St Augustine’s Chair

Today is the memorial of St Augustine of Canterbury, and tomorrow is the 28the anniversary of Pope John Paul’s historic visit to Britain in 1982. This photograph from the visit shows the Holy Father reading the lesson at the ecumenical celebration at Canterbury Cathedral. At the top of the steps you see the famous Chair of St Augustine. That would be Archbishop Robert Runcie to the right dressed in white. One of the jokes about Robert Runcie was that he ‘nailed his colors firmly to the fence.’ At the time I thought Runcie was a rather limp Archbishop–a product of the English old boy system–a broad church liberal who dressed up as an Anglo Catholic when it was suitable to do so. In retrospect, he seems much better than those who followed him–poor old George Carey who was clearly out of his depth, and now Rowan ‘Animal’ Williams, who seems more and more fuddled and helpless as the Anglican Communion disintegrates around him.

How different this latest papal visit to Britain will be from Pope John Paul’s pastoral visit in 1982. In 1982 I had just finished my training for ordination to the Anglican priesthood and was in Oxford taking my final exams. (I have a faded photo somewhere of me with hair in sub fosc heading down to the examination schools with friends) The excitement of the Pope visiting Britain was not so great at Wycliffe Hall–the Evangelical Anglican college where I studied. As usual amongst Evangelicals the attitude was ‘so what?’ Nevertheless, it made an impact on me. John Paul’s obvious charisma, and the love with which he was greeted by the faithful put poor old Robert Runcie in the shade.Runcie met the pope once again, quite by accident when they were both on a trip to Africa. Runcie’s aide mentioned that the Pope was also in town and they had an informal get together. Runcie came away from the meeting rather jealous of the pope’s entourage. What always amuses me in Anglican-Catholic meetings is how the Anglicans put themselves up on a par with the Catholics and Orthodox: How they love to say, “There are three ancient branches of Christendom–Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglicanism.” Err, the Church of England certainly has splendid stuff about it (nice buildings–which are ours anyway) etc. etc. but numerically alone–not to mention theological issues–the Church of England is minute. In world terms the CofE makes up something like .5% of Christians.

But let’s not throw stones. I think the present Pope’s visit to England will be very different. Pope John Paul’s was an pastoral visit. It was loaded with ecumenical assumptions which no longer apply. I doubt very much if Benedict XVI will do much more than pay a private courtesy call to the Archbishop of Canterbury–drink tea, discuss the Muppets, exchange gifts and then pose for the cameras. Pope Benedict’s visit will probably be billed as an Apostolic Journey–the implication being that he is following in the footsteps of SS Peter and Paul, and that he comes as an apostle and a missionary. In other words, he’s walking where St Augustine walked, and Benedict the Pope will do so in the tradition of Augustine the Benedictine monk.

May he have great success and may Great Britain be great again as she returns to the ancient faith of her fathers.

  • francis

    I just love it when someone ends a piece of polemicism by saying "But let's not throw stones", as if to (a) deny that they were being polemical and (b) cut the ground from under any response.Don't worry, I've got better things to do than engage in polemical responses. But you might like to check your statistics, where most figures show around 3.5% to 4% of Christians worldwide to be Anglican. It may not change your argument (and one can in any case regard as questionable any Church's assessment of its own numbers), but let's at least try to be accurate, eh?

  • Romulus

    But you might like to check your statistics,Francis, Father's reference was to CoE, not all Anglicans worldwide — so I think his calculation is about right. But even if the Anglican percentage were many times greater it wouldn't alter the main point about the impudent, self-regarding silliness of Anglicanism congratulating itself as being of equal apostolic prestige as Rome and Constantinople (even the latter concedes a unique status to the Apostolic See). I love and admire the English for many things, but the established Anglican mythology isn't one of them

  • francis

    If the reference was not intended to be worldwide, then what was the point of stating the percentage "in world terms"? One might just as well say that "in world terms, the RC Church in England makes up something like .5% of Christians." Just as true, and just as pointless."Equal apostolic prestige" is not the issue – I don't think any Anglican branch-theorist has ever claimed that Anglicanism is anything other than the most junior of the branches. But it certainly claims to be a branch, by which is meant that it has inherited the fullness of apostolic faith and order. No doubt one could argue at length about this, and about how those claims may be in the process of being compromised by current actions of (parts of) the Anglican Communion; but I don't agree that is obviously "impudent, self-regarding silliness" to argue for the historical and theological defensibility of those claims, any more than it is impudent, self-regarding or silly for you to argue the contrary position.

