In Low Week, the Society of the Holy Cross Celebrated its 150th anniversary. Edwin Barnes, former Bishop of Richborough, took part in all five days and found much to enjoy and remember

A joyful noise! That is how many of us will remember the five days of Stand Up For Jesus, from the Synod of SSC Priests on Tuesday (5 April) to the grand finale rivalling the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday. Every day, there was some new musical treat to engulf and uplift us, or bring us to tears. Each new event revealed further talents among our Catholic clergy and faithful. That there should be so many priests capable of mastering the Albert Hall’s mighty Wurlitzer! That there should be choirs formed from among us which could lift us to the choirs of angels! Yet we heard Palestrina and Widor, Schubert and Rimsky Korsakov – to say nothing of Bob Dylan and Andrew Lloyd Webber (though these last illustrating a lecture rather than aiding worship).

Everyone who attended will have his or her own memorable moments, so this article can give no more than the impressions of one spear-carrier, a member of SSC with a walk-on part who is profoundly grateful for having been invited. It was Fr David Houlding’s great vision which enabled this conference/pilgrimage/celebration to take place, and we are all indebted to him, under God, for his determination and perseverance. He took the risk of booking the Albert Hall a year ago, in the hope that people would turn up. And we did, in huge force.

Even as we checked into our hotel in Bloomsbury, it was clear this was to be a major event. Australians and Americans who had never been to England before, delegates from South Africa, Sweden, Spain and the West Indies – this was clearly not some little domestic event. Brethren of the Society of the Holy Cross, and the wives of some of them, were the first to gather.

Tuesday’s Synod of Priests was an event restricted, of course, to members of the Society. It is no secret, though, that St Alban’s, Holborn was packed to the doors for that synod, and the whole day was enfolded in worship, from exposition and benediction in the morning to the synod Mass of the Triumph of the Cross in the afternoon.

‘Ten thousand times ten thousand sound thy praise; but who am I?’ asked the hymn. It shook the walls of St Albans and roused the flat-dwellers across the street. It also gave a clue of what was to become a key to the entire week. We came as individuals, some from very isolated and exposed situations in our part of the Anglican Communion. We discovered we were not alone, that there are thousands of us who desire to keep the ‘Faith Once Delivered.’ And if we were thus moved, from these islands, how much more true was this of so many from abroad. ‘These walls that have echoed’ reminded us of Frs Lowder and Mackonochie, and our beginnings. We would return home strengthened by the fellowship and encouragement of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Society of the Holy Cross (SSC for short, the initials being taken from the Latin Societas Sanctae Crucis) was founded by Fr Charles Lowder, later Vicar of St Peter’s, London Docks, who met with six companions in 1855 to form a society of priests, following a rule of life strongly influenced by the work and teaching of St Vincent de Paul. Always at the forefront of the Anglo-Catholic revival, it now numbers some 1100 priests around the world.

We were also strengthened by eating and drinking together; at Our Father’s table at Mass each day, in receptions, at sandwich buffets in London University, at a champagne party in St Alban’s school, in the Walsingham refectory, and in countless restaurants and hotel bars. When the Archbishop came to speak to us, he reminded us that our vocation was to be happy in the Lord; we had already begun to discover this.

To begin nearer the beginning, though. At Morning Prayer in Christ the King, Gordon Square, on the first two days of the conference, Fr Barry Swain spoke memorably on ‘The Architecture of Priesthood.’ There were two sessions in the Institute of Education when the Durham double act, Professors David Brown and Ann Loades, encouraged us to connect with society through culture, both ‘high’ and popular. They wanted us to consider the Crucifixion and the Resurrection through new eyes and ears. Perhaps the best service they did was in reminding us that there was a Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery, and many of us found seeing his two versions of the supper at Emmaus even more thrilling than looking at them reproduced on a screen. If there was some disappointment at these presentations, it was partly because they did not seem entirely up to date.

Thursday began with something of a miracle. The Archbishop of Canterbury addressed us. The miracle was that within a few hours he was to be in Rome speaking at the English College (where Cardinal Cormac was already in residence, ready for the conclave). It is impossible to think about our conference without also thinking of Pope John Paul. His death, as the Master of SSC so tellingly put it, was a gift to us. It reminded us of the sheer size of the Catholic project. We might get five thousand to the Albert Hall; Rome was packing as many millions into its streets, and hundreds of millions would witness the funeral on television and radio – even in coaches en route for Walsingham.

Archbishop Rowan addressed us in his Catholic mode. We felt that here was a leader who understood us. He came from where we come from. There was a sizeable contingent present from Wales, led by the Master of the Welsh Province, and many of them were reminded what a loss it was to them when he left Monmouth for Canterbury. He was preparing himself for his flying visit to Rome by reading some of the poems of Karol Wojtyla, and commended to us especially his poem on the Easter Vigil – a vigil he had kept this year on his death-bed.

