When the future Monsignor Ronald Knox first told a Catholic priest of his desire to convert to Catholicism, the reason he gave was that, in his exact words, the Anglican Church didn’t have “a leg to stand on.” He was promptly told to give the matter more consideration and return for instruction once he could explain why he had become convinced that it is the Catholic Church which, in the exact words of the priest, “has legs.”
With contemporary Anglicanism in a condition to make that of Knox’s day look as if it had enough legs to be a millipede, it is understandable that the shortcomings of what is still technically England’s state church feature prominently in accounts of the recently announced conversion to Catholicism of Gavin Ashenden, a former chaplain of Queen Elizabeth. Understandable, but perhaps unfortunate. Such an emphasis can make it appear that Ashenden decided to enter the Catholic Church merely to flee what has become a cesspool of modernistic pseudo-theology and social liberalism, something which he in fact did over two years before he became convinced of the truth of Catholicism. And such an emphasis also overlooks a bigger picture of which Ashenden’s conversion is a part, that of the continued existence of “traditional” (as opposed to modernistic) Christianity within British royal circles. For a traditionalist Anglican clergyman to become a Catholic is hardly unusual. More noteworthy, because it is less expected by casual observers, is the fact that such a traditionalist Anglican clergyman had been a royal chaplain in the first place.
Born two years after Elizabeth’s accession and ordained a priest of the Church of England in 1980, Ashenden’s life points to a history of theological traditionalism and of sympathy for the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. His seminary studies took place at London’s Oak Hill Theological College, one of England’s centers of conservative evangelical Christianity and, while a student there, he received part of his formation at a Greek Orthodox monastery located in the English county of Essex. He later earned a master’s degree in the psychology of religion at Heythrop College, a Jesuit school which had been founded in 1614 by English exiles in Belgium, who had moved to England during the French Revolution and was eventually incorporated into the University of London. A doctorate from the University of Sussex completed his education.
During his first decade as a member of the Anglican clergy Ashenden worked together with Thomas Smail, one of the leaders of the Protestant charismatic movement in the British Isles, and also smuggled Bibles and religious articles across the Iron Curtain, largely to aid Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communities. In 2003 he was promoted to canon of Chichester Cathedral and later made him an Examining Chaplain (a post which oversees elements of seminary formation) for the Diocese of Chichester by Bishop John Hind, one if his countries most prominent traditionalist Anglo-Catholics (the variant of Anglicanism which was embraced by the Oxford Movement and which is not to be confused with the Anglican Usage within the Catholic Church).
Such was Ashenden’s record when he was appointed to royal Ecclesiastical Household as an Honorary Chaplain to the Queen in 2008, a position whose title is something of an exaggeration since the duties attached to it, while minimal, include occasional preaching in the Chapel Royal. Though the days when all such appointments reflected no more than royal preferences are long gone, those familiar with Elizabeth’s religiosity will see Ashenden’s elevation as consistent with her own inclinations. In the 1950s she established what was to become a long lasting friendship with Billy Graham, the two occasionally visiting each other socially, with Graham not only celebrating one Easter with the royal family but also preaching in the queen’s private chapel during the day’s religious services.
Since 2000 the Christian message which Queen Elizabeth’s annually broadcasts to the nation has shifted from the platitudinous to expressions of religious commitment and to strong endorsements of Christianity. The reason for this change remains a matter of speculation. Some believe it has been a consequence of her mother’s death. It may also be an a-political way of promoting Christianity and opposing the secularism which has become rampant in recent decades, the religious content of her messages increasing the more religion is abandoned in western society. But, whatever the reason may be, the content of the messages reflects a much older religious commitment, one which the queen had not expressed earlier due to a typically English stoical reticence.
