Michael Shier crossed the ocean to find that communio can still mean fellowship
A year ago I left England to join the Continuing Church in Canada. Many people told me I was mad. It wouldn’t work.
One priest told me that I needed spiritual direction. (Amen to that!) The Bishop of Stepney feared for my future. The Bishop of London asked me who I would be in communion with. (This was a bit rich as he had just given a crowd of us a hideously complicated lecture in which he extolled the virtues of the oikonomia over the complexities of the communio.)
It was difficult to answer the Prophets of Doom. All that I knew was that they were not speaking from experience. They hadn’t tried it and failed; they’d just read newspaper reports, and as we all know, the Continuing churches have a bad press. It’s a combination of ignorance, animus and a well-directed ridicule at our inability to wash our dirty linen in private. (I have news for you. We are improving!)
So what’s it all been like? Stretching, demanding, encouraging, terrifying, rewarding, exciting and glorious. Let me tell you about just one of my churches.
St. Patrick’s Day 1996 saw the inauguration of a new parish on the coast of British Columbia. Aptly named St. Columba, the church has clung to its rocky outcrop over the sea for many years. Recent growth has led to parish status with its own officers, its own council and its own bank account.
On March 17th, in the presence of the Bishop, we gathered, forewarned that there would be no room for “extras” as the church is always full. Most people sat on the deck outside under the huge Douglas fir. With the doors flung wide, Bishop Crawley, not known for needing a P.A. system, spoke of our citizenship in heaven. The people of St. Columba’s were grateful citizens of heaven, fierce and loyal in their faith and an example to all traditional Anglicans everywhere.
The Mass concluded with a rousing rendition of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and then after the Angelus we all walked down to the sea, our minds boggling at the “deep sea divers”, all glorious in their rubber suits, trying to warm themselves by a huge wood fire as we passed them into the nearby community hall, where we had our bunfight.
Bep Lowe, an accomplished artist, and the widow of Fr Lowe (the founder), exhibited the parish history. Fr Gale (former rector) spoke of the his nurturing years. The Bishop commended the Sunday School teachers of our Parishes and pointed out that children often pass on the gospel better than adults.
It was one of those days when everything worked and everyone worked together for the good. Churches always have their problems and continuers are by no means exempt. Despised and rejected by the religious cognoscenti (some of whom wouldn’t recognise the shoot from the stock of Jesse if they tripped over it) they have struggled into life with few cheers from the empty touchline. Teenage traumas and the hostility of the aberrant parent body have dogged them at every turn. But St. Columba’s has ducked and dived through it all. Here the seed has grown in silence (and adoration) for fifteen years. It was one of the most moving and joyful days of my life.
As the old Celtic churches on the edges of civilisation in the Dark Ages eventually became visible and handed on their sacred treasure, so St. Columba’s growth in the community now testifies to the same life.
St. Columba’s is but one of three distant and disparate parishes I took over a year ago. I did it with some anxieties. My fear was that the churches would simply vanish because there was only one of me and too many of them. What I hadn’t grasped was the degree to which these are the lay-led churches which the more conventional synods have been hollering about for the last forty years. No chance of monopolising all the functions in continuing churches. The laity are too vital.
A new member who was shocked to find my wife delivering leaflets 60 miles from home on a Saturday afternoon took the whole wad from her and delivered them all on the Monday morning. I am reminded of the pre-Reformation Church, described by Eamonn Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars. The laity made the thing survive. It was a lay-led church that Henry VIII destroyed. But here it is again, newly sprouted.
It has been a wonderful year. In England I felt trapped. Indeed I felt I was colluding with a lie. I was transfixed when I read in Newman how the party in which liberalism grew up “breathed around an influence which made men of religious sensibilities shrink within themselves.”
What Newman feared in liberalism was the initiation of interminable debate which must inevitably supplant the certainties of revealed religion with uncertainty, and call into question the desire for obedience. My problem was twofold. First, my belief that obedience is not an infantile trait, but the essence of our Religion, and second, whom could I obey? Where could I find that concord that already exists in Christ – that concord that requires my allegiance?
Perhaps I could find it in the margins, as it were, on the rocky outcrops like the Celtic Saints of old. It seemed worth a try. Truth is a homeless stranger in the world but there must be somewhere where the truth will out. So what have I found? Not least, I have found Bishops in full Apostolic Succession who also believe the Catholic Faith without reservation, practise it and fully support their priests.
Many people who have removed themselves from the “Impaired” Anglican communion (Archbishop Eames’s nomenclature) declare that they have found peace. Others are still in the “dark wood”. I would ask your prayers particularly for them. These are people of unquestioned loyalty and unnoticed anguish. For myself I can say that my distress has lifted.
I can remember being told that we should be distressed. However it is very difficult to be distressed without being discouraged. And if you are discouraged, you look as if you don’t care. I can say that all that has now lifted.
What is so interesting about my three parishes is that in two of them advertising has no effect at all. However it works very well in the third parish. Two parishes found it difficult to bed and board groups of people. The third parish, however, have beds to spare. Study groups work in one parish but not in the other two. The whole scene is fascinating and requires experiment and a sense of adventure.
And when I think of Home? When I think of home, I know my old parish is well served. And I think of the gemlike faith of my new parishioners, and I remember that if we had not come, they would not now have a priest. So am I mad? Perhaps just a fool for Christ. Very traditional and a bit unconventional
Michael Shier was formerly Vicar of St. Clement’s, King Square in the diocese of London.