George Austin on the most crucial and dramatic year that the CofE has had to face since the Reformation, a year which will make it or more likely break it

Since it is over sixty years since I was confirmed, I must have attended a Maundy Thursday Mass so many times that it could have become mundane. But this year it was instead an extraordinarily special and deeply spiritual occasion. As age takes it toll, we have recently moved south to be nearer to our son, back in fact to the parish where I was vicar from 1970 until 1988, and to a church where I celebrated the Maundy Mass for nearly twenty years.

A special year

I began to feel a numinous, a sense that this year was something special and unique. As the service progressed, the feeling grew. Then at the end as the lights dimmed, dark figures of servers in the chancel gradually removed all the ornaments – candles, crucifix, altar linen, frontals – till all was bare.

It was then that it came to me why this year all was so special. For this is after all the most crucial and dramatic year that the Church of England has had to face since the Reformation, a year which will make it or – more likely – break it.

It is becoming focussed on the issue of women bishops but this is only one symptom of a deeper malaise. Most opponents of the ordination of women recognise and accept that if there are women priests then there must be women bishops, even though we cannot recognise the validity of their orders.

In the Church of England, orthodox Catholics are being made to feel unwelcome. Did not the Synod in July 2008 reject an amendment proposed by the Bishop of Winchester to recognise both sides in the argument as ‘loyal members of the Church of England’, and did not more than two-thirds of the House of Bishops vote against it?

After the vote was taken in 1992 to allow the ordination of women, the Synod generously supported the passing of the Act of Synod allowing parishes to opt out. The Church of England remained an accepting Church, tolerant of dissent.

Harsher climate

Unfortunately, part of the deal in Synod supporting the ordination of women as bishops is almost certain to suggest the annulment of the Act of Synod, removing orthodox episcopal support from dissenting parishes and clergy. And the likelihood of similar financial support for those who leave is more than remote.

On the day that news broke of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ attack on the Catholic Church in Ireland (for which he was later to apologise), The Times reported that he would in the same BBC programme also refuse to support Anglicans who choose to take advantage of the Pope’s offer of an Ordinariate for those who leave.

It will of course be a courageous act by clergy who take up the papal offer, for they will be to some extent going into they know not what. A darkness.

But those clergy who stay to care for laity who remain will be acting with equal courage, knowing that they can expect no mercy from bishops who failed to adhere to previous assurances on women priests that both sides would be treated with equal respect. Equally a darkness.

But the future darkness goes much deeper than this. There are unlikely to be many new ordination candidates from the Catholic wing. As for evangelicals, perhaps the strongest group and certainly the wealthiest, they are not likely to remain in a Church infected by the new fundamentalism – secular liberalism – whose inclusiveness seems to mean ‘You can stay so long as you agree with us.’

And those who remain

And those Catholics of a liberal tradition, including both men and women clergy, who nonetheless adhere to their beliefs as expressed in the Creeds, who see the Bible as revealing the word of God, as many do, will find with the departure of orthodox Catholics and Evangelicals that the more powerful voices within their Church will be those who doubt or even reject such basic doctrines as the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the resurrection of Jesus, salvation through the Cross, so that almost the only essential doctrine will seem to be that women can be ordained.

That indeed will be darkness, with shadowy figures moving about and removing all the essential truths that make the Church what it must be.

This is the picture that went through my mind as the Maundy Mass in St Peter’s Church drew to its close. But there was still light there, in the south chapel at the Altar of Repose with its white linen drapes and semi-circle of lighted candles around the tabernacle containing the bread and wine, which is the very Presence of Christ himself.

And high above the altar was a sculpture of Christ by Jennie Birch, a member of the congregation. His arms are outstretched as if on the Cross, but he is in a remarkable way also Christ risen and ascending to heaven.

There have been many periods of darkness for Christians in the past two thousand years, when all seemed lost and when it would have been easy to despair, a Maundy Thursday followed by the horror of a Good Friday. But always there has been a resurrection and the new life of an Easter Day.

The darkness can never win, and our certain hope will be in Christ who is the Light of the world. ND