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‘What we asked for is what we got’

Former Anglican bishop Andrew Burnham talks about the car journey to Rome that inspired the world’s first ordinariate

By on Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Andrew Burnham at the launch of his latest book, Heaven and Earth in Little Space                                                            Photograph by James Bradley

Andrew Burnham at the launch of his latest book, Heaven and Earth in Little Space Photograph by James Bradley

Last September Andrew Burnham was waiting for Cardinal Newman’s beatification Mass to begin at Cofton Park. He was intrigued by the idea of VIP loos in the middle of a field, so he went to investigate.

“The grass was very slippy,” he recalls. “But even more slippy were the things that they had placed over the grass so that one didn’t slip. On the way back I just skidded. My feet disappeared from under me and I fell down on my back, first landing on my wrist and smashing it.”

A nurse arrived and told the then Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet that he probably would be stuck in casualty for four hours. He decided to spend those hours at the papal Mass instead.

“So she bound up my wrist extremely tightly,” he says, “and I went back to my row where I was sitting, right behind Jack Sullivan’s family. And there they were and there we all were in all our variety: the Sullivans celebrating his miracle and me nursing my anti-miracle.”

Mr Burnham, as he is at the moment, was received into the Catholic Church on New Year’s Day. He is expected to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday, becoming one of the first three members of the world’s first personal ordinariate. Arguably, if it were not for him the ordinariate might never have happened.

When I meet him in Oxford on the Epiphany he is enjoying his brief period as a Catholic layman. His brown and white New College scarf and copy of The Catholic Herald are props so that I will recognise him now that he wears slacks, a shirt and a dark jumper instead of clericals.

For the past 10 years he has been a Provincial Episcopal Visitor, or “flying bishop”, for the Archbishop of Canterbury, serving the needs of Anglo-Catholics who were unable in good conscience to accept the ordination of women. As an Anglo-Catholic, Burnham had also heavily invested in the idea of unity with Rome. This seemed less and less likely as Anglican ecclesiology shifted and by April 2008 he decided to take a trip to Rome for his 60th birthday.

Burnham suffers from claustrophobia so doesn’t fly easily (“one of the ironies of my last job”) but felt a pressing need to go to the Eternal City. Together with his chaplain and driver, he travelled across Europe in “a little charabanc”, stopping in Canterbury and Beaune, with the community of Notre-Dame de Laghuet just outside Nice, before heading down to Florence and from there to Rome. He had never been that far before. His family flew out to join him.

Deciding that he might as well use the opportunity to “sort it all out”, Burnham asked if he could see someone at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and was surprised to be told that Cardinal Walter Kasper, the then Vatican ecumenical czar, would see him. Applying also to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he found himself scheduled to meet the prefect, Cardinal William Levada. The Rt Rev Keith Newton, the Bishop of Richborough, flew to Rome to join him. In the meetings, curial officials assured them that they would “be

The flying bishops remained in contact with Rome. But Burnham insists that neither he nor Bishop Newton were responsible for the publication of Anglicanorum coetibus, the Apostolic Constitution providing for the creation of personal ordinariates for groups of former Anglicans.

“We weren’t consulted on the contents of the document,” he explains, “and we didn’t know what it said until just before it was published, 18 months later.”

Later in the interview he says: “What we asked for is what we got, which was, ‘is there a way in which we can as groups be incorporated into the Catholic Church?’ The answer we heard right from the start was ‘No’. Every individual person who becomes a Catholic has to become a Catholic. You can’t become a Catholic because everybody else on your street is becoming one. So everybody has to make an individual conversion and everyone has to subscribe to the Catholic catechism in so doing. But people can do this as groups and they can preserve their identity before and after individual conversion.

“Our vision was that whole parishes would go over. And because the whole parish was going over then obviously the vicarage and the church hall and the church would sometimes go with them because otherwise they would be empty and unsupportable.

“But in fact that’s not what is happening,” Burnham says. “The Church of England has not been entirely dismissive of the idea but has raised the obvious difficulty: parish churches are there for the vast majority who seldom or never attend as well as for the congregations who do. And the Catholic Church has very sensibly said: ‘We’re not after your property.’

“So the result of that is that our pioneering groups are essentially atypical. They are priests and groups who are prepared to give it all up. The priests are prepared to give up their stipends, their houses, their pensions.”

As a boy, Burnham already knew he wanted to be an Anglican priest, but decided to read music at university. After three years at New College as a music student, between 1966 and 1969, he began his theological studies in a time of intellectual turmoil. It all went hideously wrong, he says, as soon as he started reading theology because he stopped believing it.

So instead he taught music and eventually the music became more and more important. But in his early 30s he “decided that it was all true after all” and became a non-stipendiary clergyman, continuing with his music. He would conduct Christmas carols and Messiah at the Royal Concert Hall, London, in his dog collar.

After getting married in 1984, he decided to become a full-time Church of England clergyman and became the curate of Beeston in Nottingham less than six months later. He went on to become vicar of St John the Evangelist in Carrington, where he stayed until 1994.

