On coming home

Damian Thompson writes today that the era of Anglo-Catholicism in the Anglican Church is drawing to a close due to the forthcoming vote on women bishops in the Synod this week. According to Damian, Anglo-Catholics who are serious about their faith,will have already decamped leaving only what he describes as the ‘gold chasuble brigade’ i.e. those who like the liturgy of the Roman rite but not the meat of the Catechism. He also describes how the Ordinariate has not attracted most of the Anglo-Catholic laity and attributes this in part to the failure of the Catholic Church to provide the Ordinariate with a London church.

I’m not so sure he’s right on either score. I don’t think it’s fair to use the amusing biretta and lace trope (which does have an element of truth) when discussing matters of spiritual integrity. There are undoubtedly those who like the liturgy and outward trappings of pre Vatican II Catholicism but are very liberal in terms of Catholic teaching on sexuality and other matters; on the other hand there are those who genuinely yearn for reunification, who are well-formed, highly educated, theologically and morally literate who just cannot in good conscience sign the Catechism. I would hazard a decent guess that the former Bishop of Chichester, John Hind, is just such a man. Those who do not ‘Pope’ are not hypocritical or ignorant, all style over substance, simply that leaving home is not easy and takes much soul-searching.

There have been a few times online when I have seen decent men barracked and hectored that if they have any integrity they should convert. Such attitudes make me sad and angry in equal measure. Bullying and berating people is not the way to ensure conversions of heart.

I can only speak of my second-hand experience as the wife of someone who converted, though I was party and privy to Robin’s journey, being already a Catholic, I could not experience the turmoil in the same way. For me, it was blatantly clear that he should convert, but that was something he had to discern for himself in much prayer and thoughtful reflection, it was a decision between him and God, one in which I could have very little input. If I’m being entirely candid, on one level it would have suited me absolutely fine had Robin remained an Anglican clergyman. We had a lovely Rectory, a great parish, he was Freehold, a wonderful circle of friends and support, a pension scheme and lifetime security. We went to vigil Mass on a Saturday together so I could fulfil my obligation and then I would support him in the parish on a Sunday. I was being spiritually nourished, we had a good life, Robin was on Synod, conducted lay reader training, was part of diocesan vocations, school governor, trustee of a local charity, all in all was doing well, surely to throw all that away for an uncertain future was folly? I know both sets of parents were very uneasy about it all.

But all the while there was a nagging and niggling sense for me, that this was somehow dishonest. It became clearer and clearer that he needed to convert, that he wasn’t being honest with himself, with his parishioners and most importantly with God, but the impetus, the examination of heart and conscience can only come from deep within, no-one else can or should make those spiritual choices for you, plus we have to trust in God’s grace and the Holy Spirit. I wanted nothing more than the person who I love most in all the world to be in communion with me in faith, there is nothing more painful than being spiritually divided; of course I wanted him to receive all the richness and beauty of the faith, the graces and blessings of being a member of the one true Apostolic Church. Love is not selfish, it wants to share its joys with others, it will put the other person first regardless of the cost. But ultimately I could not substitute my will for his.

And yes, there was a cost, an enormous cost for us as a family and no doubt if I were a better, holier and more pious woman, I would have borne it a lot more unflinchingly, but when the eventual decision came, it was full of joy, our parish made Robin so welcome, but it was very bittersweet. We laid down our previous lives to take up a new one, which entailed much pain and sorrow. I know Robin felt like he was letting people down, deserting a group of people who he had cared for and ministered to over the past ten years and I felt like I was betraying those who had made me so welcome and loved when we got married.

We then, as detailed on this blog, had an incredibly testing two years whilst he discerned vocation and worked in the funeral industry, during which we doubled our number of children from two to four, I found a writing voice and struggled to come to terms with the swash and buckle of internet discourse and was subject to a series of vicious personal attacks, which was at times my only social contact with the outside world.

That’s not to deter potential converts, our story is not unique, every single Anglican convert’s wife has a similar tale to tell in terms of the impact upon their family life. One of the things that almost all mothers crave is stability and the opportunity to build a future for their children. One of the downsides of being any clergy wife, is that you have to accept that your husband’s vocation does not entail a guarantee of permanence. Moving house multiple times can be incredibly destabilising and losing one’s circle of real-life local friends and acquaintances, to move to an area in which you know no-one and can’t easily get out and about, isolating.

I was as supportive as I could be, I knew it was the right thing, but it was by no means easy and I was by no means a paragon of saintly virtue in serenely accepting the family turmoil or years of flux and uncertainty.

