The faithful remnant

Michael Rear shares his experience as a former Anglican and looks back to past hopes of reunion with Rome

A much-respected Canon who became a Roman Catholic some years ago was asked by the Roman Catholic bishop why he wanted to leave the Church of England. A moment’s thought, and the Canon replied, ‘Well, I don’t really. I just feel I have no choice.’ Many readers may be feeling like that, while others do not know what to do.

Some of you may remember I was Vicar of Walsingham for several years before becoming a Roman Catholic, and the Canon’s response, ‘I don’t really. I just feel I have no choice,’ neatly summed up what for me was the most difficult and dreadful decision of my life.

I had always been a ‘Papalist’, at least since the age of 18 when I joined the Catholic League. Members of the Catholic League believe the teachings of the Roman Church (apart from its decision about Anglican Orders), and work and pray for corporate reunion between the Church of England and the Holy See. Some would think it a disloyal and 5th column organization, but it had some notable members, not least my illustrious predecessor, Fr Hope Patten.

What kept us in the Church of England was the desire to help it become true to its Catholic heritage, so that one day, as a body, it would be ready to enter into full Communion with the Pope and the rest of the Catholic Church.

I concluded that by ordaining women the Church of England was no longer Catholic, no longer part of the Catholic Church. Catholic churches do not have women priests or bishops. As simple as that. I read with new eyes some words from the Decree of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, para. 14: ‘They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it, or to remain in it.’

I can still sense the chill that ran through me. And so I left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church. Six months later, I met the Dean of Norwich, Fr Paul Burbridge, an old friend. He knew I had gone over and he was deeply unhappy too. He said to me wistfully, ‘Michael, the Church of England isn’t the same church now that we were ordained into.’ And I murmured, ‘No.’ Then suddenly I thought, ‘But it is! Of course it’s the same Church.’ And I realized at that moment that the ordination of women had not stopped it being a Catholic Church. It never was Catholic; that is why it had ordained women. It claimed the right to do so at the Reformation. I realized that all my life I had belonged, not to part of the Catholic Church, but only to a wonderful and remarkable Catholic Movement within the Church of England. The shock made me feel ill.

In an article in the Tablet Professor Eamon Duffy put his “finger on it:

Many of those who have left the Church of England have done so because they felt that the ordination of women constituted for the first time a radical break with universal catholic tradition and authority. This argument might have had less weight with them if the Anglo-catholic tradition had not so successfully forgotten or fudged the element of discontinuity and identification with a Protestant new beginning in the English Reformation.

Newman had once written, ‘The Church of England is a National Church and nothing can make it Catholic again.’ Like many others I hadn’t believed him.

At that moment, I felt I had no choice and some parishioners in Walsingham felt the same, but it was a great shame to abandon the whole Catholic League idea of corporate reunion in favour of what we called ‘individual submission’.

I wrote a book in the Eighties, entitled One Step More, in which I predicted the Church of England would not follow the American lead and ordain women because it was on course for reunion with Rome. I traced some earlier attempts at reunion, and concluded that with the ARCIC process proceeding well, reunion was round the corner.

Optimistic days indeed. But we had completely underestimated the strength of Evangelicalism and Liberalism in the Church of England. The whole of the church was never going to accept reunion. There had been attempts in the past.

Hopes ran high under Archbishop Laud, who mentions in his journal that on the very day he was appointed to Canterbury in 1633 he was seriously offered the dignity of being a cardinal. Nothing more is known of this mysterious offer, but soon a Benedictine monk, Dom Leander, was sent to England by the Pope to report on the English Church. Dom Leander, a close friend of Archbishop Laud from their student days, had been expelled on suspicion of being a Catholic from St John’s College, Oxford, where they had shared a room.

