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Angela Tilby: What draws Anglicans to Rome?

10 September 2021

YouTube/Lichfield diocese

Bishop Jonathan Goodall

Bishop Jonathan Goodall

WHEN I was a tutor at Westcott House, Cambridge, I occasionally had a student who was troubled about whether he (it always was a he) ought to become a Roman Catholic. At one point, we had a brilliant RC theologian on the staff, Dr Anna Rowlands, now at Durham University. She used to advise students with this dilemma to recognise that being an Anglican was a “complicated” vocation.

It has taken me a long time to appreciate what she meant, but the departure of Bishop Jonathan Goodall has brought our conversations back to mind, because one thing that becoming an RC resolves is a painful degree of complexity, about theology, authority, and belonging, which the C of E is incapable of solving because it goes to the heart of what it is.

Friends of Jonathan Goodall have speculated that he found the lack of agreed “orthodoxy” difficult. If that is so, I sympathise. My feelings are linked to the fact that my mother joined the Roman Catholic Church and made sure that I was baptised in it. I have dim childhood memories of attending mass with her, and of a visit to Tyburn Convent, where I was given a rosary by a sister called Mother St Luke. I occasionally drop in to Westminster Cathedral when I am in London, and it always brings a sense of almost luminous clarity. The elevated centrality of the altar says it all. God and humanity are reconciled in Christ: a grand simplicity.

The Church of England, on the other hand, is troubled by its own unavoidable complexity, the legacy of the violent traumas that accompanied its emergence and the rifts that have been part of its history. Although there has always been a steady Romeward stream, in the 1960s it was mostly Evangelical clergy who wondered whether they should leave the C of E. Anglican liberalism and the requirements of a fixed liturgy could clash with scriptural conscience.

But when Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones urged them to leave in pursuit of doctrinal soundness, most stayed, and eventually moved the Church in a more Evangelical direction, which would, in turn, leave others feeling insecure. Since then, the ordination of women has created a new rift, with protection for those who could not accept the change.

All this requires a high degree of tolerance, which exists uneasily alongside ongoing mutual suspicion. There is a certain C of E tribalism, the search for “people like me” in training institutions, dioceses, synods. Negotiating the complexity requires sensitive antennae, and is often rather exhausting. I am sure that being an RC, and especially an RC priest, has its traumas, but they are not these traumas. But I think that my RC colleague was right. Being a Anglican is a vocation, and living with complexity is a large part of what that means.

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