Standing at the junction

Anthony Saville considers how we should be preparing for the decisions we will have to make later this year about the Ordinariate and the General Synod provision

We are once again waiting. We seem to have done a lot of this over recent years. At the moment we await the debates and decisions of General Synod in July. But rather more, we await the first sketches of an English Ordinariate, which seem likely to come some time after that, and before the Pope’s visit to this country.

Of course we have been praying while we wait. But I wonder how far we have been devising the framework for making a decision, as and when fuller detail is offered us from the Roman Catholic hierarchy in this country. Our task is not just to wait, as mere passive recipients of what others will or will not do for us. It is true we cannot make decisions until matters become clearer, and we know more precisely what it is that we are to make a decision about; but we can prepare ourselves for the making of those decisions.

A number of themes appear to be emerging from these current months of waiting. Let me share some of them.

First, there is the question of symmetry. Or rather the lack of symmetry. You remember Buridan’s Ass? This poor donkey, according to Jean Buridan the medieval French philosopher, was placed equidistant from two identical piles of hay: the sad creature died of starvation, being quite unable to choose between the two, there being nothing whatsoever that favoured one pile of hay over the other. There was nothing with which to make a decision.

The point is that there is always an asymmetry between two choices: we do not, in other words, stand at a ‘cross-roads’. I put the word in quotation marks because even the traditional model is odd – at a true cross-roads one could always continue straight ahead, without as it were making any choice at all. In fact the popular image is more of a T-junction, with the road going both left and right. We must choose, therefore, which to follow.

Where is the asymmetry at this T-junction, between the Ordinariate and provision provided by General Synod? All other things being equal – and of course all other things are very rarely equal – there is a huge bias towards the Ordinariate. Reunion with the See of Rome must, in the context of church unity, take an overwhelming precedence over anything CofE bishops or Synod could provide. Even if we were now offered what we originally asked for, namely a free province within the Church of England, it would still come a poor second to communion with Rome. In other words, there is no symmetrical Tjunction. It is not ‘Ordinariate or Synod’s provision,’ but rather ‘Why not the Ordinariate?’

It is, however, not quite that simple, for the Ordinariate will not be a theoretical concept but a practical reality. We are called not simply to choose the Ordinariate, but to discern whether it offers something of real value in the wider life of the Church. And when we consider this question, it is clear there is an asymmetry in the opposite direction.

The CofE has many faults, as any New Directions reader could tell you, but it contains all the structure of what you might call a real church – historic buildings, a parish system, above all the expectation of a universal ministry, that even the worst excesses of our bishops have not yet managed to destroy. By contrast, what is the Ordinariate? Yet another tiny sect, with more clergy than laity, struggling to proclaim its worth in fierce competition with rivals in a declining market? Which is the more obvious vessel from which to proclaim the Gospel to a disbelieving world? The CofE, like it or not?

This does not mean that we should choose the CofE, but simply that there is a distinct asymmetry, a strong bias, in this matter, towards it rather than the Ordinariate. We are not being called to choose, but to discern or, in that term so hated by theologians and loved by philosophers, to calculate. What does this mean?

From our existing, shared understanding of the unity of the Church (garnered largely from our Anglo-Catholic heritage) there is a strong bias towards the Ordinariate. Now, you may want to alter the first part of that last sentence, but if it holds, then the second part follows from it. If union with Rome has always been part of our historic calling as Anglo-Catholics, then we are heavily biased in favour of the Pope’s offer.

If we had a bias towards Rome before 22 October 2009, we still have one afterwards. Therefore, as we follow the debates and resolutions of General Synod this July, the question we ask is, ‘How does the provision being offered (or not) alter my preference for the Ordinariate?’

From our existing, shared understanding of the mission of the Church (garnered largely from our Anglo-Catholic heritage) there is a strong bias towards living the Gospel where we are now, and perhaps especially in our inner-city shrine churches. Therefore, when the RC Bishops of England and Wales issue the details of the Ordinariate in this country, we shall study them in this light: can it do more for the preaching of the Gospel than the CofE as we now know it?

If asymmetry is one feature that frames the questions, another is risk. There is a fear, expressed or (more often) suppressed, of what was called on day one, the ‘tanks on the lawn’ perspective, summarized in such phrases, ‘We’ll all have to become Roman Catholics,’ ‘The only elements of Anglican patrimony we’ll be allowed to keep will be Choral Evensong and surplices,’ ‘It’s only a way of stealing more clergy for Rome.’ Some of this may be little more than residual anti-Romanism, some a reaction to Anglo-Papalist over-enthusiasm. None of it however, it seems to me, arises from Anglicanorum coetibus, and still less from anything Pope Benedict has said. True, we must wait for the detail, but the indications so far are that the Ordinariate is intended to be open not closed, and therefore that its existence contains real risk for the Roman Church itself. It will be ‘a new way of being of church’ within the Roman Communion. There is a real chance that other Catholics may be changed by a closer relationship with the Anglican heritage. The possibility of influence and conversion should work both ways.

Consider it from the other way round. One disgruntled comment going the rounds is, ‘Why doesn’t Archbishop Rowan establish an Ordinariate for disaffected Romans?’ Why? Because there is no need for a second such institution. The one structure should work both ways. What the Ordinariate will offer is the Anglican contribution – a way of being church – and the Roman contribution – unity, magisterium, apostolicity.

