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Anglo-Catholics urged to stop ‘sneering’ and ‘look outward’

09 November 2017


Making strides: a flock of wild lesser flamingos, on Lake Nakuru, in Nakuru National Park, Kenya

Making strides: a flock of wild lesser flamingos, on Lake Nakuru, in Nakuru National Park, Kenya

ANGLO-CATHOLICS must not “huddle together” and “fiddle while Canterbury burns”, but look outward, and “introduce those who have been given rather thin gruel to the strong meat of our tradition”, a symposium heard on Saturday.

The gathering at Southwark Cathedral, convened by the Society of the Faith, also heard a strong condemnation of a “culture of sneering at the opposition”, and a call to repentance for tribalism.

With a brief to reflect on a document, Catholicity, commissioned by Archbishop Fisher and published in 1947 (Comment, 29 September), and to explore the “questions, beliefs, and unresolved issues” for Anglo-Catholics today, speakers shifted between registers of nostalgia and hope, alarm, and resolution.

In an analogy in which bishops were zoo-keepers with a house of Anglo-Catholic flamingos, the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, Canon Robin Ward, questioned the commitment of the Church’s hierarchy to the Catholic wing: “They are pleased that there are flamingos in it. They wouldn’t like the whole zoo to be full of flamingos, because that would be too much. But if the flamingos were to happen to fly away, or die off, the penguins could probably be put in place instead.”

Observing an “ecclesiological deficit” that made it difficult to give ordinands a Catholic theological account of “what it means to be a Church”, he explained: “The British Army, in 1917, used to sing ‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here’, and there is an element in which that is our ecclesiology as Catholics in the Church of England.”

It was, however, easier now to give a “holistic Catholic account of the Catholic aesthetical life and liturgical life in colleges” than it had been when he had trained in the 1980s. At that time, there had been “tremendous paranoia” both about “Roman things” (the liturgical life was very much sort of sat upon, in case anything that was perceived as being popish should put off sponsoring bishops”) and about homosexuality (a fear that “if somebody lit a candle for the office or saw a nice vestment, unnatural vice would break out”).

“It is now common for ordinands to arrive with little or no experience of the liturgical calendar, or the great basic practices of Catholic Christianity, or the discipline of the spiritual life,” the Principal of the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, Fr Peter Allan CR, reported. “On the other hand, there are students from a great range of backgrounds and church experience, who come with a curiosity, and an openness that is deeply attractive.” 

He was “saddened daily” by “the loss of our appreciation of baptism as the absolute foundation of Christian life” and concerned about “the emergent dominant picture of worship as mediocre entertainment”. He noted the “success of the project of modernity in undermining our need for God” and of the rise of “anthopocentrism”, which had “driven much theological writing and much of the life of the Church”. 

As a 12-year-old, 50 years ago, he had been taught to genuflect before the sacrament, at Chichester Cathedral. “There was a large enough reservoir or meaning and practice for that instruction to resonate and for us to be confident it came from more than one friar’s peculiar habits. Today that reservoir of meaning has gone.”

Candidates of a “very different kind” were approaching religious communities, he said: almost all lay, and many with “very little connection” to the Church. He saw “almost no connection with monasticism” in the “New Monasticism”, which was “a symptom of the confusion of the age. . . I see a desperate hankering for what we would have recognised as the baptismal life. If only we had not lost our confidence in baptism, we might not be having the problems we are with some of these communities, who are more concerned with writing constitutions than they are with living the life.”

Several of the speakers expressed concern about what the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Carolyn Hammond, described as a climate of “hostility or at least indifference to theology”. She joined Fr Allan in mourning a lack of intellectual engagement with anthropology, and described the forces of secularism and militant atheism as “very strident and, frankly, intimidating”.

She went on to argue for “a less ideological perspective” on the sources of conflict between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. Anglo-Catholicism needed to recover “a positive attitude to itself and its message, a confidence that there are indeed incalculable riches in our Catholic patrimony. But we are never going to access them or communicate them if we focus on disputation among ourselves.

“Sometimes I think we Catholics are our own worst enemies in that respect. . . We must be clearer what we are for than what we are against. And our record on this, to date, has not been good. A culture of sneering at the opposition and belittling their sincerity, their motives, even their faith has prevailed. And that’s true on both sides.”

There was an “element of grooming” in a system of selection and promotion that “singles out particular individuals, sets them apart from their peers, encourages them to think of themselves and special and different, and better”.

The Anglo-Catholic/Evangelical split was not primarily a debate about theology, she argued, but, “as in every conflict in history, it’s a competition over resource, power, and control”. There was a need for “fruits of repentance and firm purpose for amendment”.

“We are taught and we learn to separate ourselves from our fellow Christians because our natural desire to embrace authentic Christian faith makes us vulnerable to fears about being found on the wrong side,” she reflected. “And so we have to choose our side . . . We are learning the mind-set ‘My team, right or wrong,’ . . . A less ideological perspective would clarify what’s really at stake.”

Several speakers sought to assert the intellectual firepower of the Catholic tradition. Canon Andrew Davison, the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, observed the resurgence of a “theology of retrieval” that revered the Church Fathers, and reported that “many of the most enthusiastic, perceptive, and receptive students I have had when it comes to encountering the wholeness of Christian doctrine, of Catholic doctrine, have been Evangelicals”.

Among the diagnoses of the 1947 report which resonated today was “overburdened bishops who ignore their apostolic function as guardians and exponents of our theological tradition”.

He concluded with a rallying cry: “Look outward, catechise, hold out the fullness of the faith to those who will take it up and be its apostles today. Does the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament involve festivals and buy monstrances? Great! But to do that and not be teaching basic sacramental theology to the whole Church in all its glorious attractiveness, while the Church rapidly becomes post-sacramental, is to fiddle while Rome burns, while Canterbury burns.”

“We must not just huddle together,” he warned. “Let us not neglect the part that we can play out of our tradition in the evangelisation of our nation. And let us not refrain from the mercy that it would be to introduce those who have been given rather thin gruel to the strong meat of our tradition.”

Among the four bishops present was the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, who dedicated much of his talk to highlighting the “vitality and the attractiveness of the papacy of Pope Francis”. In 1951, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had been among those who welcomed Archbishop Fisher on his return from a tour of Australia and New Zealand. The Pope could still command such audiences.

Religious communities and their “sense of something subversive for the gospel” were also celebrated in his talk, which included the story of the Devonport Sisters, who, while caring for people during the cholera epidemic of 1849, requested a daily mass at St Peter’s, Plymouth. He treasured the memory of the 17th Earl of Lauderdale, Patrick Maitland, seen sitting beside a young man recently released from a young offender’s institution, at the Shrine of Walsingham. “That is the Church. It is the place where every person of every condition is loved and valued.”

On Tuesday, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, who chaired the event, said that he had been encouraged by the “wide range” of Catholic opinion and traditions represented. Increased dialogue within the tradition would produce “renewed hope”, he said, helping those who felt “beleaguered”. Some felt that mission “isn’t seen in theological terms but is seen in financial and numerical terms. There is a desire for theology and Catholic mission to be taken seriously.”

Measuring the proportion of the Church that was Catholic was difficult, he said. The Church was “still very sacramental in its worship . . . but it doesn’t have the Catholic theology to go with it. . . I think there is a Catholic spirit still in far more Anglicans [than might describe themselves as Catholic], which needs awakening.”

Audience: the Church Times front page on 2 February, 1951, described by Dr Warner. “We have no doctrine of our own,” Dr Fisher told Central Hall, Westminster. “We only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic creeds, and those creeds we hold without addition of diminution.”

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