Digby Anderson on the disobedience that characterizes continuing churches, and whether these churches can succeed in the long term

How good are continuing churches at continuing? Do they have a future? The questions are germane since one possibility for Anglo-Catholics denied an episcopally assured future within the Church of England, is that they make provisions for that assurance themselves and in so doing, while continuing to be what they are, become separated from the main body of the CofE, which itself will have ceased to be what it was. Finding valid, orthodox bishops inside or outside the CofE to consecrate more bishops who would ignore current diocesan boundaries will involve disobedience – justified disobedience perhaps – and not just an act of disobedience, persistent disobedience.

Prone to further splits

This persistent disobedience is characteristic of continuing churches. It can be theologically debated but is also subject to a more practical worldly argument: will such a continuing church last? Does not experience of other continuing churches show them to be prone to further splits and personal vanities ending in competing hierarchies with no congregations, lots of doctrinal integrity and no pastoral life?

Maybe, but consider one particular case. It is a case of persistent disobedience and it involves separatist consecrations and separatist training of ordinands and the use of the church buildings associated with the church it disobeys (matters Anglo-Catholics are also concerned about). The group involved has other characteristics, distasteful to many non-members. These are not our concern. Our interest is confined to the one, practical question of whether a continuing church can continue, for long and with success.

Society and seminary

In 1968, that holy year for the forces of progress, a few French seminarians in Rome claimed to be persecuted for their adherence to traditional doctrines and wrote to an Archbishop who was to retire that year. They asked him to find them a conservative seminary where they could complete their studies. He established a society and a seminary for them. In 1971, 24 candidates entered it followed by 32 the year after. Our own bishops might note that the Archbishop did not exactly hang about.

His action was met with fury and derision. French bishops refused to incardinate its priests, its status was withdrawn, its founder was suspended from holy orders. Most commentators wrote off the Society as the last gasp of reactionary losers. The Archbishop continued in his disobedience. In 1977, the Society, needing a church in Paris, occupied Saint Nicolas du Chardonnay. Despite attempts by the Paris administration and the Catholic authorities, it is still there, 35 years later.

In 1988, the Archbishop, concerned for his Society’s continuation and dependence on one 82-year-old bishop to ordain priests, proposed to consecrate four priests as bishops. Despite protests from Rome, he went ahead and was excommunicated. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre died on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1991. But the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X (SSPX) continued. Sceptics of continuing churches will be pleased to note that the Society lost some priests back to the Holy See as a result of the consecrations.

Significant victories

Yet other news will not please the sceptics. In 2009, the Society which started as a few seminarians and a retired Archbishop had 510 priests in 31 countries and 200 seminarians in six seminaries. Saint Nicolas has six, full back-to-back Sunday masses. More important, the main cause of the Society, the continuance of the Tridentine rite has now been recognized and put on a par with the Novus Ordo by the Holy See. Anyone who remembers the liturgical atmosphere of the Seventies must recognize that it was the much derided ‘Lefebvrists’ who kept the old rite going when all the establishment agreed, with relief, that it was finished for good.

The current Pope’s recognition of a need to ‘reform the reforms’, to re-sanctify the mass, to retranslate liberal paraphrases of the Novus Ordo, of the legitimacy of mass versus orientem and the desirability of reception kneeling and on the tongue, the need to rediscover sacred music; all these are victories for what was once called the wildcat seminary of Econe. Other demands of the Society for a reversion to traditional ideas of religious liberty and ecumenism have been less successful, though this Holy Father is second to none in his condemnation of liberalism and relativism, matters dear to the Society’s founder.

Good leadership

And our little question? What does this story tell us about the survival possibilities of disobedient continuing churches; that they can succeed beyond their wildest dreams, and the wildest fears of their opponents. There are indeed continuing churches which fail. Why did SSPX succeed? Because it was blessed with a good leader. He was not a brilliant theologian nor outstandingly holy. But he was brave and persistent in disobedience. Which of our bishops have the courage to disobey and persist in disobedience – if disobedience should prove to be our future? Oh, and while they are fumbling to see if they can find any courage, they should remember not to ‘hang about’. ND