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The Ordinariate will help reconnect the English Church to its medieval roots

The Catholic Church in England has lost a precious tradition: of ministering to everyone living within the parish boundary

By on Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Ellesmere Manuscript: Chaucer's "povre persoun" embodies the medieval pastoral ideal

The Ellesmere Manuscript: Chaucer's "povre persoun" embodies the medieval pastoral ideal

In the early 1990s, when the former bishop of London and a group of other prominent Anglo-Catholics were in negotiation with a group of Catholic bishops – over the possibility of Anglicans being received into the Church in parish-based groups, rather than as unconnected individuals – the Tablet surmised what Pope Paul could have meant by his aspiration that an Anglican “patrimony” might be “united not absorbed” into the Catholic Church.

The Tablet summarised what the Anglicans concerned were hoping to bring into the Roman Catholic Church: it was, the paper thought, “their widely based evangelistic expertise, their English liturgical style (rather than an “English Rite” which hardly exists in reality), and their tradition of lay involvement”. The Tablet, as might have been expected, got it wrong. The tradition of lay involvement as it had evolved within Anglicanism – bringing in its train endless political activism (often highly divisive) surrounding elections to parochial church councils and diocesan and General Synods, all with their multiple layers of endless bureaucracy – was actually part of what they wanted to leave behind.
As for “evangelistic expertise”, where it existed, it was part of something larger. It derived from an aspect of the medieval Catholic Church which had survived into Anglicanism, despite all the ecclesiological and doctrinal rupture, and which was still a real and precious part of Anglican parish life which they were deeply reluctant to leave behind – which they wished, in effect, to “repatriate” into the English Catholic Church.

Anglican clergy had (and have) a profound sense that it is to everyone living within their parish boundaries that they were to minister. This derived only in a limited way from their knowledge that they were part of an Established Church. Much more fundamentally, it was part of a pastoral imperative inherited from the Catholic Middle Ages (when the English Catholic Church was known, it will be recalled, as Ecclesia Anglicana). Remember Geoffrey Chaucer’s “povre persoun” (or “poor parson”: “parson” is a Catholic description of a clergyman, not a Protestant one):

Wyd was his parisshe, and houses fer asonder,
But he ne lefte nat, for reyn ne thonder,
In siknesse nor in meschief to visit
The ferreste in his parisshe, muche and lite,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf.
This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf,
That first he wroghte, and afterward he taughte.

Nevill Coghill’s translation runs thus: 

Wide was his parish, with houses far asunder,
Yet he neglected not in rain or thunder,
In sickness or in grief, to pay a call
On the remotest, whether great or small,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a stave.
This noble example to his sheep he gave
That first he wrought, and afterwards he taught;

That has always been the personal pastoral ideal of an Anglican clergyman, whether “Catholic” or “Protestant’ by inclination: a ministry to everyone in the parish, in good weather and ill (though the motor car now makes the staff redundant). This ideal has been impossible for an English Catholic priest in modern times: the re-establishment of the hierarchy created a Church on the margins of English life, in which priests ministered to their own and were often objects of suspicion to non-Catholics. English Catholics behaved, it could all too easily seem to outsiders, not like members of the Universal Church with a message that was valid for society as a whole, but all too often as though they were offering a kind of chaplaincy for recusants or for immigrants and their descendants.
This is undoubtedly changing now in quite fundamental ways; but it has deep historical roots, which will affect the way in which many Anglican Catholics are now looking to the Ordinariate: it will also give Ordinariate parishes a special role within the English Catholic Church. I have written in this space of how one ex-Anglican parish in the early 90s, St Stephen’s Gloucester Road, had become – before it was closed down – not merely a way for a particular worshipping community to stay together but also an accessible way into the Catholic Church, one less strange and forbidding, less alien, than the local Catholic parish church. By the time this ex-Anglican Catholic parish closed, it had doubled its numbers; but many others had come into the Church or returned to it and then graduated from St Stephen’s to their local Catholic parishes: the true numbers of those who had entered by this means were actually much higher.
That is one part of the Anglican patrimony which the Ordinariate will bring, and it derives from an aspect of Anglicanism common to all Anglican traditions, Catholic, Evangelical or liberal. Tomorrow, I will describe a  characteristic unique to the Anglo-Catholic parish, one which helps to explain why a number of such parishes hope to find the way of staying together which the Ordinariate will offer them – a number which will be small at first (say, 20 or 30) but which will then, I believe, grow considerably over the years as the pioneers establish themselves and thrive.

  • Kvilhaugveien

    I wasn't aware that St. Stephen's, Gloucester Road HAD closed down…clearly, neither is the congregation.

  • W Oddie

    Don't be more stupid than you absolutely have to be. As I made perfectly clear in my pieceI was talking about the roman catholic parish which in the early nineties operated there. But of course you know that, you twit.

  • John Cundill

    I don't quite follow this. As ministers of the established church anglo catholic priests have a duty to minister to everyone in their parish be they, or be they not, members of the C of E. They are still regarded, although to a lesser degree than formerly, as being part of the historical fabric of their local communities. They have a duty to marry anyone who lives in the parish (all the Methodist side of my family were married in their local parish church) and to conduct funeral services for them. As anglican priests they offer the sacrament of Holy Communion to members of all other trinitarian churches. Those anglo catholic priests who defect to the ordinariate will be under no such obligation and will still be regarded by the majority of those living in their parishes, who can neither distinguish between nor are interested in minor liturgical variations, as papists and not part of the church and the social fabric to which their forbears belonged and which is a part of English history. Ordinariate priests will not be able to marry non catholics, although I suppose they might be able to bury them, and they certainly will not be permitted to welcome non Catholics, nor even Catholics who are divorced or married to divorced persons, to the altar to receive the sacrament. Ordinariate priests will find themselves ministering to a very small flock – not even to members of the wider Catholic Church with which they appear to want to have as little to do as possible.

  • W Oddie

    Of course, this is mostly true. But what I am saying is not that ordinariate priests and parishes will be able to operate in the same way as they did when they were still Anglicans, but that the Anglican pastoral tradition is something they will bring with them, and which will make the ordinariate a more accessible way into the Catholic Church than the often alien-seeming local Catholic parish. This has already happened, both in England, and in a different way in North America, where Anglican parishes have been 'crossing the Tiber' since the early eighties.

  • W Oddie

    Im sorry, that's unpardonably rude. I apologise.

  • W Oddie

    Im sorry, that's unpardonably rude. I apologise.

  • W Oddie

    Im sorry, that's unpardonably rude. I apologise.

  • Stephen

    A bit over the top…
    Accurate, but still over the top, nonetheless.

    Good man for apologizing.

  • Robert Tickle

    But surely it is the duty of EVERY priest, including Catholic ones- to minister to all. I am sure this is what william was intimating.