I’ve digressed, but the point is, that I was always 100% supportive of Robin. What about Anglo-Catholic clergy whose wives are reluctant to convert and/or support them? It’s an enormous ask and therefore denigrating the decision to put family stability first cannot be the correct way to go. Furthermore leaving one’s spiritual home can be an enormous wrench. I’ve never done it, but when C of E clergy are ordained, like their Roman counterparts they believe this to be a lifelong commitment and calling, in the same way as marriage vows. One cannot deny the affection for the spiritual tradition in which one was formed and it takes a lot of courage to admit there is no realistic prospect of reunification, to abandon your home and watch helplessly as it tears itself to pieces and moves further and further away from universal truths.

Crossing the Tiber is not the straightforward intellectual exercise that it might seem on paper, these are real people with real lives and a multitude of responsibilities to juggle. For the clergy there is the additional question of vocation. One has to accept that one’s former ministry was probably not wholly valid. What if one still feels called to priesthood? There is no guarantee that the Catholic Church will accept one as a candidate. What do you do if your life hereto has consisted of ministry, you have a hatful of theology degrees, huge amount of transferable skills yet are competing with people not only younger but with more relevant experience? All of a sudden you have to rebuild your life, whilst attempting to provide for yourself and any family. Was your former life a waste of time and meaningless?

All of which means than the decision to convert has to be made out of love in a spirit of joyful acceptance and not because one feels that the Church of England has left one with little other choice. There is a difference between choosing to ‘Pope’ and being pushed. Neither of us regret for one moment the decision to convert, there is no question that it was where The Lord was leading, our lives are spiritually richer, our marriage has been transformed and strengthened and if ordination does not take place, though crushing, we would still not look back. This is where converts need to be, it has to be a total laying down of a life in order to resume it and an acceptance that The Lord may not lead one back to the altar in the same way. It’s a total death to self and an acceptance than one may no longer be in ministry. The older one is, the more difficult that becomes, and if one is a young unmarried vicar, then one has to abandon any previous notions of marriage and family.

And this, I suspect is one of the reasons why perhaps not as many laity as some expected have joined the Ordinariate, because again, for many, leaving a former parish church and affiliated social groups is just too physically painful, not because of any shortcomings on behalf of the Ordinariate. I’m willing to bet as well that there are plenty of families where one party is far more enthusiastic than the others, Anglicanism famously encompasses a broad spectrum of views. An unsatisfactory status quo is psychologically more comforting than a leap of faith into the great unknown.

Is Anglo-Catholicism dead? I am no longer au fait with the latest developments, but it seems to be thriving as ever in its little pockets around the country, such as here in Chichester diocese. I guess it depends on one’s definition, perhaps life is untenable for Anglo-Papalists, but groups such as Affirming Catholics would claim otherwise.

I cannot stress strongly enough that the joy and happiness of conversion far outweighs any difficulties and every convert clergy family I know says the same. There is no looking back, no regrets and this is, I believe, because it was an independent decision to embrace Catholicism and not a convenient bolthole. There is a distinct difference. This is why Damian Thompson is wrong to want the legislation on women bishops to pass in its current format, with no provision worked out for conscientious objectors. We should not laugh or pass judgement on the consciences of those who remain behind to be alienated and vilified by their peers and brethren in Christ. It must be a horrific time for all. It could well have been my husband, I take no credit for his journey but undoubtedly one of the factors that led to his conversion was the actual experience of worshipping in a Catholic Church with his wife every week for two years. The unknown did not seem so scary, Christ called from the Eucharist, he pushed at doors and found them opening. Not everyone is so fortunate. I know many who are still grappling with their consciences.

For those Anglo-Catholics who do read this (I had the honour of being listed as a blog of note by New Directions) please know that you are all in our thoughts and prayers. If clergy or families want to contact us to sound out ideas or go through any practical realities, put your details in the combox (I won’t publish) and I’ll get in touch. There is help and support available, not least the St Barnabas society without whom this would not have been possible.

If Anglo-Catholicism is dead, it is a tragic time. The only reason for rejoicing is if this alleged death provides an impetus that leads people home. This is far more likely if we extend a lifeline out of caritas, condescending pre-judging and barracking is counter-productive. The body of Christ is wounded but never beyond repair. If history teaches us anything it is that any movement that feels suppressed eventually re-emerges stronger. We have to trust the Holy Spirit and pray for resolution and comfort for those whose futures currently lie in the balance.

