Towards The Society

As the recently established Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda continues to grow and evolve, the Right Revd Martyn Jarrett reflects on its purpose, its focus and its future potential

The question is constantly asked as to why we need yet one more Catholic society. The answer is simple. We need no such thing. By contrast, The Society could be exactly what we require. If women were to be admitted to the episcopate then traditional believers would need to be able to gather around a bishop or bishops whom they regarded as being authentic. They would want to know that they were a true part of the Church.

Such knowledge could only be secured by being gathered around a bishop whom, they were certain, guaranteed an authentic ministry of word and sacrament as he sought to hand on the Apostolic Faith. The Society is a means by which this need could be delivered.

Possible roles

The Society, in other words, offers a way in which you and I can live out what it means to be the Church. The Church of England could entrust the care of traditional Anglicans to a bishop or bishops within The Society, who would oversee all who signed up to it. Priests of The Society could be entrusted with the pastoral care of parishes that wanted to be part of The Society. Such parishes, together with individual Society members, would know that any priest admitted to membership of The Society was someone whom The Society’s bishops knew to be within the traditional ministry of the Church as the undivided Church of the first millennium understood it to be.

Given this understanding of The Society it is not so much a new society as one into which all other Catholic societies, should they so wish, could continue to fit comfortably. Forward in Faith, for instance, might well view The Society as the ecclesial provision, or at least something well on the way to it, that has been sought for years. Devotional societies and priestly confraternities would continue to support and deepen the lives of The Society’s members just as they have done so wonderfully in the past and still do. Catholic institutions and, possibly, even religious orders might wish to come under The Society’s umbrella.

Mission at its heart

The Society, though, must never promote a ghetto mentality. Mission must be at its heart as it has always been for Anglo- Catholicism at its best. The Society must be a supportive society. Dare I say it? The Society needs to capture in great measure the holiness, enthusiasm, urgency for mission and fellowship that characterized the early days of the Methodist movement when that saw itself as a society within the Church of England. The Society must be made up of those who want to feed on our Catholic heritage and who seek to recall the wider Anglican Church to it.

Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, one of two bishops who act as guardians for The Society, recently wrote a telling article for The Times in which he spelt out something of the traditional claims of the Church of England in regard to its Catholic heritage and of the great treasures that needed to be preserved and, in many cases, recovered for the benefit of Anglicanism.

There is so much more to our Catholic tradition than the problem that immediately presents itself to us, important as it is, namely the necessity for correctly both understanding and maintaining our Church order. Members of The Society should be at the forefront of recalling the Church of England to the heart of the ARCIC process and in continuing to seek the restoration of communion with the Holy See.

It is hard to envisage ARCIC ever truly recovering the impetus for its original goal, namely the reconciliation of our two Communions, unless we can make major inroads into recalling so many within our Church back to Orthodoxy. Let no one remain undaunted by such a challenge. It is awesome. Unless, or until, we are legislated out of existence and the Church of England were finally to renege on the claims that bind us to it, then that remains our task.

Complex issues to address

The Society is still in the process of formation. Various working groups are being established, following on from some of the early think-tanks that first achieved the task of getting the idea up and running. Key among these groups is the one working on a draft constitution.

At this stage we cannot be over-prescriptive. We still have no choice but to wait and see whether the Church of England will bless this way of enabling many of us to remain within its ranks, were women to be admitted to the episcopate.

There are complex but not necessarily irresolvable issues to address. How, for instance, would The Society relate to the local dioceses in which it would function? Could the now famous Archbishops’ amendment, defeated at last July’s General Synod, still prove to be of help in this regard? Were The Society’s bishops not to be given the necessary jurisdiction to play a major role in the appointment of its priests and in the future of its parishes, arguably, we would have been offered little more than the terminal care that we have always feared.

A way forward

Recent history, as shown by the intransigence of the majority of the Revision Committee, or by many in the House of Clergy during meetings of the previous General Synod, does not offer great hope. Against this, there are some signs of a newly elected General Synod being more sensitive to our needs. Many bishops are still anxious to find a way forward that will give us the provision that will make it possible to remain. And ever lingering in the background is the thought that, were there not eventually provision to be made for us that meets our genuine concerns, then many in the present General Synod might think it better for the legislation not to go forward. However difficult our present situation might be, there is every reason for building up our life together within The Society and in continuing to work for what we believe to be just and right.

There is nothing, meanwhile, to stop us from increasingly organizing ourselves as The Society. There are, already, some dioceses where the additional chapter is beginning to see itself as the meeting of The Society’s priests, relating to its appropriate Catholic bishop. A List of lay members within the diocese has been compiled and imaginative programmes are being produced to deepen The Society’s life and mission.

There is an ever-growing database of Society members from which we are able to supply names at a more local level as more diocesan groupings seek to organize in this way. Discussions are already in hand for some wider regional events. The Society can and must work bottom up as well as top down. We can start living as The Society even now.

Energetic commitment

There are those, of course, for whom remaining a member of the Church of England is, in conscience, no longer an option. It is only right that those who have arrived at such a position should depart for another Communion.

The arguments for

remaining a member of the Church of England, at least until the shape of future provision for those who hold to our viewpoint has been finalized, continue to be powerfully made and are beyond the scope of this particular article.

There are those of us who still think there is sufficient theological justification for remaining within the Church of England unless proper provision for us were to be refused. It would surely be madness for those of us who take such a view not to think creatively about how such provision might be given and/or then to fail in working energetically towards making such possible provision a reality. This is the thinking that has spawned The Society and encouraged us in our thinking and planning so far. For such thinking and planning now to grow into fruition The Society will continue to need both a generous space in our prayers and also our energetic commitment to its evolving life.

The Society must be made up of those who want to feed on our Catholic heritage and who seek to recall the wider Anglican Church to it. ND