“By that stage I was looking to become a Catholic but it wasn’t clear how that would work out with a wife and two small children,” he says. “I felt that I couldn’t really carry on being the local line manager for the C of E. But there was a job at St Stephen’s House teaching liturgy and mission and being vice principal and I took that up in January 1995.”

In 2000 he became Bishop of Ebbsfleet at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s request because he was “buying into seeking Christian unity with a group of people”. Despite health problems including a nasty bout of pancreatitis and heart disease, he built Ebbsfleet into a fully fledged diocese, writing a monthly pastoral letter, setting up a council of priests, a lay council and a lay congress. He also set up deaneries, organising his clergy for pastoral care in consultation with his archbishop.

“I’m very proud of all that and it was all very good,” he says, “except that at the end we couldn’t all move forward together, which is the sadness. Partly it was because some priests are too afraid of doing it. Partly it was because of the issue of buildings. Partly it was because for congregations, provided they’ve got that nice Bishop so-and-so and that nice Father so-and-so, the ecclesiology is neither here nor there. And partly it was because the really vigorous parishes, of which there were some, don’t grow because people debate women’s ordination, gay marriage or any other issues of the day. They grow because they simply get people coming together as a community.”

I ask Burnham how he has been preparing his lay people and clergy for the ordinariate. “We haven’t been in a position to recruit at all,” he replies, explaining that it would have gone against his mandate as an Anglican bishop to do so. Instead, the ordinariate has widely been a movement lead by lay people, with the clergy acting as chaplains.

His idea of the ordinariate seems fairly porous.“In order to function, the ordinariate clergy will want to – and have to – work in the Catholic dioceses,” he says. “Some of them will be doing specialist jobs like school chaplains, prison chaplains, hospital chaplains, and some of them will be simply mucking in with the local diocese, helping ease the shortage of priests. So there’ll be thorough intermingling.

“Just as in any diocese there are clergy where you look in the handbook and you are somewhat surprised to find they are a White Father on loan or actually they’re a Benedictine who isn’t in their mother house. You will find that there will be ordinariate priests serving in the diocese.”

After lunch, Burnham takes me to the Oxford Oratory to show me the Christmas crib, which he says he wants to share. We look at the beautifully lit Nativity in the church where he will celebrate his first Mass as a Catholic priest on Sunday.

“It’s all true, you know,” he whispers to me.

Full transcript of the interview here

  • http://twitter.com/RCYouthWorker Jack Regan

    Fascinating article :)

  • Dorothy Crozier

    A lot more people years before did the work for this. Not Mr Burnham. Oh and by the way Andrew, they are NOT giving up their pensions. What a stupid thing to say.

  • DRisebrow

    Since 1969, more than 1500 English churches have been declared redundant. Of these, approximately 900 have been turned into libraries, museums, sports halls, residences, or used for commercial purposes. Surely some of the redundant churches that remain could be saved from ruin by turning them over to the ordinariate, and the Church that built them in the first place.

  • Neville DeVilliers

    I’m surprised many of those libraries and museums, etc. weren’t purchased by the Catholic Church, instead of having built so many concrete boxes over the years. In the U.S.A. Catholics have been looking enviously at beautiful Anglican churches for years and years.

    I hope the vestry of these churches, if they should transfer to the Ordinariate, will permit these churches to be taken with them. Instead of having to settle for the disappointing churches the Catholic Church has been building until recently.

  • A.c.w. Ryan from Canterbury

    A good article but just one comment. The heading says that + Burnham’s trip to Rome “inspired the world’s first ordinariate”. It is only fair to point out that the ++ Hepworth of the world-wide Traditional Anglican Communion (“TAC”) visited Rome with the approval of his church on a similar mission in Oct. 2007 before + Burnham visited in 2008. TAC has 20 or so parishes in England joining Catholic Church about Easter 2011. TAC also partly inspired the ordinariate.

  • Dorothy Crozier

    Agree – but Father Christopher Colven was doing this back in 1992.

  • Aging Papist

    The beauty of creating the Anglican Ordinariate is that it will be a place of refuge more for Roman Catholics than it will ever be for Anglicans. The pope’s “Anglicanorum coetibus” is going to have the unintended effect of puncturing the grand myth perpetuated by traditionalists throughout the English speaking world that Catholics are so fed up with the Mass of Paul VI ,as it has been presented to them since 1970, that they’ll embrace the TLM.

    Wrong, since 2007, that idea has been tested and found to be entirely without foundation. Bishops are dragging their feet to implement the motu proprio, but there is nothing they can do to stop Catholics from switching to an Anglican Ordinariate parish. Thanks to Pope Benedict’s brilliant tour de force, we will soon have, thanks to Father Burnham, a far superior English musical tradition enshrined in the Ordinariate. A body made up of parishes to which Latin rite Catholics will flock in the hundreds of thousands or even the millions.

    These parishes will be warmly embraced by many Catholics who today cannot find in their own parish anything approaching this almost 500 year old patrimony. They may not like the Novus Ordo, but now they’ll have an option to the TLM Mass. Efforts, since 2007 following Benedict’s motu proprio to have the TLM introduced in parishes, will be slowed even further.

