INDIAN SUMMER

John Hunwicke writes an epistle to a friend in Barchester

My dear Father,

Thank you for your kind letter, with its enquiries and good wishes. Yes, we are enjoying life; but No, rural ministry is far from boring. You wouldn’t believe how vibrant and full of life these five ‘traditional’ Devon country parishes are And don’t believe that Devon parishioners are anything other than hugely warm and welcoming — even to me, of all people: a quintessentially Essex Man in a ‘house for duty’ after 28 years at Dancing College? No, there isn’t much scope here for teaching about Euripides’ prosody or the verbal gymnastics of Ovid, but perhaps it was time anyway I devoted more attention to Theology and to parochial priesthood.

Yes, I suppose I do miss dear old Barchester; ‘but not a lot’, as wozname used to say on telly. In Derek Hemp’s time as bishop, all was easy and gracious; Barchester was the Indian Summer, as people remarked, of the pre-1992 Church of England. You really could pretend that nothing much had changed. But it was a bit of a fools’ paradise, even then. Now, I am strongly convinced, it’s dangerously so. Let me explain what I mean.

Over here, we are —as well as in superb countryside — in the real world. We know where the next parish is – and by that we mean, not the next place geographically, but the next parish of our integrity. ‘Chapter’ means the alternative chapter. The Chrism Mass is Ebbsfleet’s – and what a luxury I find it, after enduring the absurdities of Hemp’s Chrism liturgy at Barchester, where we mouthed obfuscatory formulae standing beside women priests, all of us wearing Sarum surplices, black scarves, and silly hoods, so as to pretend we didn’t know the ladies claimed to be anything other than deacons. Here, we renew our unambiguously priestly commitment with bishop, fellow priests, and laity (what a lot pack in, despite the distances, and how keen they are) with whom we are in full communion. Our entire ecclesial life is affirmative: we know what we’re doing, where we’re going, and whom we’re with. All this is immensely liberating, giving us back the freedom wherewith Christ made us free.

But it’s not just a question of these luxuries, sweet though they are in living the Christian and priestly life. Women bishops are on the way. Probably not too soon; slippery Establishment apparatchiks know the value of delay as a mechanism for softening a blow. And they’ll try to confuse things with cunning structures – betcher. There’ll be some sort of ‘group episcopacy’ scheme with one ‘bishop opposed’ and one woman bishop in each group. (They’ll invent some daft neologism to make it sound sexy … Koinonta in Episkope, or some such. Mark my words!). In short, they’ll do anything and everything to give themselves the chance of burying us, gradually and unobserved, over, say, the next generation. Yes, women bishops will come; and anyone who thinks that we can muddle along in full communion with an episcopal college which has women as full and integral members isn’t, in my humble book, a Catholic.

There’s only one way ahead — you know this, really, in your heart of hearts — and it’s called Resolution C. When women bishops come, perhaps in the time of your present bishop’s successor (he’s an able man, and who knows if he might not get London or York?), we shall need our own clearly defined structures. The present creaky ambiguity (we believe the PEV is ‘our bishop’; the Establishment regards him as a mere ‘extension’ of the Diocesan’s feudal jurisdictions) just won’t do. And the best hope of a viable new ecclesial arrangement rests on many more parishes passing Resolution C.

Dear Father, I do understand the seductions of Barchester because I’ve felt them myself. For decades, Catholics had enjoyed varying degrees of partial toleration from at best ‘high-church’ diocesans determined not to be ‘extreme’, supplemented by more ‘advanced’, but still timorous, suffragans. When I arrived at Dancing College just before Hemp’s appointment, I deployed – as one does – a monstrance, only to be tut-tutted: ‘it’s contrary to diocesan regulations’. As soon as Hemp arrived, all that was forgotten; we had a bishop who was as willing to bless a tabernacle as to accept a third gin, and who regarded Solemn Pontifical Benediction as the obvious way to conclude the Corpus Christi procession. If he did not often use the entire Roman Rite himself in public, he cheerfully appointed friends who did. His – and Graham Leonard’s — lot were the first generation of bishops whom we could unreservedly ‘own’. No wonder we felt we had come in from the cold.

But, Father, the cold has returned. And it’s going to get a lot colder still. A eucharistic ‘celebrant’ in the Barchester diocese could at this moment be a woman or a Porvoo Lutheran; in the near future, he/she may be a ‘priest’ ordained by a woman bishop, or a Methodist minister. If all this is not quite a certainty, it is very nearly so. I do beg you, while there is still time, not to live in what looks to me like an unrecoverable past, but to take what seem to me the obvious steps. The more ‘C’ parishes there are in England, the stronger our Integrity will be; the more able it will be to secure an acceptable arrangement when the majority C of E gets its womenbishops.

If I could afford it, I’d have all the Catholic clergy of Barchester bussed down, and I’d arrange a tour of a diocese near here which was once one of the most ‘Catholic’ in England. it is now a sad landscape of fallen shrines and bygone glories, haunted by memories of victories once won by great figures of the Catholic Revival but now reversed or forgotten. This situation may be partly due to a vigorous episcopal policy, but owes still more to a lack of resolution … and a lack of Resolutions. And I’d show you a mediaeval gravestone with the inscription: Siste, viator: Stop, wayfarer; what you are, I once was; what I am, you will soon be.

In Domino,

John

John Hunwicke is a recently retired priest.

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