Difficult choices face those members of the CofE who wish to leave, writes Digby Anderson
Disillusion and departure are integral parts of Anglo-Catholic tradition. The Movement started in 1833, 181 years ago. By 1842, just nine years later, Newman, disillusioned, retired from it. Since then a succession of prominent members have experienced disillusion, like him, not with the faith but the church, and left. Those who are disillusioned today experience it as part of their patrimony. They choose to leave having read Newman, Manning, Knox and the others and their leavings are modelled on theirs. Those who stay, on being informed of the loss of some colleague, sigh, `Oh, not that again’: They expect it.
And yet things have changed in some respects and the choices forced on today’s catholic members of the CofE are new in three ways. For those who wish to leave, there is a wider choice of destinations. There is Rome Central but also Rome Ordinariate and the Romeish SSPX. There are Greek, Russian, Serbian, Antiochian and other Orthodox Churches, Old Catholics and Continuing Churches. Many are valid if irregular. They may not all be practical destinations but their validity makes it impossible for conscientious catholics not to consider them. How to choose is a new problem.
This wider choice is only practical for Anglo-Catholics who live in London, university cities and other centres of choice. But what role should practicality play in choice? Should it not be principled as Newman’s was? Every disillusioned member will have some personal circumstance which he ought to consider, or should he? For instance, should married couples try to be members of the same church? What about financial implications or change of address and responsibilities to older family members? And it is no longer the answer to seek advice. Who could you go to today for informed advice?
Increased choice and personal practicality (versus principle) are two of the current problems. But the third is the most interesting, though more difficult to describe. It is also, I suspect, less widely experienced. But let me, rather clumsily, try. Pope Benedict was definite about the nature of the decadence affecting the modern church in Europe. It affected his church too. It was a problem of the decadence of European Christendom. It was specially manifest in the desacralization of the liturgy but also in the church’s `impurity’ — he called for a smaller purer church. And other popes have talked of evil at the heart of the church.
Now some, maybe only a few Anglo-Catholics read Roman Catholic papers and visit Roman Catholic masses. What if they were to conclude that the liberal nonsense which is doing to death their own church was active in others? Of course they know the Roman Catholic Church does not have the same order and authority problems and its sacraments do not cease to be valid when carried out by liberal clergy. But so many of their churches have the same infantilized liturgy as ours. So many of their bishops trot out the same soft-left secular welfarism as ours. They look like ours, sound like ours, sigh and simper like ours. They, like ours, have stood by while governments dismantle the family. Though they maintain traditional marriage discipline in church, they do so half-heartedly and congregations are full of lone parents. They may have technical sacramental assurance but there is little sacramental conviction. Which is worse; to lose sacramental truth or to have it on the altar and turn your back on it while you affirm community values and be there for people where they are?
It is ecclesiological etiquette not to criticize other churches too sceptically. So no more examples here. But if Benedict is right, we are facing something much more evil and destructive than the ambitions of a few ladies in the CofE. Those who dare to think this face a disillusion both deeper and wider than Newman’s. And worse, it threatens several of the most obvious destinations, should they decide to depart. This inkling that the trouble is deeper and wider has rather gently surfaced before, in the debate about modernism, in the writing of Eliot and C.S. Lewis, in the reaction of traditionalists to the liberal vandalism consequent on, if not caused by, Vatican II. There are currently murmurs from the Orthodox, very quiet because distant and under-reported, about some of the current pope’s impulsive liberal impulses on morality.
Those afflicted by the greater disillusion, may, as I say, be, very few, and they may be soothed by knowing the gates of hell will not prevail… But they also know this assurance was not given about all churches at all times, and they have to make decisions here and now about those local churches practicality offers them. Benedict’s complaint was of a church that has been watered down, its purity diluted. And it is liberalism above all that makes the church so soppingly wet. The traditional OT symbol of purity is salt. A recent study argues that a better word for the loss of savour that salt can suffer is insipidity, dilution to the point of tastelessness. Both St Matthew and St Luke are grimly clear about what the insipid salt was good for.