THE NINETIES, it seems to me, will be remembered as the Decade of Apology – the decade in which the Pope apologised to the Jews; the Australian government apologised to the aborigines; the American Congress apologised to the Red Indians; and Tony Blair apologised for the Irish potato famine.

Such gestures, you will say are cheap. But I have a suggestion (to round off the decade, so to say) which might add poignancy to the practice.

1999 is the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the Public Worship Regulation Act, under which catholics in the Church of England were systematically persecuted, and four priests imprisoned. What more fitting gesture, at the end of the Millennium, than a public act of repentance, on the part of the establishment of the Church of England, for past intolerance?

I can imagine it now.

There would be a great service of reconciliation in Westminster Abbey, jointly devised by Bishop Colin Buchanan and Dean Michael Perham, at which the Archbishop of Canterbury would represent his predecessor, Archibald Tait and Tony Blair his predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli.

In a darkened Abbey, stripped of every ornament ever said to have been prohibited by English Law, these representatives of the persecuting establishment would stand upon the pavement before the Holy Table, in court mourning as prescribed by the Queen Empress.

At the West door the Lord Chancellor, representing the House of Lords, in which Lord Shaftesbury did such ignoble service, would read the infamous Act. Then the Speaker of the House, in her accustomed robes, would fling open the doors of the Abbey and, to a fanfare of trumpets, there would appear a crucifer in a golden tunicle bearing a bejewelled processional cross.

To Arthur Sullivan’s rousing tune and Sabine Baring-Gould’s memorable words, the procession of representatives of the Catholic Societies, bearing emblems of their aims and purpose, would proceed up the nave:

The Master of the SOCIETY OF THE HOLY CROSS, vested in a Latin chasuble and bearing a chalice used by Fr Lowder;
the Superior of THE CONFRATERNITY OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT vested in a sumptuous cope and bearing a veiled and empty monstrance;
a group of priests and layfolk of THE SOCIETY OF MARY bearing a vast banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and reciting the Rosary;
in black copes, the officers of THE GUILD OF ALL SOULS’, one of their number bearing on a cushion of deepest purple a petition for the repose of the souls of the four imprisoned clergy (to be placed on the Holy Table);
a group of representatives of THE MONASTIC COMMUNITIES, bearing a copy of the Rule of St Benedict;
a single lay woman of THE CATHOLIC LEAGUE bearing a copy of the Decretals of the Council of Trent emblazoned with the arms of the Holy See;
proceeded by Sir David Hope, Archbishop of York, THE GUARDIANS OF THE HOLY HOUSE OF OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM in their mantles of Mary blue;
and behind them, at an appropriate distance, representing all those whose conscientious response to the PWRA was to enter another communion, John Selwyn Gummer, MP and Anne Widdecombe, MP.

When the procession had reached the Holy Table there would be sung the Miserere (in Latin, to a setting specially commissioned for the occasion from Graham Kendrick by the Evangelical Alliance).

Then would begin the penitential rite. To the petitions of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the response (made jointly by Bishop Michael Turnbull and Mrs Christina Rees, representing the Archbishops’ Council, and cast in the resonant prose of the Alternative Service Book 1980) would be: ‘We know it was wrong, and we promise not to do it again’.

The representatives of the Catholic Societies would then speak ex tempore, of forgiveness and reconciliation for some time (as the Spirit moved them) .. .and … eventually … the Archbishop of York would pronounce absolution.

The congregation would then sit for the Prime Minster’s ever-popular rendition of I Cor 13.

During the gradual (danced by young people from Spring Harvest), representatives of Holy Trinity Brompton would bear six lighted candlesticks through the Abbey and place them on the Holy Table.

With lights, incense and tribal drums the Archbishop of Papua New Guinea (representing Anglican Provinces who know nothing of the Ornaments Rubric) would then burst into the nave and read the Gospel.

There would follow a homily (on the theme ‘Brotherly Love and Forbearance in the Body of Christ’) by the Very Revd Dr Wesley Carr – bound copies of which would afterwards be sold in aid of the Abbey Organ Fund.

At the Offertory the chalice would be solemnly co-mingled to a fanfare of silver trumpets; and the Vicar of St Peter’s London Docks, wearing Fr Lowder’s biretta, would solemnly intone the names of all those who had been condemned for the practice.

Having retired at a suitable time to vest for the purpose, the Archbishop of York would sing the remainder of the Mass, and the ceremony would end with the processional hymn ‘Candles in the Wind’, with new and appropriate words written for the occasion by Mr Bernie Taupin.

The congregation would then repair to the Jerusalem Chamber for a reception generously provided by Ms Monica Furlong from the proceeds of a recent collection of essays.

A fantasy, you will say! And, of course, so it is.
The wounds of 1874, I suspect – into which salt has so recently been rubbed – are probably still too painful for the emollient of cheap contrition. But the fact that some such reconciliation is now, if anything, further away than ever, casts a sinister light on the Church of England’s perception of itself as a ‘bridge church’ between opposing factions in world-wide Christianity. The most urgent field of ecumenism for Anglicans is (and has always been) with other Anglicans. How to bind up recent and domestic wounds? That is the pressing question.

Suggestions (on a postcard , please) to: The Rt Revd J. C. Saxbee, The Bishops’ House, Corvedale Rd, Craven Arms, Shropshire SY7 9BT.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark