baltic and the Rhine, where the national churches of the Lutheran Reformation have their homes. The ecumenical conversations between this Anglicanism and the Catholic Church will inevitably be long and arduous.

But then there is also another Anglicanism, more restricted in size but at the same time more compact and coherent in doctrinal outlook and sacramental practice. Perhaps for those of you who know Oxfordshire this is not the Thames but the Thame, a river without ocean-going pretensions, clearer water, more at home in its historic landscape which is still the country Alfred and St Edmund of Abingdon would have recognized, not to mention Dr Pusey. This is the Anglicanism that looks to pre-Reformation Christendom, to the apostolic see of the West and, further afield, to those of the East. It is an Anglicanism that has already received much from the Latin Catholic inheritance, liturgically and otherwise. It is an Anglicanism too that has often nurtured the hope of restoring union with the patriarchal church of the West from which it was sundered.

The other lung

This, I might add, should be on the understanding that the Church of Peter and Paul does not wish the West to breathe without the East, without that 'other lung' in the metaphor of the Dominican ecclesiologist Yves Congar. 'The other lung' is a phrase which the present Holy Father has often repeated, and indeed turned into action, not least in promulgating the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church much of which, as has been said, reads as if written in Constantinople. With this other Anglicanism the ecumenical road is, by any reasonable assessment, shorter and more secure.

Hard decisions lie ahead of you. The Rome that sent Augustine, Hadrian and Theodore, an Italian, an African and a Greek, to England still shows, despite or because of cosmopolitanism, a motherly solicitude for you. But behind a Church-mother there stands, even more importantly, the Mother of the Church.

A mother’s mantle

I hope that the Mother of the Lord will throw her mantle over you in the difficult years – for yourselves, your families, and your fellow-faithful – that may lie ahead. We know how the Lord Jesus did not simply enrol Mary among the apostles but set her at his right hand, clothed in splendour, as a lamp to enlighten the whole house. No Christian will ever attain her stature; in the Church that acknowledges her, no woman need ever feel abased.

The Lord wants his high priestly initiative of salvation to be embodied in the gender where he himself took flesh, for the sake of his Spouse, his Bride.

Yours is a witness to the sacramental economy of the Church as that has been inherited through the apostles from our Lord.

The unity of Catholic Christianity is the unity of a face. In a face no one feature can be changed without altering the cast of all the rest.

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