Last weekend, in London, three Anglican bishops and their families were received into full communion with the Catholic Church in a very public ceremony in Westminster Cathedral. Three Anglican nuns and some laypeople were also received. By Easter it is expected that the Anglican Ordinariate will have been set up, and up to 50 more Anglican priests will be received into the Catholic Church along with a significant number of laypeople.
This public reception is in marked contrast to the manner in which I, and many others were received into the Catholic Church in England in the mid 1990s. At that time “ecumenism” was still the main priority for the Catholic bishops of England and Wales as well as the Anglican establishment. There was a pact between the rulers of both churches that the defections to Rome would be low key. No one wanted to rock the ecumenical boat. Consequently, the publicity machines of both churches went into overdrive to downplay and minimize what was happening. In fact, in the mid 1990s there were not fifty Anglican priests who converted but 500. Some even reckoned the numbers to be between 750 and 1000. The reason it was difficult to establish how many of us converted to the Catholic faith at that time was because certain categories of Anglican priest didn’t register in the official tally. Retired clergy, clergy in minor posts like hospital chaplains and school chaplains or priests who were only ordained for a short time all failed to appear on the official lists. This was on purpose. Both the Catholic and Anglican hierarchy had done a deal that the numbers would be deflated, those receiving converts into the Catholic Church were told specifically to make the reception low key. Those of us resigning our livings and being received were told to keep a low profile. So, for example, my wife and I received private instruction at Quarr Abbey and were received on a Tuesday evening in the crypt in a very quiet and private Mass.
After the event the task of training us for ordination was dealt with on a quiet level in each diocese. No fanfare, no publicity, just a quiet work of putting us through our re-training and then getting us ordained. It was almost as if we had committed a social error by converting. If we committed a further social error by being a high profile convert clergyman we were ostracized by the Catholic establishment, kept at arm’s length and excluded in every way possible. So, for example, I was being put forward for ordination by one English Catholic bishop, but when I published The Path to Rome–a book of conversion stories–and asked him to write a forward he declined, and when I asked about ordination in his diocese, I received a brief note informing me that it was now impossible.
This was the world of English Catholicism fifteen years ago. Everything was done to stay in with the English Anglican establishment. Conversion was embarrassing and the idea of an ordinariate at that time was unthinkable. How things have changed! Now three bishops and fifty clergy are converting and they pull out the stops and have the Mass in Westminster Cathedral–the mother church of Catholicism in England; for this is not the embarrassed reception of disenchanted Anglicans, but a very public beginning of the Ordinariate, and what is going unsaid is the fact that under the papacy of Benedict XVI it is all but shouted from the housetops that the old ecumenism is dead.
This pope understands Anglicanism better than any other pope. He sees clearly that ecumenism with the Church of England is dead. The ordination of women, the consecration of women bishops, the rationalization of homosexual unions, the doctrinal apostasy and the openly moral degeneracy has led Benedict XVI to conclude that the new ecumenism is not a diplomatic building of bridges, but a bold establishment of a new kind of Anglicanism within the greater fold of the Catholic Church. The Ordinariate will begin small and it will be persecuted. There will be difficulties and defections. There will be many problems, but history will show that the Anglican Ordinariate will provide for the ultimate preservation of the Anglican patrimony.
All Catholics should watch this development with care and with prayer. Those Anglicans who are stepping out to pioneer the Anglican Ordinariate should be upholded in our prayers. The Anglicans often like to portray themselves as bold innovators and pioneers of the future, (We first had the liturgy in the vernacular and five hundred years later Rome followed) The real innovators are Pope Benedict XVI and the three bishops and their flocks who are, at last, coming home to Rome.