William Johnstone explains how he overcame his initial misgivings about Pope Benedict XVI’s historic offer to groups of Anglicans

When the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus was first announced I had a few reservations. I was sceptical about the idea of group reception into the Church. My experience as a former Anglican clergyman has convinced me that it is not possible to sugar the pill of conversion. It is a process that involves giving up familiar things for the sake of the truth.

I also wondered if this was an option for the majority of Anglo-Catholics that I knew. The High Church wing of the Church of England has become more Roman in recent years. Many clergy have used Catholic liturgies for the whole of their ministry. It would be ironic if converting to Rome meant adopting Anglican forms of worship for the first time.

Quite recently, I happened to read some of the original Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) documents. This gave me a new understanding of the ordinariate and a conviction that it is a profoundly ecumenical gesture. The explicit desire of ARCIC – initiated by Archbishop Michael Ramsay and Pope Paul VI in 1966 – was for visible unity between Catholics and Anglicans. It was not about remaining in separate bodies while appreciating each other’s traditions. This is the mistaken mindset of much that has passed for ecumenism in recent years.

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The desire was to fulfil the Lord’s command that we should be one. It was to be done without the Anglican tradition being absorbed.

This seems to be what Anglicanorum coetibus has achieved. The original aim of ARCIC involved the whole Church of England rather than a small section of it. But with developments in the Anglican Communion over the last few decades this vision is now unrealistic. As Cardinal Walter Kasper pointed out at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, Anglican self-understanding seems to be more rooted in the 16th century than the first millennium. This does not mean that we should cease striving for unity. But the fulfilment of this goal will only happen with Christians who have a shared understanding of faith and morals.

The strand of Anglicanism most compatible with this vision is the body which grew out of the Oxford movement. Rather than the disaffected and disgruntled people they are often accused of being they are an immensely positive group of Christians. The communities that developed under the “flying bishops” were dynamic and missionary. Dignity in worship was matched by good pastoral practice and effective preaching. Traditionally, Anglo-Catholics have ministered among the urban poor. Often they served in areas where nobody else would go. This is just something of the patrimony that will be discovered over the months and years ahead. It is not simply a liturgical patrimony. Different groups will be either more or less Roman in practice. But it is a genuine Anglican tradition that can enrich the Catholic Church.

This new development could also help with our peculiar religious history. Most English people have a complicated attitude to Catholicism. On the one hand there is a degree of hostility. This often stems from ignorance about what Catholics believe. There is also suspicion of an uncompromising Church authority. On the other hand there is a fascination with the Church and a recognition that England was once a land of saints and martyrs. The warped genius of Henry VIII in implementing his plan of secession was to rebrand the Catholic faith as un-English. Those who adhered to the old faith were disloyal. This attitude has remained deeply embedded in the English psyche.

The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham could provide a solution to this historical wound. There are significant numbers of Christians who are doctrinally Catholic but culturally Anglican. Many of these cultural elements have their roots in the pre-Reformation English Church. A mechanism is now available for people to enter into full communion with Rome while retaining something of this heritage as well as their group identity. This is not going to be a soft option. The conversion required is real and individual. But there is no reason why an identity rooted in a legitimate English tradition cannot be maintained.

The real gift of the ordinariate will be the restoration of communion to those groups that seek it. Many Anglicans have hungered for this for years. Such people will be coming home – restored to the rock from which they were hewn. An authentically Catholic existence is not possible without communion with Peter. This was the Achilles’ heel of the Oxford Movement and in their hearts most Anglo-Catholics knew it. The treasures that were nurtured outside the Catholic Church can now find their true fulfilment from within. These gifts will be purified and transformed by grace.

My own journey into the Catholic Church was a momentous step in my life. It involved a parting of friends and the abandoning of many things I held dear. As I stood in Westminster Cathedral nearly 10 years on – at the ordination of three former bishops and the beginning of the ordinariate – I was confronted by my Anglican history. The cathedral was full of familiar faces. Some I had studied with, others had taught me, many were old friends and parishioners. It suddenly felt as if the fragments of my past were being gathered up in that single moment.
As the ordinariate begins to gather momentum it seems that the Holy Spirit is at work. The chief shepherd – with gentleness and love – is gathering in the sheep.

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