Anglo-Catholic “Unity”? (Guest post)

Pope Benedict’s come-on to disaffected Anglicans hides many paradoxes. My friend Roger left the Anglican church years ago (so did his brother, a retired priest).  Ever since, they have been stalwarts of their local Catholic parish, and also of our LGBT Masses in Soho. Both are outspoken in their well-reasoned disagreement with the Vatican on many issues, yet have found a firm home in the Catholic church. Yesterday, Roger sent me an email responding to a reader’s letter published in a UK Catholic newspaper.  As it covers an issue I have not seen discussed elsewhere, I thought it would be a useful contribution to share with you.  (I regret I do not have the original letter to which Roger is responding, which is not published on-line.  Roger’s response though is complete in itself.)


Canterbury Cathedral

Roger writes:

If anyone was under any misapprehension as to the true nature of some of the conservative Anglicans who are hopeful of a welcome into the Roman Catholic Church, today’s e-mail by Richard Barker published in the Universe should leave no room for doubt.

In the first place, the sheer arrogance: cradle Catholics have no real knowledge of their own church; true understanding is with “those of us who were not blessed with a Catholic baptism as infants, and who have had to consider, as adults, all that the Church holds true and represents”. I am not a cradle catholic myself, and as a result, some of my inner understandings may well be different from those lifelong members of the community which it was my later wish to join, but I would never have the hubris to suggest that I know better than them the nature of their own Church! Richard Barker’s attitude is absolutely outrageous, but I fear it is probably not that unusual!

(The irony here is that in spite of his disclaimer, Roger does indeed have a better understanding of Catholic history, liturgy and teaching than many cradle Catholics. That does not mean that Barker is right. There us no reason to suppose that others are as well-informed as Roger is.)

Secondly, there is the absurdity of his statement that the “Catholic Church will not and cannot ever ordain women”. Tradition is not a rock, but a river: the nature of the Catholic Church is now very different from its nature in times past, and even then that nature was constantly developing. How the Church will develop and change in the future is in the hands of the Holy Spirit, and is certainly not subject to the control of a few disaffected Anglicans! As for the scriptural authority quoted by Mr Barker, I fail to see what the statement “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” has to do with the ordination of women. And if the Church really still accepts the literal truth of Paul’s misogynistic statements in 2 Timothy 12 then it probably is best left to the likes of Richard Barker.

(The argument totally ignores the evidence that the early church did in fact ordain women-certainly as deacons, possibly as priests. It also disregards the evidence of Scripture itself. Junia, clearly feminine, is described by Paul as “outstanding among  the Apostles“.The church has always treated women poorly, but that was originally just reflected the wider society.  The sharp contrast between church and social attitudes is new. There is every reason to suppose it will change. )

As for Mr Barker’s yearning for the continent life, that is, of course, a matter for him, but to suggest that St Peter was similarly inclined is totally without any foundation, and the refusal to accept the truly divine beauty of loving and happy, faithful and committed human sexuality has done the church immense harm throughout history, and continues to do so.

Our new and very welcome Archbishop (i.e., Vincent Nichols, of Westminster) so rightly said that if Anglicans wish to be received into the Roman Catholic community it must be because they are seeking all that is inherent in Roman Catholicism, and not merely because they have problems with women and homosexuals. If the conservative Anglicans who are presently seeking reception are so desirous of the totality of Roman Catholicism, why have they waited so long?

And why did I seek reception? It was not so much that I had problems with what I believe to be the true nature of the Anglican Church, a true nature which is represented in so many parish churches throughout the country, but because that true nature was so compromised by the likes of Richard Barker and by those at the other end of the spectrum, the extreme evangelicals, that there was no real communion, and hence no real church. For me, there was no question but that the Eucharist should be at the heart of all Christian worship, and this was sadly not true of part of the Anglican communion. It still is not: just take a look at the Anglican Archdiocese of Sydney, where I was so disgusted at the state of the Anglican cathedral, deprived even of any semblance of an altar, that I felt compelled to write in the visitors’ book that the state of the place was a disgrace! As for the ordination of women, it is something I would wish for in the Roman Catholic Church, but the divisions caused in the Anglican Church were such that any remaining semblance of communion was torn away, and so I sought reception in the body that offered the truest example of what church and communion really mean.

Roger’s observation on the altar is an important one.  Many churches here on the “evangelical” wing of the Anglican communion have dispensed with altars altogether, outraging my partner Raymond, who is very much a committed high church Anglican.  In general terms, it is precisely this wing of the church which is most srongly opposed to the ordination of women and gay men.

However, I entirely believe that it was the likes of Richard Barker who were really responsible for so much of the damage to communion in the Anglican church. I only hope they do not bring their unique gifts of reaction, discord and disunity to the Roman Catholic community.

If Richard Barker and his ilk believe that they are more knowledgeable on Catholic culture and history than cradle Catholics, he should get to know the full history, not just the recent history since the Reformation.  He will find that for the first thousand years of its history, it was rather more tolerant of sexual non-conformity than it is today – just consider the medieval flowering of Christian homoeroticism, as shown in the poetry of  Marbod of Rennes (who became bishop of Rennes), Baudri of Bourgueil, later the bishop of Dol, Hilbert of Lavardin, who became bishop of Tours, or Hilary “the Englishman”.  During this period, which is known in church history as an important period of church reform, successive popes and councils simply ignored calls for harsher penalties and condemnation against “homosexuals”, even consecrating as bishop John of Orleans, even though he was renowned for his promiscuity with male lovers, notably two successive Archbishops of Tours, and the French king. St Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, refused to publish a decree by the Council of London, on the grounds that male love was commonplace, and that ordinary people did not realise that it was wrong.

The hostility to homoerotic relationships that Barker sees in modern day Catholicism is not intrinsic, but an outgrowth of secular prejudice, prejudice that Barker and others would now like to see reinforced.  Ordinary Catholics however, do not share this prejudice. A more fundamental strand in Catholic thinking  is an insistence on justice for all. There is evidence that theologians are increasingly recognising the inherent  conlict here, and are rethinking the hostility to homoerotic relationships – as they must, to take into account the need to build on the findings of science.  The new thinking has not yet permeated the curia, but it will.

A second  element of Catholic culture that has always held true, and that has been (regrettably) increasing over the past two centuries, is an obsession with control and obedience.  Married clergy making the move will be welcome to serve as married priests, but this privilege will not apply to new candidates for priesthood. How will the newly Roman priests respond to the challenge of insisting on celibacy for new aspirants, while ignoring it for themselves? How will they respond to requirements for far greater liturgical conformity than they are used to? Or the requirement from time to time, to read episcopal letters in place of their own homilies – letters that may on occasion be in direct conflict with their own views?

Those fleeing the Anglican communion over their unhappiness over its decisions, will soon find they are in conflict with the much tighter insistence on control over the clergy in the Catholic church – especially when the Catholic church too follows its own internal logic and starts to ordain women and openly gay men.