    The Anglican Ordinariate, on the other hand, with beauty, tradition, AND ENGLISH is a life raft for English speaking Catholics the world over. The foundation for a new western Catholic spirituality.

    The Ordinariate will prove to be a God-send for Catholics even if it never drew another Anglican across the Tiber.

  • Lucywillmore

    A new letter from St. Peter and St. Paul in reference to the antics
    Of the ‘forward in faith defectors’
    Trouble maker priest must atone for their behaviour, and true Christian society must respect diversity
    I, Peter write to you, in close dialogue with my close brother in Christ Paul, to those of modern times. We are extremely disturbed and angered by the behaviour that has arisen from the ‘forward in faith’ grouping. This group of weak men have undermined the essence of Christian behaviour – failure to be obedient to their Archbishops; disloyal to the church they had belonged to; causing distress and harassment to female priests; and giving misguided counsel to the congregations they serve. Such unworthy behaviour fragments and undermines the covenant that each priest – regardless of community or gender attests to. These unworthy men now seek shelter in a new community, but have left behind unresolved issues and much hurt. We believe these defectors must openly atone for their appalling behaviour and must make amends with their former Archbishops and with the gracious community of female priest. I remind all to reflect on my brother’s letter to the Church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:4). This is not how a church in modern times flourishes; and prejudice, whether against female priest or even gay people, have no place in God’s grace for all humankind. Fundamentalist behaviour, as we seen, polarisations a community and causes faith ghettos – Gods purpose is clear – to love and serve humankind regardless of creed, colour, wealth or sexual orientation.
    January 2011
    Nova litteris Petri et Pauli quantum ad antics
    De ‘fide porro defectors’

    Tribulatio peragendum factor redimuntque moribus et societatis Christianae vera diversitas timeat

    Ego Petrus scripsi tibi densis prope mea dialogum in Christo frater Paul, his Moderni. Lorem et valde commota mores iratus orta ab ‘processisse fidei copula. Infirma huius coetus hominum ratio subruit christianorum morum – repulsam archiepiscopos suos subditos, impios ad ecclesiam fuerunt illi, et vexationes AERUMNOSUS femineis sacerdotes et dans consilium falso ecclesiis serviunt. Indigna et moribus frusta testamentum corrumpit quod quilibet – regardless genus communitatem seu testatur. Haec autem indignos condunt in novo populo, sed dubitatur reliquerunt plagam magnam et exitus. Has esse palam defectors redimuntque horrenda esse mores emendet Archiepiscopi superiori et pia femina communitas sacerdotem. Admoneo considerare omnes fratris epistulam Corinthi Ecclesiam (I Cor 13:4). Hoc autem non ita Ecclesia viget recentior et firma, vel adversus feminam quidem sacerdos populum gay locum non habent in gratia Dei pro omnibus humani. Divisitque moribus, ut videtur, polarisations communitas vicos operatur fidem – Dei propositum patet – amare et colere homines cuiuscumque Symbolo color opibus aut sexualis.

  • Dorothy Crozier

    Lucy, you think that people should be respected regardless of who they are – but not what they believe.

    Sounds a little like hypocrisy to me.

  • Thoresbymanvers24

    children often arrive at school damaged by their first teachers and schoolteachers then have the job of trying to sort them out. First teachers are not necesarily the child’s best teachers.what does Bible say on this?

  • Lucywillmore

    People are entitled to beliefs – however when their beliefs hurst other, undermine others, destroy sensible debate – then they are not acceptable. Also beliefs have to be tempered by what is true and jsut in modern society. These men knew that female Bishops would be part and parcel of the evolving CofE , this was the next step when females became priests. They have not stayed the course to even debate the issue, instead, like naughty children, they have ‘thrown their toys out the pram’. As you may know within the Catholic church there is a group of women who campaign to become priests – they do so in a quiet, respectful and dignified way. They are not off discussing deals with the Archbishop of Canterbruy to move across and form their special order – what a contrast!

  • Dorothy Crozier

    1. They did stay to debate. But there is nothing as ILLIBERAL as a liberal. Debate is useless amidst the vile tactics of those who brought in this divisive change.
    2. The Roman Catholic agitators to this change have also worked hard to see change in the Church of England – so yes they have done deals across the boundaries.
    3. You say beliefs that hurt others are not acceptable. That is a nonsense. Freedom of thought and belief will inevitably lead to people being hurt – it is part of our freedom as mankind. The thoughts of Jesus ‘hurt’ those who were in authority. Were his beliefs therefore ‘unacceptable’. No, of course not.
    4. Destroy sensible debate? Oh Lucy – you only have to look at the debates in the Church of England to see that the ‘sensible’ debate was for those against the ordination of women. The debate which one the day was the ‘feel good – feel bad’ debate. That is not reasoned.

  • Dorothy Crozier

    sorry “won the day” (point 4)

  • Dorothy Crozier

    Oh and another point Lucy. The debate FOR the ordination of women “hurts me and undermines me” – so is it not acceptable?