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Keeping the Catholic flame burning

14 September 2018

Let’s not lose the gift of laughter, argues Jo Kershaw

An Eastern Orthodox ecumenical guest, the Archbishop of Cyprus joins the outdoor procession in Holborn at the Anglo-Catholic Congress held in 1920

An Eastern Orthodox ecumenical guest, the Archbishop of Cyprus joins the outdoor procession in Holborn at the Anglo-Catholic Congress held in 1920

LIKE many who found a new path to God in Anglo-Catholicism, I “learned the Catholic faith” at university. But key to that was an evening high mass in a small church in a moderately deprived estate in Dundee.

I thought I knew what churches, and church services in “schemes” were like — and I was not expecting the colour, music, and smoke, the sense of awe and holiness. In that unlikely context, it hit me with a powerful sense of God’s grace and love.

And that evening still represents, for me, the areas where Anglican Catholic mission has been strongest: on the one hand, in the universities, capturing and energising the bright young things; and on the margins, with the poor and deprived.

Trying to find lessons for the present in the history of the movement can be hard when much of that history seems so remote. It is a strange mixture of heroically fought battles now won, some dramatic successes that seem unrepeatable, and a determination to die in ditches that, on reflection, probably did not need defending. The divisions between, say, the supporters of women’s ministry and the traditionalists have notoriously sapped the movement’s energy for mission, and seem more entrenched than any past fissures in the movement.

Whether that is true is an open question. Even in the days when Anglo-Catholics filled the Albert Hall for their national congress, there were still bitter arguments about who was “staunch”. Maybe it’s helpful to remember that our fathers and mothers in the faith were some­times just a little . . . odd.

“Dying for the mass”, like Fr Mackonochie, is saintly, but what of Fr Butler of the Coronation of the Virgin, Kettlebaston, who so objected to service registers that he only ever made one entry during his incumbency? It reads: “Visitation of the Archdeacon of Sudbury. Abortive. Archdeacon, finding no churchwarden present, rode off on his high horse.”


BUT it is too easy to mock. Even if Anglo-Catholicism did (and does?) attract members of the awkward squad, that very awkwardness lent strength. At its best, it is both counter-cultural and able to work with contemporary trends. To hearty Victorian Muscular Christians, the Catholic revival was “unmanly and un-English”. But that meant providing a safer church space for gay people and the incorrigibly un-hearty.

Sisterhoods and convents gave meaning to the lives of unmarried women. But even as Protestant extremists hurled dead cats into evening services, the movement tapped into the cultural currents of the day. It sat well with the Gothic revival, medievalism, and the Pre-Raphaelites, and that made it able to speak of Christ in a way that connected with some who were left cold by more conventional expressions of church. In the 1940s, Dorothy L. Sayers’s radio plays on the life of Christ sprang from her deep Catholic faith, and touched listeners nationwide.

Catholic mission cannot just be about high culture and good taste. It is not enough to appeal to people who listen to Radio 3, and a certain type of Goth-leaning teenager.

Happily, there is also inspiration in the energy with which Catholics pursued mission among the poor. We still benefit today from the Community of the Resurrection and the College of the Resurrection. Perhaps, given the squeeze on funding for clergy training, we might remember that Mirfield began with a mission to make it possible for those without substantial means to train. The Oratory of the Good Shepherd has fostered and grown the ministries of its members. Some of the bright young things of Oxbridge, too, served devotedly in slums or pit towns.

Above all, the Catholic emphasis on sacrament and incarnation means that mission is about being in there for the long haul. It’s about caring about communities, not just creating islands of the saved. In trying to bring gospel hope to “austerity Britain”, we can look to the work of Fr Jellicoe and others in the creation of social housing.

Our social problems are different, but deep-rooted, and still need practicality and prayer.

The publishers of Michael Yelton’s history of Anglican papalism chose for the front cover a reviewer’s remark that it “enables us to live again a period where being a Catholic Anglican was . . . well, fun”. Too much dwelling on the eccentricities of the past can leave us feeling it was all a bit trivial and silly. But one of the strengths of Anglo-Catholicism has been the ability to combine deep and holy seriousness of purpose with the ability to laugh; to throw oneself wholeheartedly into the service of God and the conversion of England, while still retaining a sense of fun and, dare one say it, a willingness to look ridiculous. That spirit has, thankfully, not entirely vanished from the Church — but a bit more of it could do us good.

The Revd Dr Johanna Kershaw is Associate Priest of Outwood, Stanley, and Wrenthorpe, in Wakefield.

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