Simon Heans revisits the hopes of conversion from the early Nineties

Dr William Oddie will be known to many readers of this magazine. He played a prominent role in the last ‘bit of unpleasantness’, and then, having decided to take his leave, became the most informed commentator on the abortive scheme to get Anglican parishes accepted into Catholic dioceses, the so-called Roman Option, which is the title of a book he wrote about the whole episode. What may well be of interest to many of us now is that, according to an article he has written for the current edition of Faith magazine , he is of the opinion that this Option is firmly back on the table.

His article is partly a comment on a piece Bishop Burnham did for The Catholic Herald in July in which he asked for ‘magnanimous gestures from our Catholic friends’ amongst whom he included ‘the Holy Father, who well understands our longing for unity’, and ‘the hierarchy of England and Wales.’ However, as Oddie reminds us, some of the latter were not that friendly last time round. He recalls Cardinal Hume’s volte face from describing the influx of Anglicans as ‘a big moment of grace… the conversion of England for which we have prayed all these years’ to the blanket condemnation of the policy of receiving whole parishes into communion subsequently issued by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

As Oddie adds somewhat ruefully, his own book, which highlighted the success of two convert parishes established in the archdiocese of Westminster, contributed to this sudden change of attitude since it exposed the Cardinal’s own inconsistency and ‘made him look weak.’ He concludes Anglo-Catholics will never trust our bishops again’.

‘How, then,’ asks, Oddie, ‘will the Church respond to the appeal of those Anglo-Catholic clergy who wish to bring their people with them?’ His answer is encouraging: ‘It is possible that this time Rome will not allow the negativity emanating from some liberal bishops in England’ to rule out a corporate solution to our problem. Borrowing from some speculations of Damien Thompson of the Herald and The Daily Telegraph, he sketches the following scenario:

1 Rome will set up an Apostolic Administration under a Catholic bishop for former Anglican priests and parishioners; 2 These ex-Anglicans will form an organisation ‘called something like the Fellowship of St Gregory the Great’; 3 Some of these parishes will still have their church buildings, others will be worshipping elsewhere; 4 Some will be parishes using parts of the BCP as in Anglican Use American parishes; 5 Former Anglican priests will be fast-tracked through a programme of study. Marriage will be no bar to ordination but ‘no actively gay priest will be knowingly ordained, and this will be strictly enforced.’

A pipe dream? Oddie does not think so: “Thompson claims that his “guesses” are “informed”; my own information is that they are.’ But, as he says, ‘We have been here before.’ In order that the Roman Option has a happier outcome than on the last occasion it was contemplated, he urges that ‘”Rome”, or at least, that part of Rome keener on propagating the faith than on meaningless gestures of goodwill towards the disintegrating Anglicans (the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity are likely to oppose these concessions) should be proactive in supporting the scheme.’

And what will our bishops need to do in their turn? Two things, I think. First, follow the lead of the bishops of the Traditional Anglican Communion and solemnly sign up to the Catholic Catechism. And secondly, they must be ready to be reduced to the ranks of the presbyterate. I have heard it said that for one of our bishops such a sacrifice is unacceptable because inconsistent with an ‘ecclesial solution’ to our current difficulties. Of course if this is the case then we won’t even be able to take Step 1 as outlined above and the Roman Option will have failed again.