The US ordinariate has only just been founded: but already they have a principal church. Ours doesn’t: why is that?

I am beginning to put two and two together and not making four; or, to vary the cliché, I am beginning to smell a rat: I refer to the unfolding story of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Others, I know, have beat me to it in this particular process. But I am a simple soul, I tend to look on the bright side and try to avoid paranoia where I can. I hope I am wrong: but I am, all the same, beginning to wonder if the warm support with which even quite unexpected people in our hierarchy (like Bishop Hollis) greeted the establishment of the ordinariate this time round (you will remember the extreme hostility with which they squashed the same basic idea in the 90s) was really as wholehearted as it seemed at the time: or were they simply saying what they knew the Pope wanted them to say, but without any real belief in the basic idea? Or maybe with the idea, this time, of getting the whole thing under way and then squashing it?

Let me direct your attention to a couple of websites, which seen together provide food for thought. The first is the website of the new US ordinariate, the Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter, a name which splendidly makes very clear a basic characteristic of most Anglican converts these days: their loyalty to the Magisterium (undoubtedly one reason for the open hostility of most of our hierarchy to the idea of an independent Anglican Catholic jurisdiction 20 years ago). The newly announced US ordinary (who has been a friend of mine for 30 years; I first knew him in Oxford when he was doing his DPhil) is Fr Jeffrey Steenson, a distinguished Patristics scholar and the former Anglican bishop of the Rio Grande. From his website, I perceive that he is getting very full support from the American hierarchy in more than just fine words: he already, for instance, has a “principal church”, in other words, a sort of cathedral, which was immediately designated as such on the erection of the US ordinariate, by the Cardinal Archbishop of Houston, Texas, where he will be based.

The second website is the Ordinariate Portal, which reports on our own English ordinariate, that of Our Lady of Walsingham. In October, this reproduced without comment the following from an article which appeared on Damian Thompson’s feisty Telegraph website:

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I was disappointed to miss Cardinal Levada’s visit to London for a fundraising event for the ordinariate sponsored by the Catholic Herald …. It would have been good to hear the Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith remind us that the ordinariate is the Pope’s own project and an “important new structure for the Church”.

But, talking of important structures, could I just ask: where is the London church that will serve as the ordinariate’s headquarters? The question was already a pressing one when I raised it back in January. The failure to address the matter is so morale-sapping that I really can’t blame those Anglicans who are hesitating to take the plunge. This isn’t the fault of the ordinary or Cardinal Levada; as usual, the blame lies with the slow-acting Bishops of the Benzodiazepine Rite based in Eccleston Square. If they don’t find a church soon, there won’t be a second wave of Ordinariate converts. And you have to ask: do they really want one?

It’s a very good question, which I am now in my slow-moving way beginning to ask myself. Damian Thompson was asking it from the outset. He repeated the question yet again last month: this time, the Ordinariate Portal reproduced his article in full, under the headline “Damian Thompson: The English bishops are trying to smother the ordinariate. How long will Rome tolerate this situation?” It’s a headline which doesn’t surprise one much when one reads it on Mr Thompson’s blog; it’s his style, and he has been from the beginning the principal scourge of the English hierarchy in general and of Archbishop Nichols in particular. But it’s one thing to see a headline like that in the Telegraph: entirely another to see it in the Ordinariate Portal. Have a look at it: it’s very striking, as is the article which follows.

It prompts the question: what is the policy of those running the Ordinariate Portal; is it just to reproduce everything that appears online about the ordinariate? I doubt that, because there’s lots of such material that isn’t reproduced in it. Or, do they repeat material sympathetic to them, material, furthermore, with which they to some extent agree? In this particular case, it prompts the question: does the leadership of the ordinariate agree that the English bishops are trying to smother it? It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if they were: it’s what they did 20 years ago after all, and they haven’t changed that much; many of the same bishops, indeed, are still there. Does the leopard change its spots? Last time, they killed the idea of people crossing the Tiber in parish groups, but put in place fast-track provisions for the recycling of convert Anglican clergy: they got quite a lot of high-quality priests that way without having to bother with their laity: this mitigated the effects of the shortage of indigenous vocations no end. Are they up to the same tricks again? This time, just let the whole thing fall flat, then absorb the ordinariate clergy into the local diocese, and their laity into the local parishes?

Let me make it clear: I have deliberately, in the course of writing this article, not asked, even off the record, any of the ordinariate monsignori if they agree with what I might call the “Thompson scenario”. I say this in order to protect them from the accusation that I am knowingly reflecting their views. But if this analysis is correct, if the bishops do have some such strategy, and if the ordinariate’s leaders do think so, then it really is time for Rome to intervene. I hope that Archbishop Mennini is keeping a close eye on all this, and that he is still Rome’s man and hasn’t, like so many of his predecessors, gone native, seduced by the “creamy English charm” (Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead) of whoever is the current incumbent of Archbishop’s House, Westminster. Damian Thompson claims that “The Vatican is well aware that the English bishops are trying to smother this initiative”. If so, as he comments, “much depends on the Pope’s state of health… The enemies of the ordinariate are counting on this pontificate coming to an end before the structures of the English ordinariate are set in stone.” Well, I suspect (certainly, I pray) that the Pope has plenty of life left in him yet: it isn’t time for him to go, he has too many things to complete. And this increasingly looks like one of them.

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