Arthur Middleton on English Catholicism and the priestliness of the Church

Last month I wrote of Neville Figgis CR and his ministry in Edwardian England where the pervading spirit of those times was the repudiation of supernatural religion in general and the Church of England in particular, a dominant attitude towards life that questioned our Lord’s credentials.

He stressed that there is a claim on all of us for our loyalty, not only to the men of a far past, but to those of a nearer past. He was thinking of a generation after the Tractarians to whom we owe much for their sacrifice and costly witness in recovering the greatness and the richness of our Catholic life in the Church.

A special contribution

Their sense of the value of English Catholicism is one of the most important elements in their whole spiritual life. It is to the value of English Catholicism, to the special contribution of our Church to the life of the great Church as a whole, and to the glorious chances of the future, that we need at this time to be loyal and devoted. Stressing our need to recognize the great claim of Rome for her real gifts to us in the past, we need to be loyal to the distinctive type of English Catholicism, and accept that we are right and have a place set us by God to minister to the needs of the present, and to the hopes of all.

Authoritative standard

The pastoral spirit of these people, priests and laity, in the Catholic Revival, is supremely evident in their concern for the souls of men and women in the parishes and their faithfulness to that tradition of English Catholicism.

Further they believed that we are to convert the culture, adapt our life and culture to the ideal and not the ideal to the culture. That ideal is authoritatively set before us in the Scriptures, the Creeds and Councils and in the Book of Common Prayer. So what they preached is not ‘personal opinion’ or ‘my view’ but the faith and practice of undivided Christendom.

That is a fundamental principle on which the Book of Common Prayer stands and to which they were loyal. The Church of England’s mind as embodied in her Prayer Book mirrors the tradition of the wider historic Church.

For these Anglicans this authoritative standard outside ourselves is embodied in the Book of Common Prayer where the Church of England is claimed to be continuous in identity with the Primitive Church. In the Preface, Canons and Formularies it claims the Primitive Church as its model. Canon A5 stipulates that the doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.

Priestly character

They would have agreed with R.C. Moberly, who wrote that there is much more to ministry and priesthood than the fulfilling of roles and functions: ‘it is the spirit of the priestly Church. But those who are ordained ‘priests’ are bound to be eminently leaders and representatives of this priestliness of spirit, and they have assigned to them an external sphere and professional duties which constitute a special opportunity, and a charisma of grace which constitutes a special call and a special capacity for its exercise’ [Ministerial Priesthood, SPCK, 1969].

The traditional word used by theologians for the peculiar being of the ordained priest, that which underlies and unites his various roles and functions, finding expression in them, is the word ‘character’. It is an unpopular word, especially to those whose minds are pragmatic, empirical, analytic. For them, character is a mystification. They feel safer in dealing with functional man. ND