Despite the fact that most members of Britain’s royal family either keep their attitudes to religion private or are publicly non-devout, the queen is not its only member to take religious commitment seriously. Prince Charles can seem enigmatic, a regularly practicing (and ceremonially High Church) Anglican whose positive disposition towards other religions (most particularly towards Islam) approaches the syncretic, it would seem likely that he is among those Europeans (whose attitudes are little known in our country) who welcome with open arms adherents of non-Christian religions in the belief that they will prove allies against secularism rather than out of hostility to western culture and tradition.
Recent years have even seen the first conversion to Catholicism within the royal family for centuries when Lord Nicholas Windsor, a son of Queen Elizabeth’s cousin the Duke of Kent, entered the Church and thereby surrendered his (somewhat distant) place in the line of monarchical succession. He has since become an important pro-life activist, was appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life by Benedict XVI, and has written for First Things and Catholic Herald. His spiritual life is strongly influenced by the Benedictines of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Flavigny, a community which is committed to chanting Mass and the Divine Office in Latin and uses both the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms of the Mass.
Ashenden resigned as a royal chaplain in 2017 after an incident in which a Muslim read a passage from the Koran denying Christ’s divinity during a professedly Christian religious service at a cathedral in Scotland. Having built up a significant position in journalism as a presenter for the BBC and a columnist for the Jersey Evening Post, he was well-placed to protest such betrayals of Christianity but hampered by the expectation that members of the royal household will avoid public controversy.
Shortly after Asheden left the royal household the Anglican Church’s decision to allow women to become bishops finally drove him out of that church and into the Christian Episcopal Church, one of the smaller of among well over a dozen bodies founded by Anglicans and Episcopalians alienated by the modernism and liberalism within the churches of the Anglican Communion, which includes within its members the Church of England and the “mainline” Episcopal Church that exists in the U.S. In September of 2017 he became a bishop of the Christian Episcopal Church and put in charge of its missionary activities in Europe (his new church having until then confined its activities to our country, Canada and the Cayman Islands).
During over two years of being able to speak freely, Ashenden became a vocal supporter of those commonsense views which our extremist age denotes as “right-wing.” Examples include his description of Christ’s claim to preach an exclusive truth as “an antidote to inclusion” and his pointing out that “By imposing words like extremist…or radical…on Isis and its members, we deceive ourselves” because “a Muslim who is being faithful to Islam’s political and cultural ambitions…[has] not been radicalised” but is “behaving in a way that is faithful to Islamic values, theology and the example of Mohammed.” Fulton Sheen was just as blunt and Ashenden’s history proves that he is anything but a hard-line conservative loose cannon. Had he been the latter he never would have remained an Anglican as long as he did or later joined one of the more moderate Anglican break-away churches. He also never would have embraced the psychological theories of Carl Jung as a religious alternative with which to combat the theories of Sigmund Freud, until he eventually realized that Jung “used the language of God and spirituality but was really peddling an idolatry of the Self.”
Ashenden was obviously attracted by the extent to which the Catholic magisterium has, despite some recent ambiguities, maintained historical teachings in the face of contemporary secular liberalism but, as already noted, that is only part of the reason for his conversion. Two other major influences were his study of Marian apparitions and Eucharistic miracles, which, together with a study of the Apostolic Fathers convinced him of the truth of Catholic doctrines regarding Our Lady, the Eucharist, and the Mass. Praying the rosary became an important part of his spiritual life and he developed a devotion to several Catholic saints.
And as he studied the historical background of Protestant theology in greater depth, while also comparing it to Scripture and Patristic writings, he began to conclude that while the beliefs of the early Protestants were understandable as a reaction to widespread abuses within the Catholic Church and to widespread misunderstandings of Catholic doctrine, they were nevertheless at odds with Biblical teaching.
The final push which Ashenden needed came from Bishop Mark Davies, who is ordinary of the Catholic diocese within whose territory Ashenden has been living, who is one of his country’s most outspoken defenders of Catholic orthodoxy and who one day told Ashenden ‘Well, look you know you’re coming over sometime… Don’t delay! Come now, we need you.’ I couldn’t agree more.
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