15 thoughts on “On coming home

  1. Yes. The most difficult thing for the Anglican laity is leaving the actual building that they have worshipped in for so many years. It can often be an ancient building or at least a beautiful Victorian one, and often what they are expected to worship in is something of not much architectural merit from the 1960’s, with music to match!

  2. Its all about the buildings and the statues, isnt it Martin? Christ is just some little baby in the arms of the great female Mary. The queen of heaven. Too bad there is no queen of heaven in the bible. But that doesnt bother catholics. They have the catechism. That over rides the bible. i hope you dont find out the hard way that the bible is true and the catholic church is a liar.

  3. The first person I informed of my likely conversion was a lecturer who had dosed me on Bultmann. I told him that if what I had understood to be the words of the historical Jesus was in fact the tradition of the early Church, the only decent thing to do would be to accept both Scripture and Tradition. His only comment was to say that so long as it wasn’t for the liturgical colour, because that was about to change. I had none of that affection for the Anglican church you describe – as far as I was concerned it was unreliable and erroneous. The very fact which I know attracts some people, it’s capacity to accommodate every shade of belief and opinion, was anathema to me. I wanted Truth, particularly the Truth of eating His Flesh. The thing I do regret is the loss of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version and all the great music which is based on it. Mind you, I would probably have lost it anyway, because they reformed their liturgy around 1980. In both cases there is probably a Prayer Book/EF alternative available, but you have to travel to find it.

    I also, though I did not realise it at the time, considerably reduced my likelihood of marriage and added to my share of loneliness. The parish is which I was brought up was much more supportive of its congregation than is the Catholic one to which I have belonged since; communication is an acknowledged problem in the latter. I have come to the conclusion that one needs to have been to, or have children at, the local Catholic schools to be “in”, and I am not. Because of the sacramental nature of Catholic life, there are not the meetings for study and the like which give the Protestant an opportunity to mingle; I find Catholics don’t pay as much attention to education of adults in the Faith (about whioh I am tempted to hop on a soapbox, but I will refrain). The family as the domestic church leaves me cold, or at best sad; I don’t have a Catholic family.

    Maybe there is a need for a parallel theology that investigates the meaning of the Faith, and particularly mission, for those who neither come from nor become part of, a Catholic family. Does the advent and advance of secularization in the places where the Faith formerly imformed our culture mean that we need to develop of theology for “stand-alone” Catholics, because we can no longer rely on their having Catholics close to them? Maybe I am not so much left on the shelf as the pioneer of a new aspect ……

    1. I definitely sympathise with that Ann. Though a baptised Catholic, I am not a cradle Catholic in the traditional sense, as I was brought up in a family where my mother was lapsed/disaffected and my father a staunch supporter of Martin Luther. I attended our local parish church where he was organist until the age of 11 and had no real formation. A lot of Catholic culture was therefore alien.

      My eldest could not get into our local Catholic schools so again I sometimes feel out of the circle but then again having children is a great way into the church family. I think you could well be onto something and I doubt you are alone in your thoughts.

    2. Ann, I’m sorry to hear that your church offers no opportunity to study. We attend a weekly study group where we not not only benefit from receiving a deeper understanding of Catholicism but where we are able to reinforce the feeling of ‘family’. Save the loss of worshipping in a one-thousand-year-old church and those beautiful hymns I miss nothing of the Church of England.

      I kneel in prayer every week and thank God for the gift of Pope Benedict XVI.

  4. Looking back at my spiritual life now I can see that all those years I worshipped as an Anglo Catholic were but a journey. It was sometimes a difficult journey because there were times when I felt the Church of England wasn’t doing for me what I needed it to do. My wife and I had been married forty-five years before we converted – together – to the true church and throughout all those years of waiting she would often raise the subject of Catholicism. Conversion was something she wanted so much (but was a step she was not prepared to take without me) and she waited patiently until the time was right for me. That time came a couple of years ago. At the age of sixty-eight my journey came to an end and I can honestly say that my love of Christ has blossomed into something very special indeed.
    I thank God every day for helping me on my journey, and for pointing out the roads that led me where I am today.

  5. Thank you Caroline for a beautiful post which completely sums up the problems many Anglo-Catholics are facing in ‘coming home’. It sounds so easy from the ‘home’ side of this equation! But in reality many things can stand in the way.

