Bishop Edwin Barnes offers a modest proposal for a new ecumenical form of priest which might help to solve the Church of England’s current indecision

In his address to the House of Bishops last summer Cardinal Kasper was telling the Church of England that it faced a choice between Protestantism and Catholicism. ‘Where and on what side does the Anglican Communion stand, where will it stand in the future? Which orientation does it claim as its own: the Latin, Greek, Protestant, Liberal or Evangelical?’ Now, the process is well under way. By moving towards women in the episcopate, we are further on the path towards an exclusively Protestant Church of England.

The ordination of women, though, is far from being the first step. All the moves towards church unity in the past half century have been in a Protestant direction, from South India to the various schemes with the Methodists in Britain, Porvoo and the Scandinavian Churches, and agreeements with other European Protestants (Meissen, Reuilly, etc.). Local experimental arrangements have been almost exclusively with Protestant churches, mostly United Reformed and Methodist.

Now parishes are being served jointly by priests and non-conformist ministers, and the rules concerning experimental sharing are being overstepped with the connivance of the diocesan bishop. There are clergy, too, who have ‘dual nationality’ as it were, featuring as Methodists in the circuit plan and as Anglicans in the parish church. Nor is this a new feature. During his time as a parish priest in Bristol, Mervyn Stockwood performed as a minister for a Congregational church.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has told us that this is the time for dramatic gestures, and he has made such a gesture himself by being allied with Reform and other evangelicals who are refusing to accept the ministry of liberal bishops, and making the point strongly by threatening to withhold quota payments. A so-called ‘Covenant’ sets out their agenda. While we may sympathize with these new Covenanters, their priorities are far from ours as Catholics.

While they admit that there is not and never will be until the parousia a perfect church, yet they seem to be trying to create a church which conforms entirely to their opinions – which, of course they claim are entirely biblical. Although the Covenant document does not say so, the focus is on their bishop’s attitude to homosexuality, and they make this their prime test of orthodoxy. In doing so, they seem to overlook Our Lord’s own teaching – for he says a great deal more about divorce than he does about same-sex relations, yet this is curiously soft-pedalled by many evangelicals.

So we have an increasingly liberal Church of England, and the threat of a new schismatic Covenanting Church of England. As Catholics, neither of these accords with the Church as Christ intended her to be; One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

We are increasingly alienated from the CofE plc, yet the super-holy Church of the Covenant is no more attractive. With the ordination of women to the episcopate there is no going back. There is though, it seems to me, a solution for us which might satisfy all parts of the church.

If clergy can be at the same time ministers to Anglican and Non-Conformist congregations, why should not the same apply to us and Roman Catholics? The Church of Rome has found ways in some cases of conditionally ordaining Anglican priests – with the former Bishop of London, for example. Can we not offer ourselves to the Holy Father, asking simply that he will make up what is lacking in our priesthood? If Rome’s response is that everything is lacking, so be it; that does not alter the fact that I believe I am and have been a priest in the Church of God. Submission to (re-)ordination would simply be an act of humility seeking to achieve Our Lord’s aim that we might be One.

Thereafter, we would remain priests in our own parishes (so long as our bishops permitted this) but we would be recognized as Catholic Priests by the Church of Rome. Anglican bishops might hate the idea; but since they already allow similar latitude towards Methodism, they might not wish to appear publicly as opponents of Christian unity. The Roman hierarchy might also dislike such untidiness; but the truth is that in many places their people, deprived of Roman Catholic priests, are receiving Communion in Anglican churches. Unless there is some dramatic recovery in the Roman priesthood, this trend must continue.

Nor is the proposal so far from what exists now in the USA, in the Anglican Use Roman Catholic churches. By confirming our ministry, Rome would simply make clear what Cardinal Kasper said; that Anglicans must choose between Protestantism and the Catholic Church.

Our dual membership would enable the protestantizing of the official Church of England to continue unhindered, though it could not avert the open warfare likely to break out soon between liberal and orthodox evangelicals. It would also open a way for other members of the CofE to see that it is no longer possible to go on ‘halting between two opinions’. Nor would it require parishes to go through impossible hoops. If their priest was both Anglican and Roman Catholic, parishioners could choose to stay and learn the faith, or depart to the next door parish. For the clergy it would be no more difficult than at present, when bishops refuse to employ any priest who has worked in a Resolution parish under the care of a PEV.

There would be some bishops who would bewail the loss of ‘the Catholic element’ from the Church of England. But you cannot have a bit of Catholicism. Either the Church of England is Catholic or she is not. No good getting cross with us and throwing the toys out of the pram. Better simply for these ‘Catholic’ bishops to come and join us.