The Archbishop reminded us what we were for; to know God, and to be happy with Him. Our calling is to image God, to hold up to him a mirror of who he is. We are fully ourselves when we fully relate in love to him. Then, using verses from the psalms, the Archbishop led us to explore Christ’s priesthood. He showed us Christ praying the psalms; ‘O God, thou art my God: early will I seek thee…thy loving-kindness is better than life itself: my lips shall praise thee. As long as I live will I magnify thee in this manner: and lift up my hands in thy Name.’ Our charity to one another springs from such worship; and sin leads to an incapacity for worship. Sin begins with the lie that ‘you will be like gods,’ and the overcoming of sin is the restoration of the capacity for worship.

He spoke directly and unapologetically about sacrifice, using Psalms 51 and 43, and quoted Thomas Aquinas on the priest’s task: ‘He gives divine things to the people, and offers the prayers of the people to God.’ But who among us, he asked, is free to give himself to God totally? God alone is free to image God to God. In a startling phrase, the Archbishop declared that ‘God alone is free to worship.’ When he asserted the importance of the Creed’s description of the relationship between the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit, he had us breaking into applause. Such a clear defence of orthodoxy; that ‘the Chalcedonian definition is our life-blood, not a remote technicality.’ It should, of course, be perfectly natural for any bishop to cleave to the creeds of the Church. It ought to be unremarkable for an Anglican Primate to make such a declaration. Yet it was a tonic to hear Archbishop Rowan express the faith so plainly and without any apology. So he left us, to take flight with the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister to attend the obsequies of the late Bishop of Rome.

Thursday afternoon was rather different. Mary Tanner has been a mainstay of ecumenical conversations for as long as many of us can remember, and she had helped with the production of Consecrated Women? Yet her account of the way ‘reception’ was working in regard to women’s ordination met blank disbelief, and even (I have to admit it, from me) a cry of ‘Nonsense.’ She went so far as to suggest that the way the Church of England was dealing with differences ought to be a model for other churches. Now perhaps once upon a time we might have thought that, when the Act of Synod was fresh and bishops seemed to believe what it said. After ten years of operating under this system, that is no longer possible.

We have been betrayed, with our parishes undermined, our ordination candidates refused admission to the process of selection, our priests ignored. Just occasionally a bishop has genuinely tried to make the system work. A handful of dioceses have even let our PEVs become assistant bishops, though sometimes only in an attempt to muzzle them. Other diocesans simply refuse to believe we are in a ‘period of open reception,’ and act as if the Church of England has resolved the whole business of women’s ordination, and anyone who thinks otherwise had better leave.

Dr Tanner said she would like evidence of the way the Act of Synod was operating; so perhaps some of us should write to her and tell her. She is, I fear, due for a terrible shock.

The Bishop of Guildford, Christopher Hill, has been a friend of many of us for years. He has the task of chairing the committee which will work out the practicalities of consecrating women as bishops. He is clear that there are only two options, a ‘one line’ measure which ignores anyone who believes women cannot be bishops, or a way forward which gives provincial episcopal visitors some degree of autonomy. We tried to tell him that this just would not do. The one line measure should be rejected by the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, and if it was not, there should be widespread actions by clergy claiming constructive dismissal. ‘Some degree of autonomy’ would be even worse, and this has already been set out in Consecrated Women? in which this is so plainly set out. His committee badly needs a Jonathan Baker to balance the theological expertise of their feminist perita.

The presentations by Dr Tanner and Bishop Christopher were frustrating. There was not time for proper debate. The questions we wanted to ask had to be bowdlerised for publication. But this afternoon session left many of us more determined than ever to stand together, and to fight for the faith of the Church. At least now we could see something of what faces us.

What a relief the next day to go on pilgrimage together to Walsingham. What better place to commend the soul of John Paul our Pope to Our Heavenly Father? Despite forecasts of snow, we had a great Eucharist in the parish church, and a procession to the Shrine where the Administrator welcomed us and helped us in our prayers. The seven hour round trip was worth it, and it was good that so many were making the pilgrimage for the first time.

So to the final day, the celebration in the Albert Hall. How could anyone adequately describe such an event? Fr Philip North led us in devotion as we prepared for Mass, amusing us with his ‘youth-speak’ greeting (do the Durham Professors know about this?) and moving us with his love for Our Lady. The Bishop of Bermuda and the Bishop of Horsham led us through exposition and benediction. Bishop Eric Kemp in the Royal Box was applauded.

We shall still be boring our grand-children with this event many years from now. The entire place packed to the roof. A seemingly endless procession. ‘Lift High the Cross’ being given such a marvellous visual expression as the SSC cross, with a relic of the True Cross at its heart, rose above the auditorium through shrouding incense. There were fanfares of brass and great organ reverberations – some of the priests, sitting by the 64 foot pipes, are still shaking. Eventually, two dozen bishops, over six hundred priests, readers and deacons, religious and many thousands of faithful laity, together gathered round the Bishop in Europe, SSC’s Visitor, to celebrate the Mass of Christ the Eternal High Priest. The Master of SSC encouraged us; no desertion, no surrender!

We hope we shall be better priests, better Christians, for this time together. Whether we shall be able to do this still in communion with Canterbury is yet to be made clear. The Bishop of London clearly expects so. Well, if our church can be ready to be part of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, as it has claimed in the past, and can accept the discipline this entails, then there is a hope that we can remain. If not, we shall have to find another home – and, if possible, together!