The children from the Sunday School fill up the first couple of benches, and when the rector leads the singing of the Angelus, their young voices pipe up eagerly in the response: “The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary/And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.” As things finish, there is the usual crowded gathering in the big Parish Room for coffee and tea. There is lots of talk. The Harvest Thanksgiving produced a groaning table of gifts, with bulging bags stacked under and around it, too – all will go to the local project for the homeless. Somebody is asking about the confirmation class. And is the parish ladies’ group meeting as usual this Monday?
If all this has a faintly Anglican sound to it, that’s fine. Anglican patrimony: that’s what Pope Benedict XVI said could be brought along when he made the offer to clergy and laity within the Church of England in 2011: come into full Communion—come and be made welcome in the Catholic Church, and bring with you all that you can of your traditions, your heritage, your patrimony.
So far, some 80 clergy and about 1,000 laity in Britain have responded to the invitation made by Pope Benedict in Anglicanorum Coetibus. The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham came into being in 2011 with three former Anglican bishops forming its leadership. The following year two other ordinariates were established—the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in the United States and Canada, and the Ordinariate of the Southern Cross in Australia.
The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham has groups in various parts of Britain. In London, two churches have been given over to the ordinariate by the Catholic bishops: one in Warwick Street—a building with an extraordinary history going back to the days when Catholics could only worship in chapels linked to foreign embassies—and one on the south bank of the river Thames, near London Bridge.
It is this Church of the Most Precious Blood, a late 19th-century building next to the railway viaduct, not far from Borough Market, that is now the spiritual home of a thriving ordinariate parish community. Father Christopher Pearson was formerly the vicar of the Anglican church of St Agnes, at Kennington. He and a number of parishioners responded to the Holy Father’s call, and after due process—a time of reflection, decision, and instruction—were formally received into full communion with the Catholic Church and confirmed. A while later, Father Christopher was ordained deacon and then priest in St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark. They all worshipped for a while at St. Wilfrid’s Catholic Church in Kennington, not far from their old home at St. Agnes. And then the Church of the Most Precious Blood becoming vacant with the planned departure of the Salvatorean Order, which had been running the parish, and it was given into ordinariate care.
But that does not tell the whole story. There have been so many adventures along the way. Media coverage of the ordinariate has been, to put it mildly, mixed. The Times ran a headline announcing that the Pope had “parked his tanks” on the Anglican lawn. There had been hopes that Anglican clergy seeking full communion with large groups of parishioners might be able to continue using their churches—perhaps under a sharing arrangement. No such possibilities were allowed. Nor did the Catholic bishops of England and Wales seem enthusiastic: while there was official goodwill, and ordinations were celebrated at Westminster Cathedral and elsewhere with glorious music and a packed congregations, there was an apparent reluctance to help get things moving. Ordinariate groups found that they were, at best, offered a time-slot for Mass in a local Catholic parish. Ordinariate clergy were generally absorbed into the mainstream of Catholic life, working as chaplains in hospitals and parishes, and caring for their ordinariate groups, but without buildings of their own.
The offer of two churches in London brought a new chapter. Precious Blood Church is effectively modeling what an ordinariate parish can be. And it is working. This corner of South London is rich in history: the Saxons fought a crucial battle on London Bridge, Catherine of Aragon stayed in a house nearby when she first arrived in England (a plaque marks the fact, and also that Sir Christopher Wren later stayed in the same house while supervising the building of the new St. Paul’s), and Catholics and Protestants both endured ghastly conditions in the nearby Clink Prison at various stages during the Reformation. The parish of Precious Blood was created at the end of the 19th century for the growing Catholic population, many of whom worked on the nearby railway (London Bridge station is a major terminus for Kent and the southern London suburbs). Two great war memorials in the church list the names of large numbers of young men of the parish killed in the First World War.
Today, the area is changing: housing here can command exorbitant prices, and the nearby Shard is London’s tallest-ever building, owned by a Gulf state and exuding an air of opulent supremacy. The old working-class way of life of corners of South London such as this has changed. Television, fast food, immigration, computers, family break-up have all combined so that this is not the community that existed when Precious Blood Church was first built, not when it withstood bombing in World War II, nor in the London of the 1960s and 70s.
But there is still a community here, and enough of a community feeling to offer a sense of faint wariness when the ordinariate arrival was announced. Not for long, though. Within a very short while the whole thing had morphed together into something greater; today, whether it’s coffee-after-Mass or the new heating system being installed along the church floor, or the big Corpus Christi Procession that wound its way through the local streets, or the recently-restored sacristy with its splendid Victorian ceiling (rediscovered during renovations, with a fine lantern window), it is working, and working well.
Americans might be interested to know that among parish events this year was a talk by Raymond Arroyo of EWTN—far too many people for the Parish Room, so it was held in the church, and it was a great success. A regular Sunday School now attracts good numbers of children. A new organ has been installed. A new shrine honoring Bl. John Henry Newman—patron of the ordinariate—was blessed by the archbishop recently. An illustrated lecture on Newman by Dr. Andrew Nash packed the church out again.
The most recent celebration was another ordination, of two more former Anglicans, which was followed by a reception in a nearby art gallery, the Parish Room being again inadequate. As I write this, Precious Blood will be hosting a gathering of young people who are doing a Pilgrimage Walk through London, a reunion of walkers who took part in a summer Walk to Walsingham.
What of the future? The success of Precious Blood Parish ought to encourage other bishops in other dioceses to offer churches to the ordinariate as the opportunity arises. It is tragic to hear of churches being closed; this happened recently in another part of England, where an ordinariate priest and group were ready and willing to take on a building, but it was sold instead to local Muslims. Bishops perhaps need courage to recognize the huge new possibilities following Pope Benedict’s courageous invitation: somehow the idea that things can’t be that good, that decline must be inevitable, that God wouldn’t usher in new ideas and new hopes, seems to die hard.
Two small stories on which to end, although they both indicate not an end, but a beginning. When Father Christopher Pearson was exploring the choir-loft at Precious Blood Church, among the clutter of years inevitably stacked there, he found a statue, faced turned to the wall in a dusty corner. It was a statue of a woman, and, assuming it to be Our Lady, he swilled it round. But it wasn’t Our Lady; it was St. Agnes—a much less usual figure to find in a corner of a church, and patroness of his former, Anglican parish. It seemed symbolic. And then some weeks later, when the basement of the rectory was finally being tackled, and stacks of old books and magazines and papers were being sorted, a set of beautifully-bound works of John Henry Newman was revealed on a shelf. On the flyleaf of the first book was a hand-written dedication: “To the Revd C. Pearson, from JHN.” And a Reverend C. Pearson, at the start of the 21st century, is now again a pastor at the church, with JHN as patron.
I think Pope Benedict would be happy to know about all this: I hope he is aware that the ordinariate is working, and that the future looks bright.