It is now over a decade since ex-Anglicans streamed into the Catholic priesthood, following the 1992 decision of the Church of England to ordain women. Some observers predicted that this intake would cause problems, but it appears their integration has been relatively seamless.
I talked to three priests who were among that 1990s intake. Father Peter Geldard was a well-known figure, who seemed omnipresent on television and radio in the summer and autumn of 1992, in the final run-up to the debate in the General Synod of the Church of England, which took place that November. The point that he frequently made in debates and TV interviews was that the Church of England had no right and no authority to “go it alone” and to ordain women to the priesthood without any respect for the wider Church.
For him, as for a number of Anglicans, there was a genuine conviction that the Anglican Church was part of a greater reality, damaged but not wholly broken by the tragic events during the reign of Henry VIII. The events of 1992 proved this idea to be false: the Church of England did not consider itself to be part of a tangible Catholic Church bound in common loyalty to the direct successors of the apostles headed by Peter. Instead, it was a separate group of Christians who made decisions they felt were suitable for current times and needs.
For Father Geldard, who had been secretary of the Church Union, an Anglican body that campaigned hard for a decision against the ordination of women, the 1992 vote meant that the vision he had had of the Anglican Church was something of a mirage. “I suppose you could say the scales fell from my eyes,” he said. He became a Catholic, worshipping alongside many of his former parishioners who had made the same decision in a local Catholic church as an ordinary layman.
Ordination as a Catholic priest came after several delays. The relevant papers had been sent to Rome, but he had no idea why it was taking much longer than he had been led to expect. “My wife told me that it was because I was known to be a nuisance, and that I probably wasn’t wanted!”
But the difficulty turned out to be more prosaic, and related to his baptism. Born after a difficult delivery, he nearly died as a small baby—so the midwife at the hospital quickly baptized him, later writing out a certificate on hospital notepaper stating that this had been done. This unusual form of baptismal certificate did not correspond to the normal paperwork that Rome was expecting, and so his file was left unattended for some weeks while other, easier applications were tackled.
Today, Father Geldard is Catholic chaplain to the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is no longer involved in television debates and controversies. Does he miss all that? “Goodness, no. All I ever wanted to be was a Catholic priest. The campaigning was never something I sought to do anyway—it’s a relief not to have to do it,” he said. His chaplaincy work involves meeting students from all over the world. Masses in the chapel at St. John Stone House—a modern building, named after an English martyr priest of the 16th century—are full, and students attend talks on topics of Catholic interest, visit shrines and places of pilgrimages, and attend Catholic events and retreats.
Father Peter Edwards is a parish priest in a busy suburb of South London. St. Joseph’s in New Malden has well-attended Masses on Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and Sunday evening, and good numbers at weekday Masses too. Nearly 40 young people were in the confirmation group this last year, and recent parish projects have included the raising of funds to replace an old and shabby parish hall and the opening of a successful bookshop stocked with Catholic literature.
“I certainly have no regret at leaving the Anglican Communion (having felt that it had rather left us!), and feel the day of my reception into full communion with the Catholic Church to be an occasion of gigantic significance, and the beginning of a new life,” he said. “Indeed, I find it difficult to believe that I have ever been anything other than Catholic.”
“Most former Anglican clergy quite quickly lost touch with the C of E and have similarly lost interest. Anglicanism is of no more interest to me now than were Methodists or Baptists when I was an Anglican,” said Father Edwards. “I do not believe that it is a ‘church’ in the sense that the Catholic Church understands this of herself, nor that its ‘sacraments’ are any more valid than communion services, etc. of other Protestant denominations.”
This is not to say that former Anglican clergy see everything about the Catholic Church in a rosy glow. Far from it. Most are very realistic about the challenges still to be faced by the Church and about the tensions within it.
Many have been among the vocal critics of such problems as the failure of Catholic agencies to take a clear stance against the promotion of condom use by aid agencies in Africa, or the insistence by UK government figures that homosexual couples should be allowed and even encouraged to adopt children. They were also at the forefront of clergy opposing the recent decision of the bishops of England and Wales to move most holy days to the nearest Sunday, thereby effectively abolishing their significance.
Father Edwards has been instrumental in founding the Association of Catholics in Education to support and encourage Catholic teachers and good religious education rooted in the teachings of the Church. A recent meeting of ACE saw a Catholic teacher roundly calling for an affirmation of the authentic role of Catholic schools.
Father Peter Wilson is senior chaplain at London University, based at Newman House, which serves as both a residence for a large number of students and a central chaplaincy for all Catholics at the university. As an Anglican, he served as curate to Rev. Alan Hopes, who also converted to Catholicism and is now a bishop.
Said Wilson: “I vividly recall that stomach-crunching moment in 1992 when the General Synod voted to allow the ordination of women to the priesthood. The issue for me was not about women but about what the Anglican Church essentially was. The majority decision clearly negated what many of us desperately wanted to believe: that the Anglican Church was but a branch of the Catholic Church. At the time ‘the vote’ felt like a massive defeat. Now I see it as a moment of enlightenment which set me free to be what I always wanted to be: a Catholic. And it has released in me a respect and appreciation for the Anglican Church as it truly is, which I never really felt while a member of it.”
“Moving to the Catholic Church, where I knew I belonged, was an obvious step. But it raised a whole range of emotions: a sense of betrayal of those in the parishes I had served; fear of the unknown in a ‘foreign’ Church (humorously but unkindly referred to as the Italian mission to the Irish); apprehension about how I would be received, especially with press reports that Catholics did not really want us.”
Like other ex-Anglicans he does not look back with any sense of regret. “Fourteen years after my reception into the Roman Catholic Church I can honestly say I have never regretted the move. The Catholic ocean is wide and deep, and I no longer feel the need to shore up the walls for fear the whole edifice might collapse. It is already a cliché for ex-Anglicans to describe their conversion as ‘coming home.’ But that really is the sense of it. Catholic bishops, priests, and people were unfailingly welcoming and supportive. Very soon I was serving new people in a Church that was not foreign, but universal.” There is realism about the future: Mass attendance figures in Britain have been dropping for decades, and although there now seems to be something of a bottoming-out and steadying in the numbers, there is a recognition that Britain is now effectively mission territory.
Massive promotion of abortion and contraception within the National Health Service, pressure to legalize euthanasia, a nationwide problem of youth alcoholism and associated crime, widespread marriage breakdown, and dedicated campaigning by militant secularists intent on seeing the abolition of all forms of public funding for any formal Christian work including schools, all add up to a challenging picture. Nor is there a general sense that the Catholic bishops are an inspirational team fired by zeal and prepared to face martyrdom— rather, there is a widespread view that, taken collectively, the bishops prefer to adopt stances that do not place them in too much confrontation with officialdom or with public attitudes.
Father Peter Edwards is reflective and honest about the current scene. “Catholics turn out in pitifully small numbers for demonstrations on major life-and death issues; we fail to recognize needs and grasp opportunities. My phrase about British Catholicism is (sadly) ‘missed opportunities.’”
But about the priesthood he remains joyful and emphatic, in words echoed by other converts: “I am happy as a Catholic priest, firmly believe that this is what God always wanted of me, and am totally committed to the Holy Father and to living, teaching, and proclaiming the authentic teachings of the Catholic Church to which I am profoundly grateful and devoted.”