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Catholic mission starts with Catholic theology

28 September 2017

A wing of the C of E which has been declining and divided needs to get together and do some hard thinking, says Stephen Tucker

THE year I went to theological col­lege, the Jubilee Group was formed. The year I was ordained priest, 1978, Catholic Renewal was initi­ated with the Loughborough Con­ference; my bishop, Eric Kemp of Chichester, chaired the planning committee. When Affirming Cath­olic­ism was founded in 1991, I at­­tended some of its meetings in Oxford. In 2013, I went to the service that launched Anglican Cath­olic Future.

These are only some of the attempts to renew Anglican Cath­olic­ism which I have witnessed since the 1960s. The Jubilee Group, whose members included the future Arch­bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Wil­liams, was disturbed by “the trend in the Catholic movement towards a sickly pietism and a right-wing reac­tion­ary stance in social and political issues”. Catholic Renewal sought to “challenge the false values, both spir­it­ual and material, which con­front society”.

Affirming Catholicism initially sought to develop a renewed Cath­olic theology of history and culture, fed from the past, but dynamic and future-orientated. It rapidly became associated with issues of homosexu­al­ity and the ordination of women.


ANGLICAN Catholic Future seeks to avoid party rivalries and “to con­cen­trate on the work of Christian mission and ministry rooted in Cath­olic practice, piety, and theology”. It is in this spirit that it has set up, with Forward in Faith, a confer­ence on Catholic mission to be held in September 2018.

This November, the Society of the Faith will be holding a day confer­ence to reflect on a document, Catholicity, from 1947, which was, perhaps, the last great statement of Catholic principles in the Church of England.

Its authors were respond­ing to a request from the Arch­bishop of Can­terbury, Geoffrey Fisher, to ex­­plore the main points of divi­sion between Catholics and Protest­ants, and to see whether a syn­thesis, or at least co-existence, was possible. The group included Fisher’s suc­cessor, Michael Ram­sey; the litur­gist Gregory Dix; the theo­logian Austin Farrer; T. S. Eliot; and other luminaries of the day.

Their report works from an understanding of primitive unity — a fine balance of beliefs poten­tially in tension with one another. It goes on to show how that bal­ance was upset in orthodox Prot­estant­ism, in the liberalism stem­ming from the Renaissance, and in post-Tridentine Catholicism. Its con­­­­clu­­sion points towards a recov­ery of the fullness of tradition.

The report was heavily criticised by Free Church theologians in The Catholicity of Protestantism (1950). A more serious cause of its neglect, however, was the rapid changes that were about to engulf the Church of England and its Catholic wing — changes ecclesial, intellectual, and social.

Catholics had secured the wide­spread celebration of the eucharist as the main Sunday service, the accept­ance of vestments, and a more Catholic liturgical practice. The possibility of dialogue with Rome began under Fisher, and was enhanced under Ramsey with the forma­tion of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. Yet Vatican II set up a division between Anglo-Catholics who ac­­cepted its changes and those who adhered to the old ways.

In 1963, Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God raised popular aware­ness of liberal theology. This was taken forward by figures such as Dennis Nineham, Maurice Wiles, John Hick, and Don Cupitt, and eventually challenged not only the idea of a primitive unity, but also basic beliefs in the incarnation and the Trinity (The Myth of God Incarn­ate, 1977). But the enthusi­asm for “demythologising” carried with it no social message, and no workable theological synthesis for use in parish teaching.

Academic theology was also begin­ning to go its own way and lose respect or interest from the wider Church. Moves from an aca­demic post to a place in the hierarchy became increasingly rare. So, too, did books by academic theolo­gians seek­ing to provide clear and coher­ent theology for lay people in con­firma­tion or parish study groups.

Then there was rapid secularisa­tion. Many great institutions were widely challenged. Fundamental ques­­tions were asked about sex, mar­riage, gender identity, social wel­fare, and armaments. Anglican Catholics struggled to keep up with some of these issues while maintain­ing the Catholic tradition of priestly service in socially deprived areas. What it meant to be a priest or bishop also became increasingly unclear. Priests abandoned their posts to become social workers. Bishops adopted the language of manage­ment, appraisal, and strategising.


IT IS easy to summarise too simply the great changes that have affected Catholicity in the Church of En­g­land. But before we begin to think about Catholic mission, it may be important to understand and learn from the experience of the past 70 years. To see where we have come from enables us to see better who we are. Good history creates better de­­finitions of the questions that confront us.

John V. Taylor, Bishop of Win­chester, once said that mission required us to ask “Who is sending whom, to whom, and why?” Cath­olic mission requires us to think deeply about our belief in God. It requires a wholeness of Catholic under­standing. We need to ask our­selves, and our congregations, how far we belong but do not believe.

Catholic mission also requires a renewed Catholic understanding of the office and work of bishops, priests, and deacons, and how they can unite with all the laity in strength­ening and extending the Christian community.

Catholic mission requires us to balance equally prayer, belief, and holiness, as that is what we seek to bring to our society in equal meas­ure. As Ramsey pointed out, belief without prayer and holiness is ab-
stract and arid; prayer without belief and holiness can be complacent piety; moral enthusi­asm without belief and prayer ignores the com­plex­ity of our sinful humanity.

The two Catholic conferences have big and continuing agendas if Catholicity in the Church of England is really to come in from the cold — and stay here.


Fr Tucker is a retired priest and most recently Vicar of Hamp­stead.

For information about the Nov­em­­ber symposium, visit www.catholicity.org.uk . For the con­ference on Catholic mission in 2018, visit anglicancatholicfuture.org or forwardinfaith.com.

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