Shortly after the Second Vatican Council Cardinal Johannes Willebrands preached at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Protesters, including Ian Paisley, tried to disrupt the service. A teenage Keith Newton and his future wife, Gill, were among those who had come out to see the historic event. Police eventually had to move the protesters. From that day on, the young Liverpudlian longed for Christian unity.
The 17-year-old could never have imagined that he would one day end up leading an entirely new structure within the Catholic Church. Today he is, of course, the ordinary, or head, of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
When I meet Fr Newton at our offices I am struck by his his self-deprecating sense of humour. His tidy haircut and rectangular, rimless specs make him seem more square than he is.
Fr Newton says he spent much of his teenage years at the parish house, where the curates ran youth clubs. His parish, he explains, was not Anglo-Catholic, even though the curates were. There was no incense, but the Blessed Sacrament was reserved. The priests wore vestments for the Eucharist, but used the Book of Common Prayer.
A 1965 BBC documentary about the Anglican missionary and anti-Apartheid campaigner Fr Trevor Huddleston captured his imagination.
“I had this passion ever since I was a teenager and saw the film,” he says. “Since then I just thought I’d quite like to, at some point in my life, experience being a Christian elsewhere. It was not a great feeling of my being a missionary but just a sense of wanting to be a Christian in another
From his mid-teens he started thinking about his vocation but was too embarrassed to tell anyone in case the clergy would laugh at him. “I didn’t want them to think I was daft,” he says, laughing. When he did finally tell someone, he was sent for selection for Anglican orders and at the urging of his parish priest went to King’s College London, where he was immersed in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.
After finishing his studies at Kings, Newton married his teen sweetheart, Gill. The newlyweds wanted to do a year of missionary work, but it was not to be.
“If you wanted to do voluntary work you had to pay for it,” he says. “We both came from a very much working-class background and we had no money. So we couldn’t afford to do it.”
The young couple moved to Canterbury, where they studied to be teachers. After another year of training Newton was ordained as an Anglican priest.
“After I was ordained in 1976, union with Rome became quite important,” he recalls. “I remember going to Rome for the first time and being at a papal audience and being bowled over by it.”
Pope Paul VI, who loved Anglicans, stopped the audience when he learned group of them were there and spoke about Anglicanism. Fr Newton then became an avid follower of the ecumenical project.
“I was then fascinated with the whole ARCIC process. I thought there would be a convergence. At that stage we hoped that was what would happen. When the ARCIC documents came out in the early years, they were great signs of hope.”
Fr Newton served as a curate at St Mary’s, Great Ilford, in the Diocese of Chelmsford. At the end of that posting, Fr Newton asked his wife if they could go abroad. But because they hoped for a family they chose to stay and he took up a post as team vicar in Wimbledon. But even as he looked after the well-to-do Anglo-Catholic parish he yearned for the missionary life.
Finally, in 1985, he made an appointment at the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) to get a post abroad. But the official who was responsible for the West Indies, where Fr Newton hoped to go, was off ill.
“The woman who looked after Africa told me to come and talk to her. She said: ‘You ought to go to Africa instead.’ She had almost bought the ticket for me by the time I had finished.”
Tears well up in Fr Newton’s eyes when he speaks about Malawi, where he was dean of Blantyre cathedral and ran the formation programme in the diocese.
“I miss it so much,” he says. “It was a fantastic experience. Of course there were frustrations. Nothing got done really. You and me are run by a diary. You don’t use a diary in Africa. You do things tomorrow.
“But you spend all your time in Africa doing what you were ordained to do: administering the sacraments, visiting the sick, teaching people. You don’t do anything else. There isn’t much administration to speak of.”
The family was in Africa for six years, with a break for the birth of their third child. But their parents were getting older and were unlikely to be able to afford to come out to Malawi again. Fr Newton’s bishop was coming under a great deal of criticism and he found himself unable to defend his superior. “I found that a real wrench,” Fr Newton says of leaving Malawi.
Back in England the family lived in mission accommodation while he looked for a post. “The thing is I didn’t really want one because my heart was still there,” he says. “If you’ve lived in Africa for a bit, it really gets to you.”
There was another reason for returning to England. Even from afar Fr Newton was gauging the situation at home and the General Synod was due to vote on the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Dreams of union with Rome faded swiftly after General Synod voted to ordain women in 1992. The Church of England responded to the plight of Anglican traditionalists by creating the Provincial Episcopal Visitors, or “flying bishops”, designated to look after those who could not accept women priests.
Fr Newton, who served as the Bishop of Richborough before joining the ordinariate, recalls: “I hoped that that would in time lead to a structure which would enable us to have an ecumenical conversation with Rome about all of us moving.”
The flying bishops were a lifeline, Fr Newton says, even if the solution wasn’t perfect. His new parish, Holy Nativity in Knowle, Bristol, became one of the first to vote for resolution C, which placed it under the jurisdiction of a flying bishop. Traditionalists hoped the Catholic branch of the Church of England would become a new province, not as an end in itself but in order to be a concrete body which could continue talks with the Catholic Church.
Fr Newton says that Benedict XVI pre-empted the Church of England with the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, which set the stage for the ordinariate. Despite being one of the two traditionalist Anglican clergymen to travel to Rome in 2008 to ask the Vatican for a solution as the Church of England moved in a different direction, Fr Newton says the contents of the document came as a huge surprise. At best he had expected an extension of the already existing pastoral provision.
“He’s offered us a jurisdiction with our own life, within the Catholic Church,” Fr Newton says. “He’s offering us what we were aiming for, which is why people like me were grabbing it with both hands.”
Fr Newton has already said that he doesn’t want the ordinariate to function like an Anglican ghetto in the Catholic Church. He hopes it will pave the way for a new form of evangelisation. His greatest worry for the future of the ordinariate is its ability to support its priests and families. But he also fears that priests who take up chaplaincy work and other jobs will be able to look after themselves but “of course the more they do that, the less they’ll be able to build up the ordinariate as an evangelistic tool”.
“What you don’t want it to be is inward-looking to the congregation,” he says. “You want it to be outward-looking and be missionary.”