Anglo-Catholics have one important pastoral opportunity that Roman Catholics don’t

From time to time, one blog leads on to another. Here’s one which leads on from two of my recent efforts. Firstly, from my recent post pointing out that the secular press, in their obituaries of Sir Jimmy Savile, totally ignored what he himself would have said was one of the most important features of his life, his Catholic faith. I mentioned in some sorrow among these a paper I first came across some 50 years ago, the Irish Independent. Back in those days, it was a very definitely Catholic paper, and would certainly have mentioned Jimmy Savile’s regular attendance at Mass during the week. “Truly”, I commented, “since the long-ago days when the Irish Independent published a series of booklets on the Catholic faith for children (my favourite — one of which I remember vividly since I much later based a children’s sermon on it in my days as a clergyman, to the fury of a very Protestant churchwarden—was entitled “Tales of the Blessed Sacrament”) there has been a great falling away from that faith, which makes me very sad indeed.”

I have been asked about that story by a correspondent: do I still remember it? What was it about? And why was the Protestant churchwarden so annoyed? Well, yes, I do remember it, very well as a matter of fact; I was reminded of its details once more quite vividly when I wrote my last blog, the one about the Pope’s bees; for this was a story featuring precisely the behaviour of a hive of bees, very Catholic bees, as you will see: if the Pope gets bees like these at Castelgandolfo, they should do very well.

An old woman was in desperate straits: her only livelihood, the honey from a single hive of bees, the one thing she owned, had dried up: the bees had for some reason just stopped producing honey. At the end of her wits, she resolved to do the one thing that she thought might make a difference, something she would never normally have dreamed of doing. At mass, instead of consuming the host, she hid it in her bag, took it home, and in great trepidation placed it in the hive. Within a few hours, there had been a miraculous effect on the bees, who immediately started producing honey in such quantities that it began to ooze from the hive: the old woman could scarcely bottle it fast enough.

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After a time, she became frightened: she went to her priest and confessed what she had done. With an altar party, the priest went to the old woman’s home to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament she had abstracted. As he drew near to the hive, he saw to his astonishment that from its entrance light was emanating. Looking inside, he saw that the bees had constructed, in wax, an altar on which was a wax monstrance containing the host the old woman had placed in the hive. In front of the altar, bees were flying up and down in adoration. The priest gingerly retrieved the host, and placed it in his own monstrance; it was then taken back to church in procession, with lights and incense. Around the montrance flew the entire swarm of bees, who accompanied it as far as the church door. The old woman was shriven; and, though she had done something of which she was always ashamed, her faith nevertheless had its reward; the bees never again failed to produce enough honey to give her a modest livelihood.

Well, that, in my own words, was, as far as I remember it the gist of the Irish Independent story. Today’s children are not told such stories, of course, and I do see that it was hardly in the Spirit of Vatican II (which had not happened when it was written).

But what was I doing, as an Anglican clergyman, telling such a story from the pulpit to a congregation of children? Well, the children concerned were preparing for their Confirmation, which in the Church of England meant also first Holy Communion. As one of those Anglicans who firmly believed in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament (naturally I also believed that we had valid sacraments) I was anxious that they should understand that in the Eucharist something real and not merely symbolic actually happened, that there was at the words of institution a real change in the elements, that Christ wonderfully became present in bread and wine.

It was probably a forlorn hope. That’s the kind of thing a child needs to hear consistently, not just in a single sermon. And of course, afterwards there was trouble. For, though the parish in which I was a curate had the reputation of being rather “High”, not everyone who attended it was: it was very far from being a hardline Anglo-Catholic parish. And that emphatically included one of the two “churchwardens”, a very definite protestant evangelical (an Anglican churchwarden is by way of being something of a big cheese among the laity; if a parish clergymen is unlucky, the churchwarden can cause him a great deal of grief). He was waiting at the church door. “That”, he said in fury “was transubstantiation! You were preaching transubstantiation from an Anglican pulpit!”

“Well”, I replied, “it wouldn’t have been the first time that has happened. And in any case, I wasn’t”. “Yes you were!” he almost shouted. “All right, then”, I replied, “define it. Define the word transubstantiation”. Of course he couldn’t, so I was able icily to extricate myself.

In the end, of course, I came to see that believing what I did, there was only one course of action open to me. I became a Catholic. But I have never forgotten those who gave me my beliefs, many of whom didn’t become Catholics (though many are now doing so, through the Ordinariate). The point about the Anglo-Catholic clergy is precisely that unlike Roman Catholic priests, they have the chance to preach the Catholic faith in a cold climate, to congregations many of whom have never heard it. And many of those who hear such preaching do come to realise that what they are hearing is true. That’s one reason why in this country so many lay Anglicans “cross the Tiber”: because of what they have heard from their clergy.

So never despise the Anglo-Catholic clergy. Maybe it’s true that, as a very stiff and very splendid old Catholic lady said to me when I tried to explain to her what I believed: “You can believe in the real presence until you are blue in the face. You don’t have priests and you don’t have the Mass.” All the same, I do believe that these men had and still have their place in God’s economy of salvation. My prayer for them is always that they will know when it is time for them to come safely home.

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