A reverse or alternative Ordinariate, that offered Anglican schism with modern Roman liturgy, would be an nightmare. Wouldn’t it? What Anglicans offer in liturgy is the doing of it, with care, beauty and reverence; what Roman Catholics offer in liturgy is the guarantee of authenticity. Now, whether Anglicans will work quite so hard at their liturgy, once they no longer have to (because it will come with the guarantee of authenticity however it is performed), we shall discover in a generation’s time. What is clear is that it is Anglican liturgy in a Roman setting that is of value, not Roman liturgy in an Anglican setting (even if the words are the same).

There is only one type of Ordinariate. And it will not be a success, unless it recognizes that it may also be an opening door for Roman Catholics to become members of the Church of England. Free to enjoy Anglican worship and spirituality in an Ordinariate church, how many (liberal-minded) RCs might become tempted to join the real thing? For in this case, there is a much easier, less formal means of entry – no Tiber to swim, you might say, only a street to cross.

Even now when, with falling attendances, congregations are more congregational, there is still no real cultural sense of a need to join’ the Church of England. Your parish church is simply there, and you walk in: it’s yours. Supposing then you were a RC but in favour of women’s ministry. Or newly married to a divorcee. Or otherwise of a more liberal persuasion and inclination. It is possible to see how an Ordinariate church could become – unintentionally of course and by way of a double effect – a half-way house to a properly welcoming and liberal church.

I do not imagine, for a moment, that nearly as many would go this way, from Rome to the Church of England, as the other way. But it is surely essential, and in accordance with the breadth and courage of Pope Benedict’s vision, for conversion to work both ways. If all such risk is carefully removed from the Ordinariate in this country, then its future would be much in doubt, and it would be far less attractive to join.

In other words, the (CofE) House of Bishops should learn to see this imaginative experiment as exactly that, an imaginative experiment which may (if their liberal agenda is as persuasive as they claim) work to their advantage. It would be foolish for Rome to use it as a mere vehicle for recruitment – the tanks on the lawn approach – and foolish for the Church of England hierarchy to react to it as though it were.

Of course, there will be those who will enter the Ordinariate with a strong desire to make it as narrow as possible. We know this already from one or two of the reactions and statements of members of Forward in Faith most enthusiastic to join. And it might be, we say to ourselves, that the Roman Catholics charged with preparing or influencing this initiative, being in many cases ex-Anglicans, are also keen to stamp out any risky Anglican elements.

Such fears are possible, but they are not probable. A generous and imaginative initiative is unlikely to be derailed by such narrowness and mean-spiritedness. But if we are to apply this criterion to our judgement of the Ordinariate – that it is open to risk – we must do the same to ourselves. We will all have to give up a great deal, if we are to be part of it in its initial stages.

And so to a third perspective on the forthcoming decisions we shall have to make: culture. If the first perspective, asymmetry, derives from the nature of decision-making; and the second perspective, risk, from the nature of the two denominations and the asymmetry of their history and structure, this third perspective is much broader, more fluid, and a good deal more difficult to pin down.

At its crudest level, there is the visceral anti-Romanism, that troubling and shameful element of the English psyche, and which has often been discussed and as often condemned in New DirecTions. More important is the largely northern phenomenon of national identity, where Roman Catholicism has been Irish and Anglo-Catholicism English, simply as a matter of history. When on a lesser degree of assurance. It is because they are not absolutely sure it’s the real thing that Anglo- Catholic priests celebrate the Mass with greater care than so many of their Roman colleagues.

For Anglicans, it is because certainty is not guaranteed in the foundation that so much care must be taken in the building. Like other organizations in second place, ‘We try harder.’ That is part of the Anglican patrimony, and always has been. Back in Saxon times when the church in this country was at the edge of the known world, there was the same care at doing everything properly, clergy tell us their people would as soon consider becoming Muslim as becoming Roman Catholic, this may no doubt be true. Faithful to the Gospel, but residually loyal to the Church of England as an institution, for reasons that have nothing for it was never absolutely certain exactly what was happening at the centre, half a world away.

The need to prove our worth is part of what we have to offer as Anglicans. How far this will still be the case in an to do with the Gospel and little to do with reason. I regard this cultural fact as part of the background against which we all make our decisions. The cultural foreground is about what it means to be Anglican. The via media was always between the Roman Church and the Puritans. If those two approaches to the Gospel were rejected, this was often not because they were different but because they were so much the same. Anglicanism is not a third way between two opposites, it is a middle way between two expressions often similar and sometimes identical. Of course this is not how Catholics or Puritans see it, but it is the Anglican perspective. There is a strong axiomatic foundation in Rome and Geneva, with a strong use of logic to construct the rest of the building. The empirical approach of Anglicanism is based Ordinariate is something we shall discover, but though I am vague as to how we may decide, I remain certain that it will be a feature of our discernment, and disagreements. When writers assert categorical conclusions, Catholic or Puritan, on the basis of simple axioms and even simpler logic, I cannot help feeling that, though they may be right, from an Anglican point of view they are also wrong. This is not how we have received the Christian tradition, nor how we understand it, nor how we have passed it on.

In our own day, we suspect this via media is a cover for liberal fuzziness or even a general moral laziness, but in the seventeenth century it was the reason Church of England clerics strove so hard for solid theological learning. This need to prove oneself takes many forms. Vague as a perspective on our current decisions, but decisive nevertheless. ND