“Auntie Joanna, can I help you with your knitting?”
The difference between tapestry and knitting was not apparent to an uninitiated small boy, fascinated by the intricacies of bright wool and needles. Not one to discourage youthful enthusiasm, I gingerly showed my young nephew how to insert the wool through the mesh with the special blunt-ended needle, and with deep breaths of satisfaction he produced some creditable stitches. His contribution to the kneeler for St. Anselm’s, Pembury was small, but in a way he was helping to make history.
There are a great many magnificent and ancient churches in England, but St Anselm’s is not one of them. It’s a smallish, bleak hall, standing on a green rising up from the main road in Pembury, a village near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. It has bare walls, plastic chairs, a cramped feel, and no external ornaments to indicate its sacred use. And it is rented out for much of the week for ballet classes and a children’s playgroup.
But the reason for its place in history is important. The hall is part of the Catholic parish of Tunbridge Wells. When Pope Benedict XVI created the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, an Anglican clergyman, the Rev. Ed Tomlinson—then vicar of a large Anglican church in Tunbridge Wells—responded with eagerness. Pope Benedict’s call, in his message Anglicanorum Coetibus—“to groups of Anglicans”—was an invitation to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, bringing along Anglican traditions, music, and what has been generally described as “Anglican patrimony.”
Father Ed—having been ordained a Catholic priest after due discernment, study, and acceptance—had to give up the beautiful church of which he had been vicar. He and his wife and small children faced a future which, humanly speaking, looked uncertain. What would the Catholic Church do with a married priest (the Church dispenses, in this very specific instance, from celibacy) and a group of faithful people from his former Anglican flock?
The solution was to appoint him as an assistant priest at the Catholic parish of St. Augustine in Tunbridge Wells parish, and he was given charge of the “outstation” at Pembury. Now, with generous financial support from the diocese (Southwark) and elsewhere, the hall will become an attractive church, serving what is already a small but thriving congregation.
And one tiny contribution to this will be the tapestry-stitched kneelers, replacing the hideous brown rubber mats that are in current use. Hence my busy stitching and the support of the Friends of the Ordinariate, which has donated to the project.
However, the Ordinariate story is not everywhere such a happy one. Some Ordinariate priests have been effectively merged into the normal Catholic diocesan structure, where sometimes the only Catholic parish available is many miles from their old Anglican one. This means they are cut off from the flock who came with them “across the Tiber,” and who now find that they can no longer remain as a group and simply have to attend Mass at a local church.
Pope Benedict’s original idea was for whole former Anglican parishes to unite to Rome, worshipping together and living their parish lives as they had always done. It is a vision that points to the future; the present is more problematic. What actually happened when Anglican clergy and members of their congregation sought to take up the papal offer was that they found the Church of England telling them simply to go, and close the door behind them. They were given nothing, and found themselves homeless and without any church while they pondered the future. The generosity of the Catholic community—through the St. Barnabas Society, which for more than 100 years has supported Anglicans making this journey—ensured that the clergy and their families had somewhere to live, as well as funds for essentials. But, of course, it could not produce church buildings.
There are many under-used Anglican churches in Britain, but one has yet to offered to the Ordinariate. While there are legal obstacles to selling an Anglican parish for Catholic use, a sharing arrangement with an Ordinariate group presents no such difficulty and would be both legally and financially possible. Already, non-Ordinariate Catholic parishes in rural areas use Anglican churches for Mass. And, over the past four or more decades, ecumenical church services—joint events in Christian Unity Week and for Christmas carols and so on—have of course become a standard part of life. Some generous thinking might have been able to produce arrangements in which the Ordinariate—cherishing so much of an Anglican patrimony that is of value, in hymns, music, liturgy, and traditions—could have thrived.
And has the Catholic Church been as generous to the Ordinariate as it should be? There are Catholic churches which are under-used or even likely to be closed, where Mass attendance has dropped. Some of these could be simply given to the Ordinariate. Why not? The question is asked but not yet answered.
While there have been official welcoming noises to the Ordinariate from the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, the everyday realities of life have been less than cheering for some Ordinariate clergy and the people who came with them into full communion with the Catholic Church. And this is a great pity, because where a church has been made available, the results are good.
Two London churches, one in the diocese of Southwark and one in the diocese of Westminster, have been given to the Ordinariate, with good results. At the Church of the Precious Blood (Southwark) parish life is thriving with renewed vigor in the care of Ordinariate priest Father Christopher Pearson and his assistant, Father Scott Anderson (see “In London, the Ordinariate Begins to Bear Fruit”, October 30, 2013). There is fine music, a growing Sunday School, and a good community spirit. There have been some splendid processions through the South London streets, a joyful dedication of a new shrine to Blessed John Henry Newman (patron of the Ordinariate), and more. And in Westminster diocese, the historic Church of the Assumption in Warwick Street—a center of London Catholic life in recusant times—is now the Ordinariate’s headquarters, its rectory the home of the ordinary, Msgr. Keith Newton.
And the small church in Pembury is also an example of what might be possible in the immediate future, assuming that Anglican churches are not forthcoming. Where a Catholic parish has an under-used church, or a small hall or other building that is owned by the church, giving it to the care of the Ordinariate is an obvious move. The Ordinariate clergy bring vigor and a great sense of mission. They have made a difficult journey, and cope with challenges with humor, faith, and quiet courage. They bring a tradition of a dignified liturgy and glorious music, active lay involvement, and enjoyment of celebrating the feasts and seasons of the Church’s year with processions, ceremonies, and special events.
The reality is that the Ordinariate has challenged us all: do we really believe in the unity-in-diversity that has been the talk at so many ecumenical events? Are we really happy with the slapdash liturgy prevalent in so many Catholic parishes, and does the Ordinariate with its commitment to a tradition of dignity and beauty in worship stir us? Our bishops need to be humble enough to accept the gift of the Ordinariate for what it is. Sometimes receiving a gift can be as hard as giving one: it requires openness, acceptance, and recognition of a need.
The Catholic Church in Britain is in need. We are short of priests, we have too many parishes which have little or no sense of mission or of participation in the New Evangelization, and we have too many regular abuses of liturgy and some truly dreadful, silly music. We have children and young adults who lack instruction in the faith because their parents are ignorant of even quite basic doctrine.
God has sent us the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, through the initiative of a great pope and the courageous response of men prepared to lead their flocks home to Rome.
I am glad to be stitching tapestry kneelers for Pembury. But I would relish being able to do more for the Ordinariate and the possibilities that it brings.