The Head of the Ordinariate for Former Anglicans in England and Wales Assesses Its Past, Present and Future
‘This is the first time in history that the Catholic Church has opened its doors and allowed a tradition which was fostered in the years of the Reformation to enter into full communion with the Church…’
LONDON — Nearly 14 years after Pope Benedict XVI set up a canonical structure for former Anglicans to come into communion with the Catholic Church while retaining their distinctive Anglican patrimony, good fruits from this initiative are emerging in England and Wales but significant obstacles remain.
This is the assessment of Msgr. Keith Newton, the ordinary of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, who sat down with the Register in London April 19 to give a frank assessment of the progress that has been made and the challenges it still faces.
Msgr. Newton, a native of Liverpool, was ordained an Anglican priest in 1974 and comes from the Prayer Book Catholic tradition, a moderate strand of Catholic revival in the Church of England from the 19th century. As someone who longed for Anglican-Catholic unity but realized it was becoming impossible as the Anglican Communion drifted further away from Catholic teaching and apostolic tradition, he saw Benedict’s 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus that created the ordinariate as an answer to prayer.
In this interview, he explains that what the ordinariate in England and Wales needs most are buildings and funds, and he foresees its continued growth as Anglicans become more disaffected with their communion and seek communion instead with the Catholic Church.
Msgr. Newton, how has the ordinariate fared since 2011 when it was established here in England? How would you assess its progress?
Well, it has been slow. The bishops have not been unkind in any way, but I don’t think there’s a great deal of interest in it from all the hierarchy, so there has not been support from all our bishops, and so you’re rowing on your own a bit. Financially we have little money.
Would you say tensions are greater internally, with the Catholic hierarchy, than with the Anglican Communion?
I think the tensions of the Anglican Church have ceased for the most part, except I think Anglo-Catholics don’t quite know how to deal with us, because I suspect we are a reminder of what some of them should have done. I think it’s like anything that’s new, people are bound to have suspicions of it but then we’ve also had people who have been very, very supportive and helpful across the Catholic Church so it’s not all one way.
So generally relationships are improving, normalizing?
Yes, I think so, but in the first few years it was quite difficult I think for some people, especially some of our priests found it difficult, partly because of where they were ministering and because we didn’t have our own buildings. We still don’t have our own buildings and that’s one of the real problems for us. If you are a lodger in somebody’s building, you can’t control much and it can be difficult for relationships.
I always thought that the Ordinariate was going to be a marathon, not a sprint and it was going to start slowly and would develop. I knew some groups would fade away and new ones would begin and that’s what’s happened. None of them are the sort of size you get in the United States.
The important thing for me about the ordinariate is the wider influence it has in the Catholic Church where it does exist and particularly in terms of ecumenism. I get tired of saying this but this is the first time in the history of the Church that the Catholic Church has opened its doors and allowed a tradition which was fostered in the years of the Reformation to enter the Catholic Church, bringing with it some of the things which nurtured the members on their own particular journey.
And I think that’s an amazing thing and I’m surprised that many ecumenists don’t get excited about it but they don’t.
Why do you think that’s the case?
I think they’re suspicious of it somehow. And yet the ordinariate is the only example in the Catholic Church of “realized ecumenism” in the West. And I think that’s more significant than people recognize. Some Catholics are slightly weary or confused by it. Somebody said to me only yesterday, “Why don’t you become a proper Catholic?” So that shows a lack of understanding about what has actually happened.
What are the reasons for saying that?
Well, they think we’re half Anglican, because they have a view of Catholicism which is very monolithic. For most Catholics, they think it’s about the diocese and the bishop, or the pope and the parish, to be honest, and that’s it, and so if you’re not part of that, then you’re not somehow a proper Catholic. And it’s not true. It has been an uphill battle to get people to understand that we are “proper Catholics.” I’m a member of the bishops’ conference, just like any other diocesan bishop is.
Some see allowing married priests as unfair for the Catholic priests in the Latin rite who are bound to priestly celibacy. Do you see the ordinariate, in that sense, as perhaps weakening the celibacy rule?
It’s bound to have some effect on it because if people have a parish priest who’s married and they think it works well then they may say, “Well, why can’t we have married clergy?” I don’t think it’s our job as the ordinariate to push the married priesthood but you have to remember that we do have married clergy in the Catholic priesthood who are not former Anglicans — Eastern rite Catholics — so it’s not an impossibility.
What have been the tangible fruits of the ordinariate that you’ve seen?
I think the liturgy has been a tangible fruit. We’ve recently produced our own office book, basically the Book of Common Prayer, Matins and Evensong, but with additional material like office hymns and antiphons and so forth, but it has been a great success. A young Catholic seminarian from America came to see me and told me he uses it because it reads right through the psalter each month, rather than taking bits of it, and reads through the Bible which the Roman office doesn’t do in a consistent way.
