Michael Heidt on Re-finding the Centre

The English find America a very perplexing place; we arrive in the US expecting a kind of value-added United Kingdom, basically the same country, only far larger, richer and clothed with a different accent. At first we’re not disappointed we can understand the customs official at the airport, decipher menus at restaurants and, as we expected, America is far larger and richer than Great Britain. So far so good, then everything goes terribly wrong. The visitor makes the mistake of looking for the ‘Town Centre’, and disaster strikes as they discover that there isn’t one, only highways connecting various malls and suburbs to office blocks. Feeling that they’re missing something, the tourist ventures ‘Downtown’ to ‘see the sights’, but of course there isn’t a Downtown, just an ersatz facsimile calling itself the ‘Historic District.’ The fact of the matter is that America isn’t a supercharged United Kingdom but a completely different country, one that’s been deconstructed to such an extent that it has little cohesion or cultural identity, there is no centre to it just as there’s no centre to most of its towns and cities. So, our visitor returns home puzzled, unsure of the place they’ve visited, because there is no surety to America in the way the English take for granted.

The Religious Tourist

This holds true for the Anglo-Catholic tourist. They arrive here expecting a different accent on something that is essentially the same, after all, the words are familiar, ‘FiF(NA)’ , ‘Liberal’, ‘Catholic’, ‘Mass’. What they find instead is a whole new landscape, there is no ‘Catholic Movement’ in North America, at least not as the English expect. In place of a movement they discover decentralized Anglo-Catholic churches similar to the ubiquitous American shopping malls; whilst Anglo-Catholicism does exist, it has no centre, no common life and the English Catholic searches in vain to discover it. Not understanding this leads to confusion. The tourist asks, ‘Why isn’t there Alternate Episcopal Oversight in ECUSA? Why is there no ‘Catholic Group’ at the General Convention?’ Or, ‘I would have left long ago, why haven’t you all?’ For the simple reason there is no ‘you all’, there is no Movement, no overarching commonality of thought and action formed by Catholic first principles to make such things happen.

To this extent North American Anglo-Catholicism exists as a microcosm of the traditionalist movement in ECUSA. We see this in the wake of New Hampshire, who is in communion with who and why? And if not with practising gay bishops, then why with those who support priestesses? No-one seems to know. The AAC summed the matter up at General Convention, telling us that the bishops in opposition to Gene Robinson would have different reactions, some would walk out only to return shortly, others would walk out on a more permanent basis and others more so again, all according as the Spirit moved them. The Spirit is clearly at work here to very different and contradictory ends. Dismayed, religious tourists make their way back to England with more than a little pessimism concerning their American cousins.

Is there a future?

As well they might. It seems to them that ECUSA traditionalists have shamelessly given themselves to ‘The National Church’; it is more to the point that they haven’t given themselves to each other. To return to Anglo-Catholicism, the reason there isn’t a potent Catholic voice in ECUSA is because Catholics haven’t worked together to build one. Having found their city centre torn down with the ordination of women in the 1970s, the Catholic fled to the isolation of the suburbs, or existed splendidly but alone in the town centre. The question is, can this trend be reversed and is it a worthwhile exercise in its own right?

It would be exciting if the answer to this were ‘no’ but the reply to the second half of the question has got to be ‘yes’. It is always worthwhile to live and bring others to the Catholic Faith. Can this still be done in ECUSA? It seems that it can. Bishop Iker’s Mass is no less valid today than it was before Gene Robinson won his consents, and isolated but faithful priests confected the Sacrament before, during and after General Convention, they do so today. It is clearly the case that Catholicism, co-terminous with Christianity itself, is still being practised within the boundaries of ECUSA. This isn’t just worthwhile, it’s heroic. But is it the case that this is no more than a brave rearguard action, ultimately doomed to failure? It’s tempting to agree that it is. But it’s a very good thing that the Bishop of Quincy doesn’t, and awkwardly persists in building up his Catholic diocese. Even so, can the pattern of fragmentation and defeat that characterizes the Catholic Movement in America be turned around? Can the trend be reversed?

Despite appearances we must believe it can because the demolition of the city centre did not take place. What has happened is that members of the Church have fallen into error and schism, but the Church herself remains the same, wounded, yet standing nonetheless. This Church is the true centre towards which the Catholic looks and bases his life upon; she can not be destroyed by General Conventions or Synods because she is too large for that, larger and more real than ECUSA, or even the all-pervasive secular culture of America itself. In realizing this, it falls to the Anglo-Catholic to proclaim the Faith militantly, to assert for Anglicanism in North America her rightful heritage as part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Christ.

Rebuilding the Core

This is taking place, we see it in the Walsingham Festivals and the Festivals of Faith, in FiFNA, SSC and the Catholic Societies, perhaps above all in the thirst of the laity for teaching in the truths of the Faith. We see it in the reaction to Gene Robinson’s consecration, as disparate groupings of Anglicans move into greater cohesion and ultimately communion. Here we find ourselves on exciting ground as Christians of various ecclesial bodies discover their common sacramental unity and begin to put it into practice. Where this will lead is uncertain, but one thing is sure: the Anglo-Catholic tourist from England can return home in a happier state of mind. The Town Centre was there all along, only her citizens didn’t realize it, they are starting to now as the Church begins to move again and consecrations on ice, and the neo-pagan society that surrounds us are powerless to stop it. In this we have every reason for hope and confidence as we work to give back to the Church that which is rightfully hers, the Catholicism of which we are a part.

Michael Heidt was born in England. He is parish priest of St Luke’s, Bladensburg, Washington DC.