  • Volpius Leonius

    Francis the good Father I believe is referring the worldwide membership of the group called the Church of England, which been as its an insignificant national church that isn't really even significant in its own national territory any more is not very much at all in comparison to the churches founded by the Apostles.

  • Volpius Leonius
  • francis

    "[T]he worldwide membership of the group called the Church of England" …What is that supposed to mean?The CofE is, by its very nature, not "worldwide", nor does it claim to be. It is, however, part of something that is worldwide.Again (reiterating the point) one might as well speak of "the worldwide membership of the group called the RC Church in England", with every bit as much (or as little) meaning.As to subjective assessments as to how "significant" one Church is in comparison to another: I said I wouldn't be drawn into polemical responses, and I want to stick to that. (Have you ever known anyone be converted by polemicism?) I will simply repeat, in case you missed it the first time, that Anglicanism understands itself to be, as to faith and order, in unbroken continuity with the Church of the Apostles, and it is to that – rather than any issues of "prestige" or "significance" (how notable that it is in those terms that you instinctively talk!) – that the notion of Anglicanism as a "branch" of the primitive Church relates.Unpolemically yours, Francis.

  • Fr Jay Scott Newman

    I visited Canterbury Cathedral for the first time on 29 December 1987, the Feast of St. Thomas Beckett. I arrived early from London and spent the whole day in the cathedral, and the highlight of the visit was Evensong sung by the cathedral choir. It was a splendid day in every way but one:At midmorning, I took the official tour of the cathedral, guided by a docent, and this involved stopping in the "Quire" right by the Chair of St. Augustine. Someone with no knowledge of Christian history (surely, now, a majority of Englishmen) could listen to the official story spouted on the tour and not know that anything worthy of mention happened in the 16th century. The whole thing was a patent falsification of history of the sort made infamous by commissars rewriting history to serve the Great Lie of their Maximum Leader, and to hear such lies told within spitting distance of the site on which Thomas Beckett gave his life in defense of the Catholic Church against the overweening ambitions of an English king was deeply disturbing.From that day forward I have had little patience for the official pieties of being nice to the Anglican Communion because the Church of England is somehow or other thought to be a different kind of Protestantism than that created by Luther or Calvin. Nonsense. Protestantism in Catholic drag is still Protestantism. And when the Church of England can no longer pay the electric bill for Canterbury Cathedral, perhaps a true Archbishop can once again sit in the Chair of St. Augustine.

  • Giovanni A. Cattaneo

    Well said Father Newman and may God bless you. Pray for England. Blessed Dominic Barberi may your passion bare fruit and turn England to its true nature.St. Thomas More Ora Pro NobisSt. Thomas Beckett Ora Pro NobisSt. John Fisher Ora Pro Nobis In nomine Patris et fillii et Spiritus Sancti.Amen.

  • Little Black Sambo

    But let's not throw stones.Indeed. You didn't say this till you had let off quite a volley of them.

  • Robert

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  • Ttony

    Dear Father: Robert Runcie's fairly wet outlook had its roots in the time before his ordination: he served in the Guards in WWII, earning a Military Cross for bravery and taking part of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

  • veritas

    francis said:"Don't worry, I've got better things to do than engage in polemical responses. But you might like to check your statistics, where most figures show around 3.5% to 4% of Christians worldwide to be Anglican. It may not change your argument (and one can in any case regard as questionable any Church's assessment of its own numbers), but let's at least try to be accurate, eh?"Yes, let's try to be accurate.As an ex-Anglican I know that the census figures for those who call themselves Anglican are meaningless. Why? Because the vast majority of Anglicans take no notice of their faith. Their record on church attendance is far worse than the Catholics (which is bad enough). Further…what do you mean by Anglican? High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Anglo Catholic or much more common – Liberal. They have NO real common faith, no single defined set of beliefs. Please don't tell me that the Book of Common Prayer or the 39 Articles define them. Each group either accepts of rejects those as they please. And don't dare start looking at their moral teaching. What do they believe?? Abortion, divorce, homosexuality, beastiality, pornography etc etc. They don't have any common moral stand on anything.

  • Ben Vallejo

    If a Church dumps 2000 years of tradition and ordains female priests and bishops, how then is it in unbroken apostolic tradition?