    Having been brought up in the Anglo-Catholic Church, I was very attached to it as a child – and it has to be said, the building as well as the congregation… It’s amazing what the feeling of being in a resistance group does – you really feel very tightly bound together and if you walk away it can feel like a betrayal.

    Personally, I feel that Anglo-Catholicism, although unquestionably surviving at the moment, will probably not last once the current generation of Priests has gone – even though the Women Bishops issue has been booted down the road a little way, it still seems inevitable at some point. The thought of those little pockets of resistance disappearing makes me very sad.

    Although I am trying to find out more about Catholicism with a view to swimming the Tiber, I don’t want to leave out of protest about Women Bishops but out of a genuine and joyful wish to accept the entire authority of the Catholic Church – another issue I think is holding some people back. I’m not there yet, so for the time being I remain semi-detached from the CoE and feeling a bit homeless.

    If only the Reformation had never happened…!

    1. I hope you won’t think it presumptuous if I recommend some reading. Newman’s Apologia is really the definitive text for converts if you haven’t already read it.

      I found some of the American apologists to be of the most help when I first started my adult journey back to Catholicsm. Scott Hahn, Karl Keating and Jimmy Akin were particularly influential.

      In addition you might want to check out the Catholic Answers podcasts http://www.catholic.com/radio/podcast which I used to download and listen to in the car or have in the background. They were invaluable.

      Good luck and God Bless.

      1. Thank you Caroline – not presumptuous at all! Those are really helpful suggestions as at the moment I’m not entirely sure where to start (except with a Bible and a Catechism, I have both of those although not yet the time to read them!).

        Your family’s journey sounds harder than anything I could imagine, I guess the uncertainty above everything must have been a huge challenge. I hope your husband is able to continue his priestly vocation within the Catholic Church.

      2. Our journey was hard temporally, not spiritually and probably worse for me as I then had three pregnancies in quick succession, with no idea as to where we may eventually end up and unable to plan beyond the very short term.

        Spiritually it was wonderful. I tried to respond on Mark’s blog, but another good programme to listen to is EWTN’s ‘The Journey Home.’ I think by reading and immersing yourself in apologetics the way forward will soon become apparent. 🙂

  6. Thank you very much for this wonderful post. So much of it describes what we went through. So much silliness has been said about this and the living of it is very different from media soundbites and the internet rants.

    The thing about buildings gets very tedious. I don’t think anyone will make their decision on whether they are being called to come into communion with Rome, and in which form, because of the issue of buildings. For us some of us in the Ordinariate, being in a borrowed building has been a very freeing experience. Leaving the people behind was the most difficult thing for us. The community aspect of many Anglican churches is one of strengths. When you travel, spiritually, with a vibrant, faithful group of people, leaving them to follow God’s call is agony.

    I have heard it said that the most important aspect of the discernment process is how much flexibility and suppleness we have when we fall into the hands of God. I think it is safe to say I had none. Stiff as a board. Well maybe an occasional flexibility, when no-one was looking. And yet that painful letting go of a specific community, of an aspect of self-image, of home and security has brought about some unexpected fruit. For me, some of this was because I craved the known and was scared of the unknown, and frankly, sometimes alien. God’s invitation to me was to trust and follow. I am glad I am on the other side of that particular process. It has deepened my relationship with God in unexpected ways.

    1. What was hardest for me was the uncertainty and disruption. I wanted to be able to settle, to ‘nest’ as it were and yet everything was so short term.

      I still have no idea where we will be living this time next year or where the children might go to school, but we recently moved house again which has relieved a lot of the daily pressure and stress.

      1. Yes the ‘not knowing’ is very difficult and I think you have had to put up with it for a long time. Very draining, particularly when you have a young family to look after. I’m glad your move has helped relieve things. We’ll continue praying for you over the next few months.

  7. Though I have never been an Anglican I am very fond of the Church of England. The historic elements of the Anglican Patrimony namely the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible are part of the literary and cultural heritage of all English people even us Catholics. With the exception of the Mass there is nothing in the ceremonies in the BCP which (to my untrained eye) seem UnCatholic and Evensong is my all time favourite Christian service and one I would love to see taken up by the Catholic Church in England. Also why don’t Catholic Churches offer the Anglican service of “Nine Lessons and Carols” at Christmas Time ?

    The Ordinariate has already issued A Funeral Service and a Wedding Service based on the beautiful words of the BCP and I hope that these services get used by Non Ordinariate Catholic Priests. Catholics in England are not Anglicans but we are English and we have a responsibility towards as well as a right to the best of Anglicanism

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