Last month we focused on the thirtieth anniversary of the anniversary of the General Synod’s vote to allow the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England. This represented a major change to the Sacrament of Orders. We also reproduced the statement from the trustees of Forward in Faith upholding the principle of confidentiality which is inherent in the Sacrament of Confession. This was in the light of IICSA proposing changes to that confidentiality as contained in the seal. There will be more on that next year, no doubt. 

There will also be great interest in, and coverage of, the Sacrament of Marriage as it now appears likely that formal proposals will come forward to amend the nature of that sacrament too. Many like to refer to such matters as ‘church politics’ but I imagine that we would prefer to see them as ‘church fundamentals’.

However, now does not seem the right time of year – in this holy season of Advent – to be going through the sacraments one-by-one and setting out which are currently under attack and which might be next. We live in a world riven with conflict and strife, desperately needing to hear the Good News. So as we approach the great feast of the Incarnation of Our Lord, it would be worth stopping to think what our role is in receiving and sharing that Good News.

The Society bishops have had that same thought and just over a year embarked on a mission initiative under the oversight of Bishops Will Hazlewood and Philip North, with Fathers David D’Silva and Chris Brading – both serving parish priests – jointly undertaking the role of National Missioner on behalf of The Society. 

The first phase of the initiative culminated in a conference focusing on Catholic mission for 80 or so Society clergy, and also Bishop Ric Thorpe who leads on much of this type of work across the Church of England, which was held at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and culminated shortly before the beginning of Advent.

The conference was notable for its positivity and for delegates’ openness to what might be being suggested as a fruitful next step; whether that be embracing Catholic Alpha, enabling the laity to play their part in evangelisation or supporting outreach to young people.

A report on the conference will appear in a future New Directions and setting out the agreed next steps, but strong interest is already apparent in continuing with the regional groups and holding a second conference in a year’s time. In the meantime, a portal will be established to share useful material and good practice. 

Nobody involved thinks the mission initiative is the final word on the matter but there is wide recognition among participants that the support and encouragement provided by the regional meetings and the national conference represent the right pattern for future work.

Further good news has arrived for The Society in the form of two new shepherds to guide us in that missionary work. On St Andrew’s Day, a bustling York Minster witnessed the consecration of Fr Stephen Race as the Bishop of Beverley. It was particularly pleasing that three Society bishops were able to act as the Chief Consecrator and the two Co-Consecrators. 

And we now have news that Fr Paul Thomas will be consecrated as the first Bishop of Oswestry on the feast of Candlemas in Canterbury Cathedral. There is scope for confusion as the See was previously inactive and will now care for the former Ebbsfleet parishes, as Ebbsfleet  is shortly to become the conservative evangelical See. Suffice to say that the See of Oswestry will cover the western half of the southern province and help to return us to a full complement of PEVs.

We are indeed fortunate that the discernment process has resulted in two such able candidates being raised to the episcopate and we pray for the parishes, clergy and people under their care. Please also remember The Society’s Council of Bishops in your prayers at this time of change.

In closing, I am reminded that we would struggle to do better than the words of Eric Milner-White in preparing ourselves to celebrate that great feast:

‘Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.’ 

I wish you all a holy and happy Christmas.