Barry A. Orford encourages a unity of spirit

Arthur Sullivan was having fun, of course, dividing W. S. Gilbert’s lyric comically between two gondoliers who were reigning jointly as a monarch until it was discovered which of them was actually king. What a pity that the words have taken on a less happy meaning in a different context.

There has been a tide of criticism of our bishops following their decision to forbid clergy to enter their churches in the wake of Covid-19. What must be asked, however, is how far their conduct reveals a monochrome episcopate with an insufficient understanding of the Church and a shared lack of Catholic sacramental theology – a leadership singing as one individual from official management texts. What else can explain their puzzlement that clergy and laity might be angry when the celebration of the Eucharist in church, even by a solitary priest, was stopped by episcopal instruction?

However, instead of simply complaining we need to ask what needs to be done as a result. The major pastoral challenge of Covid-19 has revealed starkly the inadequacy of the outlook governing our Church’s life. What is going to fill the gap which has been exposed? When the pandemic dies down there will be recriminations about what bishops did in response to it, but these can only be a distraction from the real task facing us. I know from correspondence that I am not alone in thinking that in this uncertain situation there are considerable opportunities awaiting Catholics in our Church. Everything depends, though, upon our recognizing and seizing those opportunities, and to do this we are going to have to emerge from behind some defensive barriers.

Not long ago, there was a conference which brought together Anglican Catholics of different persuasions. I was prevented from attending it, but I understand there was general agreement that it had been a worthwhile exercise. Now is the time for that shared endeavour to be reactivated. The Church of England’s self-understanding is at stake. Awareness of its Catholic nature has been steadily eroded, and if we do not work to restore it, who will? There is an overwhelming need for us to line up behind the Creeds, to proclaim a Catholic understanding of the Church and the Sacraments, to emphasize the importance of reverent liturgical worship, to insist on the recitation of the Daily Office as the prayer of the people of God, to reclaim a devotional theology, to know our history, to be clear about the social implications of Catholic conviction. 

If Catholic Anglicans of every hue cannot pull together constructively on these fundamentals then we might as well wait to be marginalized into irrelevance by the controlling oligarchy. The need is for renewed vision, the gift of the Holy Spirit for which we must pray, and then action.

Revitalization begins at grassroots level, when people who have been wary or dismissive of each other find they can agree on truths which unite them. On that foundation fresh vision and impetus become possible, and we will find the confidence we need to speak to a Church culpably ignorant of its inheritance.

How do we get this moving? How do we make ourselves heard? How do we make an impact? These are pressing questions for all of us, but I put them in particular to those who are much younger and more energetic than I am, and whose commitment I admire: can you reimagine contemporary ways of teaching the Catholic Faith received by the Church of England? The Tractarians did it with the Tracts for the Times. How might we do it? But above all, will we do it – all of us who call ourselves Catholics?

When Cosmo Gordon Lang was a young priest, he was asked by the Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, to consider leaving his work in Leeds to become Fellow and Theological Tutor at the College. Lang turned down the offer, saying honestly that his own Catholic position was at odds with Jowett’s liberalism. Jowett replied, “I know this. It is just why I am asking you to come … We [the liberals] may have truth – I think we have – but we have no fire!”

Have we the fire which will energize us into a concerted effort to recall our Church to learning and living its Catholic heritage? 

Fr Barry A Orford writes from Hampstead