I had always believed that is what I was — a Catholic, albeit an Anglican one. We said the creeds and expressed our belief in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” We were taught that is just what the Church of England was; part of that Catholic Church, separated from a great part of Christendom at the Reformation, but with good reason. We had avoided the excesses and errors of other churches; we were a pure church, one which had “washed its face.”
This was just about tenable all the time the Church of England held to Catholic faith and practice. Of course, there were always others in the same Church who disagreed with us, but we had truth on our side. After all, did not every priest at his induction assent to the belief that the Church of England is part of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”? And had not an archbishop of Canterbury (Geoffrey Fisher) declared that “the Church of England has no doctrine of its own, only that of the universal Church”?
From the 19th century on, though, we had thought of ourselves as part of a larger family, the “Anglican Communion,” largely the fruit of British colonial success. There were millions outside England who were as much Anglicans as we were. Then, especially in North America, some of these fellow Anglicans began to break ranks, particularly over ordination. The first ordinations of women were illegal; but the American church soon legitimized them, and our church followed suit.
The Church of England claimed to be synodically governed but episcopally led. In the early 1980s, it was a synod that first declared there were “no fundamental objections to the ordination of women.” This has often been misquoted as saying there were no theological objections; but, in fact, theology was not discussed. It was all about “justice” and whether women were capable of “doing the job” of a priest. So began the process, first of ordaining women to the diaconate and then, in 1994, to ordaining them as priests.
This step was hedged about. Those opposed to women’s ordination were said to have an opinion equally permissible as the opposite. There would be no discrimination against priests who would not, or could not, accept women’s ordination. Men might still be ordained holding such views. To ensure this would continue, bishops were appointed who were themselves opposed to women’s ordination, and they would care for those parishes and individuals who remained opposed. Some were already in office (mostly as suffragan bishops); eventually another three were consecrated for this task — the provincial episcopal visitors or “flying bishops.” There was a very strange theology that accompanied this, one of “impaired communion.” It was a ramshackle solution, but so long as women’s ordination was seen as experimental, and the Church of England was in a period of “reception,” then it was possible to survive as a Catholic Anglican. Both Archbishop George Carey and his successor Archbishop Rowan Williams have said that the experiment was reversible. Few of us believed such a reverse would ever happen. And once women were ordained as bishops, it would become practically impossible.
Throughout this time, I was considering my position as an Anglican. Either our church was Catholic or it was not. If it could treat holy orders as a matter of mere opinion, then all pretense of Catholicity was undermined. Yet how could I abandon those faithful laity and priests who still clung to the hope that the Church of England might yet be as it claimed, “the Catholic Church of this land”? The problem for those bishops still in office (I had retired in 2001) was even more acute.
Then came Anglicanorum Coetibus, the Holy Father’s response to Anglicans who sought his help. It seemed, and it still seems, a most generous offer. We might be ordained to the Catholic priesthood while remaining married. We would have our own ordinary, who would be someone who understood us completely. And we were challenged to bring with us the best of our traditions, our Anglican patrimony.
For me, the whole question has been one of authority. By what authority could the Church of England change holy orders? How could it authorize the ordination of men and women remarried after divorce, when our Ordinal had said a bishop or priest must see that his family was a model of Christian living?
If it could determine these matters without reference to Scripture, tradition or the wider Church, where would it stop?
So, already in parts of the “communion” there are bishops living with their same-sex partners, and in other parts “lay presidency” at the Eucharist is becoming the norm.
I still weep for the Church of England and what it might have been. But still I pray that the ordinariate may grow and give hope to faithful Anglicans that the door remains open for them to join us, in communion with the one Church to which we have aspired so long.
Father Edwin Barnes, retired Anglican bishop of Richborough, England, was ordained to the Catholic priesthood March 5 as part of the personal ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.