Dom Leander made extensive contact with Anglican bishops and his report was optimistic and lengthy:

In the greater number of the articles of the faith the English Protestants are truly orthodox… they contend they have been treated unworthily as heretics and schismatic; that greater differences than theirs were tolerated by the Council of Florence; and that the importance of Great Britain and its dependencies renders it an object of as much importance to reconcile her to the Roman Church, and as much worthwhile to call a special council for the purpose, as it could have been to obtain the reconciliation of the Greeks.

But he did note that the Puritans were very numerous and fierce. Dom Leander suggested a way of reconciling ‘moderate Papists and moderate Protestants.’ This was by allowing:

Communion under both kinds;
Marriage of the clergy;
Liturgy in English;
The admittance of English Protestant clergy to benefices (coming to agree in points of faith) either by re-ordination sub conditione, or by way of commenda;
To allow Roman Catholics to take the Oath of Allegiance to the monarch.
The plan hotted up. Gregory Panzani was sent as an agent and spent two years in England in detailed discussion with the King and others in Church and state. Opposition to unity, he noted, came from Jesuits and Puritans. Most Anglican bishops were in favour of unity.

Like Leander, Panzani spoke warily about the rising power of the Puritans. The Civil War broke out. King Charles was beheaded, going to the scaffold declaring: ‘I die in the Christian Faith, according to the profession of the Church of England.’ Archbishop Laud was impeached for ‘corresponding with Rome’ and ‘treating with the pope’s men in England,’ and he too was beheaded.

When the monarchy was restored with Charles II what amounted to a Uniate Church was proposed:

The Archbishop of Canterbury to be designated Patriarch, responsible for governing the Church in the three realms, except a few rights reserved to Rome;
A Roman Legate, a native Englishman, to reside in England to exercise the rights reserved to the pope;
Existing archbishops, bishops and clergy to remain in office if they accept Catholic ordination;
An annual General Synod to be convened;
The King to nominate bishops;
Complete religious freedom for Protestants;
Priests and bishops could be married, though celibacy would be introduced later;
The Eucharist in two kinds for those who wish;
Mass in Latin, with English hymns;
A Catholic catechism based on Scripture to be published;
Some religious orders to be restored;
The most disputed questions, like the infallibility of the Pope and his right to depose monarchs, not to be discussed either in the pulpit or in writings, though Catholic preachers could dispute with Protestant, providing they avoided the narration of miracles or speaking of a material purgatory.
Again nothing happened. The Protestants were far too powerful. But as the centuries went by the vision of unity was kept alive by many individuals. The Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom was formed in 1838. At the first Lambeth Conference, in 1867, the Bishop of Salisbury presented a petition signed by more than 1,000 clergy and 4,500 laity urging the Anglican bishops to end the long separation of their church from Rome.

It was not until the Second Vatican Council that the time became more auspicious, and through the visit of Archbishop Michael Ramsey to Pope Paul VI in 1966, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) was created ‘to work for the restoration of complete communion of faith and sacramental life.’ Pope Paul VI assured Archbishop Coggan in 1977: ‘these words of hope ‘The Anglican Church united not absorbed’ are no longer a mere dream.’ Sadly they were.

In the 1930s the idea grew that part of the Church of England might be able to reunite with Rome. Fr Hope Patten espoused this idea, for he seemed to have a premonition that the Church of England would do or teach something that would dash reunion hopes and make it impossible for Catholics like himself to stay:

I am more and more coming to the opinion that Catholics in communion with Canterbury must consider the example of the Wee Frees of the Scots – the day cannot be far off when some of us will have to go out into the desert – and there prove our catholicity – after which perhaps a united body may be formed as a link.

What would have astounded Fr Patten is that Rome has now recognized the catholicity of Catholics in communion with Canterbury, without them having to go out into the desert and prove anything.

The ARCIC process goes on now, but without the purpose of restoring ‘complete communion of faith and sacramental life’. Pope Benedict’s plan is the fulfilment of hopes cherished since the days of Archbishop Laud, the fulfilment of the original ARCIC vision.