Members of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in England attend Pope Benedict XVI's general audience in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican in February 2012. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
“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 Tomlinsonthen vicar of a large Anglican church in Tunbridge Wellsresponded 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 Edhaving been ordained a Catholic priest after
due discernment, study, and acceptancehad 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
communitythrough the St. Barnabas Society, which for more
than 100 years has supported Anglicans making this journeyensured 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 servicesjoint events in Christian Unity Week and for
Christmas carols and so onhave of course become a standard part of life. Some
generous thinking might have been able to produce arrangements in which the
Ordinariatecherishing so much of an Anglican patrimony that is of value, in
hymns, music, liturgy, and traditionscould 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 Streeta
center of London Catholic life in recusant timesis 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.