The ordinariate continues to move forward, in a way which is surprising many (but not me). I wrote recently that the three leading former flying bishops were rather talking down expectations, as one of them said to me, to “avoid frightening the horses”: in other words so as not to alarm the Catholic bishops by the number of priests and people likely to come. The idea was, I think, that while the whole operation is still in its early stages, it needs not to arouse the opposition of Catholic bishops suspicious about the whole thing (since it was certain Catholic bishops who shot down any such idea in the early 1990s).
But I wonder if such caution over episcopal hostility isn’t, today, turning out to be unnecessary. Two interviews over the weekend, one with Fr Keith Newton, the first ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham (couldn’t some more euphonious title be invented?), and the other with Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood, show first that from the ex-Anglican side caution is being maintained, whereas in the mainstream, one Catholic bishop at least is if anything rather pleased by an unexpectedly large bag of ex-Anglican clergy in his diocese: after all, as he put it, “they [will be] very happy to help out doing locums for us in some of our parishes”.
Fr Keith Newton, the ordinary, first. (Incidentally, we already have ordinaries: every diocesan bishop is ordinary of his diocese. So Fr Newton will be in effect bishop of the new jurisdiction in every respect but one; he won’t be able actually to ordain priests. To make his position clear, he has been told that he should continue to wear his episcopal ring and pectoral cross: in the liturgy, he will wear a mitre and carry a crozier. He will also be a voting member of the bishops’ conference).
Fr Newton is still being very cautious about numbers: “We think,” he told the BBC, “there’s going to be about two dozen groups; the size of those groups varies from perhaps 10, to 50, to 60, to 70, but we won’t be sure about the numbers until people actually make that commitment, so I wouldn’t want to make any predictions about it particularly.” About the story that seven priests and around 300 people were likely to join the ordinariate in the Diocese of Brentwood alone, he said simply (to the BBC’s suggestion that these were “substantial” numbers): “Well I mean, again, I wouldn’t want to say if it was actually 300, I think that’s slightly optimistic and we’ll have to wait and see”. Of the clergy, he said “until they actually decide to resign then they’re still Anglican clergy, and none of them have publicly said they are going to resign”. Caution, caution, caution.
The Bishop of Brentwood, though, was not being so tight-lipped. Bishop McMahon said cheerfully: “Well it’s certainly true that in the diocese here we have the largest number of parishes who want to join the ordinariate. That is, we have six parishes: three in the London part of the diocese, and three in Essex. So altogether I think the number of parishioners is between two and three hundred.” Was he surprised? “I think the answer is yes. Because one had heard of individual numbers for each parish, but when you put them altogether, then, yes, it really adds up.”
“When you put them all together, then, yes, it really adds up.” It’s already clear that Fr Newton’s cautious “two dozen groups” for the whole country is an underestimate. By the end of the year, I predict that the numbers will be more than double that: and that after a period of consolidation, further growth will take place over the coming years. Those coming now are those courageous souls willing to face the uncertainty of all great enterprises in their early days. The clergy, in particular, in Bishop McMahon’s words, face “a very, very big move because they relinquish their present post, and that’s a very big thing, and [are] leaving some of their people – and that brings a lot of heartache – into a fairly unknown future, because, after all, this ordinariate has only just been set up, and so it calls for huge faith and huge trust because the future isn’t that certain.”
But once the ordinariate is less uncertain, once it has established itself, many of those now being left behind will undoubtedly follow. If I turn out to be wrong, I have no doubt that some of you will let me know about it. But I don’t think I am wrong. The BBC’s interviewer, Ian Wyatt, asked Bishop McMahon: “I know you don’t want to sound triumphalist about this, but this is a major transition, isn’t it?” Bishop McMahon replied simply: “Yes, I mean my word for it – it is a marking moment in the life of the Church… for the Pope to have set up, in response to their requests, this special ordinariate whereby they can bring something of their patrimony … is quite remarkable.”
I think we have seen only the beginnings of how remarkable a moment in the life of the Church it will, in the end, prove to be.