It’s been six years. I remember sitting in a guest house at EWTN in Alabama—where I was working on a new history-and-traditions series at the time—and watching, via my computer, a great event unfolding in my native city of London. And I thought: “This is history…but because I know the Cathedral so well it looks just, somehow, ordinary!” And somehow “ordinary” was exactly the right words because—forgive the pun—I was watching Msgr. Keith Newton being established as the ordinary of the newly-created Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. He and two other former Anglican bishops were ordained as Catholic priests in Westminster Cathedral; he was appointed as ordinary and the other two as vicars-general. Msgr. Newton is the ordinary—with the rank and style of a bishop—because he cannot actually be a bishop, as he is married (to Gill, who, incidentally, has since become a good friend and with whom I have been carol-singing at London Bridge railway station).
It was indeed history—Anglicans being invited to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, entering as groups along with their pastors, bringing with them their Anglican traditions in music and liturgy and pastoral practice. Pope Benedict XVI had called out “to groups of Anglicans”—Anglicanorum Coetibus—with an invitation that had come as a result of Anglican pleading. With the ordination of women in the Church of England, it looked as though hopes for reunion had ended, a door slammed shut, years of well-intentioned dialogue ending in a fruitless void. But Benedict salvaged something and opened a new chapter of history. For those who wished to come into full communion, a new door opened.
Six years on, it’s worth looking at how things are going.
It didn’t get off to an easy start, and things still are not easy. An initial press conference made a cheery show of goodwill, with the archbishops of Canterbury (CofE) and Westminster (RC) making friendly noises. But it was uncomfortably clear that there was an air of discomfort. After all, this was an effective acknowledgement that the CofE had moved into a sort of backseat position as far as Rome was concerned. Like it or not, the Anglicans were now going to be spectators and friendly visitors in Rome, not potential members of the family. The ordination of women, so far from being a minor issue (“What’s the problem? Women can be bus drivers and Prime Ministers can’t they? So why not priests?” a dear Anglican friend said to me in genuine puzzlement), was and is a central issue. The Catholic Church cannot ordain women and this has been reaffirmed clearly by Pope Francis, affirming the clear message of Pope St. John Paul—and of the unchangeable practice of the Church right back to Christ himself and his Apostles.
The creation of the Ordinariate undoubtedly ruffled some feathers. It also proved difficult to explain to some cradle-Catholics. People asked—and still ask—“But are they real Catholics?” Over and over again, it has to be emphasized: yes, they are. A priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham is a Catholic priest, just like a Dominican priest, or a Franciscan one, or a Jesuit one. They celebrate the Roman Rite of Mass, but if they wish they can use the Ordinariate form, which incorporates some prayers from the Anglican tradition, in words familiar to Anglicans over four centuries of use in England’s churches. And they can incorporate in their ministry some expressions and traditions from Anglicanism—Evensong, Sunday School, Harvest Thanksgiving…
In Devon, an energetic local Ordinariate group led by Father David Lashbrooke raised funds and bought a Methodist church that was due to close down; they are now transforming it into a busy little Catholic church dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham and St. Cuthbert Mayne ( a local Catholic martyr of the 16th century). In Kent, Father Ed Tomlinson and his team took on a small Catholic hall which served as a Mass-center on Sundays; it’s now a thriving church with a lovely sanctuary, statues, devotional side-chapel, and packed pews—with a new hall built alongside for the Sunday School and other activities. At London Bridge, the rather run-down Church of the Most Precious Blood was given to Ordinariate care; it now has a new floor, new heating, a new confessional, beautiful vestments, a children’s choir singing chant—and is full every Sunday and with a good weekday congregation. Processions now go through the streets in May—carrying a statue of Our Lady, of course—at Corpus Christi, at the Assumption, and at the feast of Christ the King. I was invited last spring to celebrate St. George’s Day in the village of Gainford in County Durham; here the lovely Catholic church in the heart of the village is now in the care of Father Ian Grieves of the Darlington Ordinariate, and I have never celebrated St. George in greater style or with more gusto. And every year in Holy Week, Ordinariate priests from across Britain gather at the central London church at Warwick Street near Piccadilly Circus for the Chrism Mass, with the papal nuncio in attendance, and lavish music from a splendid choir.
But there has been coolness from some quarters—Catholic quarters: “These people say women can’t be priests,” said an indignant voice at one Catholic gathering where the subject of the Ordinariate came up. “So does Pope Francis,” I reminded her. Then there is an innate conservatism of many Catholics—not without value in its way, but it can take strange forms: “Why can’t these people just become, well, normal—I mean, just join a parish and merge in?” Well, why do we need anything new, ever? Why didn’t Mother Teresa stay in her perfectly good convent and continue teaching geography to girls at a Calcutta high school? Why did John Paul invent World Youth Day? Why have a big pro-life rally every January in the USA and have people driving through the night to get there? Why don’t the Neo-Catechumenate just stop doing mission work?
I’m not sure where the Ordinariate is going next. The journey so far has required courage and faith. An Anglican clergyman seeking to lead his flock into full communion with the Catholic Church will lose his home, his status, his livelihood. And the flock—even though they disagree with current Anglican stances on women priests, same-sex “marriage,” the Eucharist, the nature of Christ himself, and more, have their own conservatism. One former Anglican who is now an Ordinariate member described the reaction of his parish when the issue lay starkly before them: “They just kept saying ‘But, Father, we are Anglicans. We agree with everything you’re saying—but we don’t want to become Roman Catholics.’ And then there’s the church building—they are very attached to it…” People are often also tribal: they have their own sense of identity and say things like, “My family has always been Anglican” (not strictly true, of course, given the realities of history, but…). There are nuances of identity that defy easy analysis. And sometimes people take positions that have a bit of absurdity about them, like the poor lady who told me she simply couldn’t go to church anymore because there was now a woman priest who talks about “gay rights,” but “the Catholic Church is something for other people. I just stay at home. And I’m rather unhappy.”
So things proceed slowly. Some Anglicans seeking full communion with the Catholic Church will quietly make their own decisions and join a local Catholic parish, following an RCIA course. Some Anglican clergy will opt simply to apply to become priests in the local Catholic diocese. But the Ordinariate has a special calling, fulfils a special need. Unwittingly, one of the things it has done has been to give something of a boost to cradle Catholics, who relish its contribution to good liturgical practice, good music, and a strong sense of the glory of the Catholic Faith.
When Msgr. Keith Newton spoke to Pope Benedict after the first couple of years of the Ordinariate’s existence, the latter took his hand after hearing reports of how things were going and said, “Just go forward in faith.” And I think they’ll do just that.