What are the Ordinariate’s main needs at the moment?
To have buildings that really are our own so we can arrange things the way we want. It’s better where our priest is the parish priest and so we can use the building more freely.
As the Anglican Communion becomes more aligned with a progressive secular agenda, do you think the ordinariate will become more attractive for many Anglicans?
I think it will but don’t think it’s really penetrated into people’s minds at the moment. Your average parishioner in an Anglican church doesn’t really notice this trend as long as things go on as normal in their church.
What would you say to those who are contemplating joining the ordinariate because of this or other reasons?
I would say do it. You won’t regret it. I’ve never regretted becoming a Catholic, not for a minute, even though the Church sometimes drives you mad. You can’t tell Anglicans that they will feel different when they’re coming over. All you can do is encourage them and say that they won’t regret it. In the end you have to come to the decision, that actually this is the Church that Jesus founded. And what proves to me that it is the Church Jesus founded is that it’s the only ecclesial communion which actually can open its doors to all sorts of people. The Orthodox couldn’t do it but we can, not only towards the ordinariate but we have Ukrainian Greek Catholics and others from the Eastern parts of the Catholic Church.
I think that’s an amazing thing, really. It just shows the possibility of unity and diversity. What you’ve had with the Anglicans was diversity and no unity.
Where are we in terms of Anglican-Catholic dialogue when corporate unity seems to be further away than ever?
How can you have a conversation with a church in which many believe that marriage is possible between two men? It goes against the whole understanding of creation and sacrament of marriage as a Catholic understands it. I think we’ve got to the situation of what you might call an “ecumenism of niceness.” We’re nice to each other, we’re polite, but I’m not sure that it’s going to go much further than that though it is not the unity Jesus prayed for.
How important is it to you that England returns to its Catholic roots, and that this can be done through the ordinariate, as a means to rediscover Christ and his Church as the one true faith?
Well, that’s the ultimate goal, and I would hope that for some people the ordinariate will be a way of coming back into communion with Peter because there are certain things that remind them of their history and their own nurture in the Christian faith. It can also remind us that there was actually a vibrant Catholic Church here before Henry VIII mucked about with it, probably one of the most vibrant Catholic countries in Europe at the time.
Somehow many Catholics have forgotten that. That’s why [the shrine of] Our Lady of Walsingham is not as important as it ought to be. It’s getting more important, but many Catholics have never been to Walsingham — to Lourdes or Fatima, but not to Walsingham.
Do you think, looking at the state of society, that this is what the country is desperately needing — a return to its Catholic roots?
It definitely needs a moral compass somewhere, and the Church is the only place that can give it. But as a country, we’ve become quite secular, haven’t we? Christianity often seems to be sidelined.
Do you think there’s a cause and effect in the sense that the Church has been weak, especially in the last 60 years, that the society has become like this?
I think the Catholic Church in England and Wales was very much ostracized before probably the ‘60s, and is much more acceptable now. And I think many of our bishops don’t want to lose that acceptability, so don’t make strong pronouncements about some of the things that we are actually quite passionate about like abortion and so forth.
What do you think of such self-silencing?
I don’t think it should. I think we need to speak to society with a much louder voice. If the society’s floundering or drowning, it doesn’t want to be told it’s drowning, it wants to be told the reason why it shouldn’t drown which is the Gospel, the Good News. But if you do have the Good News, it carries with it a moral life as well, to live in a certain way.
And do you foresee the ordinariate leading that path?
I think leading it is optimistic. We’d like to think we’d have an influence in that but we are only small, we’re only going to be part of the wider Catholic Church doing this. We have our own take on certain things. You know about synodality in the Catholic Church. Of course former Anglicans are a bit more skeptical about it than most other people because we’ve seen what happens. What you get is people who have their own agenda and talk loudest get their own way. And we can see that’s happening in the Catholic Church now, despite what the Holy Father said when it started, that it’s not about doctrine. You can see that many people think, well yes, but these are the things we want to talk about. And they’re a minority of people but then because everybody else doesn’t get involved in it, their view is passed on. They say people are concerned about these issues whereas most Catholics aren’t concerned about the issues that I mentioned.
What are your hopes and plans for the future?
I just hope we continue and grow. I hope we’ll start to eventually get more bases which we can develop that will be strong ordinariate presences, where it can be definitely seen as the ordinariate, also working with the local Catholic dioceses. We are not separate from that, and I hope we just add to the beauty and diversity of Catholicism. Certainly, if some Catholic churches become vacant, then we could take them over, as we need places to flourish and be seen to flourish. But that’s a slow process because it takes money and real estate and England’s expensive.