Peter Walsh on the history and role of a society for the mutual support of priests within the Catholic tradition
Rather like deciding on what football team one is going to support for life, it seems that many priests are instinctively drawn at an early stage in their ministry to one particular fellowship or society, and have tended to stick to it. This is no reflection on any other society; it is simply the case that the one they have opted for seems to speak to their needs. When Darwell Stone founded the Federation of Catholic Priests in 1917, it was primarily intended to foster priestly vocation within the Church of England. It gradually evolved into a more active role in the defence of Catholic faith and order, and eventually, when that role was taken over by other societies, notably in the mid-twentieth century by the Church Union, the FCP gradually settled down to be a society for the mutual support of priests within the Catholic tradition, who could meet, pray and study within the context of a common Catholic vocabulary.
Many priests found in the FCP what they had been looking for, and at diocesan level regular meetings fostered a warm priestly fellowship. The FCP was organized into diocesan groupings, with a federal Council at national level. Indeed, as the Church of England in the second half of the twentieth century moved on into unchartered waters, it seemed that whereas the Church Union was clearly a major political organ within the Catholic tradition, the FCP was in some sense its devotional counterpart, and a strong support to priests in their priestly formation during uncertain and difficult times. To this day the majority of members of FCP pay their subscription through the Church Union.
One distinctive feature of the FCP has been its ability to include within its fellowship those who do not come from card-carrying Catholic parishes. Clergy who had absorbed a Catholic understanding of priesthood, but who ministered in parishes of ‘central churchmanship’, found in FCP a forum and fellowship which spoke to their condition. These included country parsons, who were the heirs of Herbert and Keble, with a strong sacramental awareness, and with a commitment to Faith and Order, even if their churches did not exactly suggest ‘full catholic privileges.’ Even the ecclesiastical establishment could be found in FCP: in one diocese the Dean of the cathedral was the diocesan chairman of FCP.
In the general turmoil which followed the decision in 1992 to ordain women to the priesthood, the FCP (like many other Catholic societies) had to come to terms with the reality of a new situation. It was clear that other societies had now developed for the spiritual development of priests who were able to accept the new situation. It has also become clear that in more recent years many priests have found their future in the Ordinariate. In the case of the FCP it was clear that its identification lay with the traditional Catholic understanding of an all-male priesthood. So the FCP has continued to exist as a support organization for priests in the Catholic tradition.
In the post-1992 situation it became clear that diocesan associations were, by and large, no longer the way ahead, though the FCP has continued to sponsor local occasions of priestly formation through one-day events, notably in the Exeter diocese. The principal event at present is an annual priests’ residential pilgrimage to Walsingham in October, which somehow manages to combine elements of pilgrimage, study, retreat, personal devotion and good priestly fellowship. The title of the pilgrimage is always ‘Immersed in Priesthood’, and one particular aspect of this ‘immersion’ is singled out each year as the keynote feature, and there are usually three or four distinguished speakers. The addresses are normally printed in the FCP magazine Acta, which members receive each year. The fact that some priests come every year to this gathering is sufficient indication of its value in the work of their priestly formation.
So the FCP continues to provide an opportunity for priests to explore a gentle and spiritual understanding of Catholic priesthood within the Anglican tradition, and we welcome any priests who would wish to join us. Our centenary falls in 2017, and we are looking ahead in confidence to the coming years, as we seek to encourage mutual priestly support in propagating, maintaining, and defending Catholic doctrine within a traditional understanding of priesthood.
The Episcopal President of the FCP is the Bishop of Chichester, the Chairman is Canon James Southward (Vicar of Higham, Kent), and the Secretary-General is Fr Peter Walsh (email@example.com; 0151 6324728).