A packed church for Confirmation, people crowding in to stand at the back and up the side aisles. Children dressed in white kneel one by one before the mitered prelate to receive the anointing with oil. A choir sings, “Veni, sancte Spiritus…”
A typical Catholic parish scene. Yes, but there are subtle differences. The psalm during the first part of the Mass is the Miles Coverdale translation from the 16th century, sung to a traditional Anglican chant. The parish notices and newsletter echo with words and phrases found in the Church of England: “Sunday school,” “churchwardens.”
This is the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and the first big parish Confirmation in a church that is in ordinariate care. Some 30 children and adults are being confirmed here at the Church of the Most Precious Blood in London, by Msgr. Keith Newton, the ordinary.
At a time when Mass attendance is dropping across the West, the ordinariate can fill churches—and bring back people who have lapsed. Precious Blood Church is on the south bank of the Thames close by London Bridge, and attracts good numbers for weekday Mass as people cross the river from the City as well as come from the Borough Market and nearby shops and offices. Sunday Masses are now well-filled, with a children’s choir—singing English Mass settings such as Merbeck, as well as Latin chant—and a thriving Sunday school. On Thursdays there is Evensong, and Mass celebrated in the Ordinariate Form, with prayers that are familiar to Anglicans brought up on the Book of Common Prayer: “We do not presume to come to this thy table trusting in our own righteousness…”; “But Thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy…”
Most of the children being confirmed recently at Precious Blood are not from formerly Anglican families. They are just local Catholics—and, as this is London, that means a great mix of races and nationalities. What the ordinariate has done is to mobilize and refresh a parish that has been given into ordinariate care, and local people have responded with enthusiasm to this new missionary zeal.
When Pope Benedict XVI established the ordinariate by inviting Anglicans to come into full communion with the Catholic Church and bring with them their traditions and their patrimony, what he effectively did was to release into the Catholic Church a considerable amount of energy and talent. Anglicans who had been working hard to try to uphold doctrinal orthodoxy in the Church of England had been kept busy—meetings, conferences, parish and deanery councils, and the General Synod all meant a great deal of writing and lobbying and planning and gathering of groups and passing of resolutions. The decision to accept the Pope’s invitation naturally brought all that to an end. But these people were also often the most active and dedicated in the Anglican parish—churchwardens, Sunday school teachers, organists, choir directors. Their energy and commitment now became available to the Catholic Church.
At Precious Blood, there is a naturalness about the renewal that has taken place since the parish was given into ordinariate care with Father Christopher Pearson as parish priest. Funds were raised to put in new heating, the church was given a wholescale and enthusiastic clean, the bells were rehung and now peal out daily for Mass and the Angelus. A Sunday school was established and in due course a children’s choir; the latter is extremely popular and involves considerable commitment and two choir practices a week.
This is a strong and lively parish. Friendships have been forged, and parish events and socializing are fun, crowded, and enjoyable. After the recent Confirmations, everyone poured out across the street to a night club, which willingly offers a room on Sunday mornings for celebrations that are too large for the parish room. Coffee and cake, speeches and snacks, a roar of talk and children tumbling about: a mix of Londoners that includes West Indians, French-speaking Africans, Ethiopians, Poles, Filipinos—and Irish and English.
Any parish is always a work in progress. The long lists of names on the War Memorial indicate how large the parish was at the time of the 1914-18 war. In those days, this was a busy industrial neighborhood: brewing, printing, and the railway network meant large numbers of working-class families, a good many of them Irish. Today the scene is different, the social mix is different, the whole way of life is different. But the Faith is ever-new, and today the pews are filled anew.