Former Anglican Archbishop Is Happy to Be a Catholic Parish Priest
At the conclusion of a year of dramatic developments for converts from Anglicanism, newly ordained Father Peter Wilkinson says he has ‘no regrets’ about joining the Catholic Church.
VICTORIA, B.C. — When Father Peter Wilkinson returned to his hometown of Victoria, B.C., 42 years ago, with five years of service in the Anglican Church in England under his belt, he was deemed too “Catholic” by the local bishop and never got an Anglican parish of his own.
But as an Anglican Catholic member of a worldwide communion of dissenters from the direction of Anglicanism, he rose swiftly to bishop and then to metropolitan for Canada — before giving that all up earlier this year to be received as a simple layman into the Catholic Church.
On Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and at the ripe age of 72, he was ordained a Catholic priest and immediately assumed his duties as priest and pastor of St. Columba of Iona Church. Father Wilkinson’s flock comprises 22 former Anglican Catholics, who, with him, were received into the Church early this year and at the same time into the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
The ordinariate, which is headquartered in Houston, was created on Jan. 1 to provide a North American structure for Anglicans coming into the Church who wish to retain distinctive elements of their theological, spiritual and liturgical patrimony as Anglicans.
Father Wilkinson’s ordination was the third in Canada for a former Anglican cleric who has entered the Church through the ordinariate, and it coincided with a key announcement for these new Catholics and for other Canadian Anglicans who are considering following in their footsteps.
On Dec. 7, Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, the leader of the ordinariate, jointly announced with Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto that the Holy See had approved the establishment of a new deanery for groups of Anglicans and Anglican clergy in Canada who have come into the Church.
In a statement, Msgr. Steenson announced he had appointed Father Lee Kenyon, administrator of the first ordinariate congregation in Canada at St. John the Evangelist Church in Calgary, Alberta, as dean of the new Deanery of St. John the Baptist.
Cardinal Collins, who is the ecclesiastical delegate for the ordinariate in Canada, and Msgr. Steenson jointly petitioned the Holy See to create the new deanery after receiving unanimous backing for the proposal from the Canadian bishops in September.
It’s Not About Me
“I’m loving it,” Father Wilkinson told the Register, when asked about his membership in the Church. “I haven’t regretted this for a moment.”
As for his demotion in ecclesial rank, he laughingly commented, “It isn’t about me. I simply want to be a holy priest and serve out my remaining years in that capacity.”
Anglican Catholics like Father Wilkinson are part of a spiritual revival that was initiated in the English Anglican Church, whose leaders included Blessed John Henry Newman before his conversion to Catholicism in 1845. It looked to the restoration of pre-Reformation liturgy, celebration of the full range of sacraments, devotion to Mary, communal religious life and, for some, ultimate reunion with Rome.
But Father Wilkinson believes that right from the time of the English Reformation (when King Henry VIII nationalized the Church of England in 1534 under the authority of the English crown), there was a movement within Anglicanism for reunion with Rome.
Many of today’s Anglican Catholics broke away from their national Anglican churches in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere when these churches voted to ordain women.
“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” explained Scott Vannan, a Victoria Anglican Catholic who joined the Catholic Church earlier this year along with Father Wilkinson. Anglicans who were praying and working for reunion with Rome saw women’s ordination as an insuperable obstacle, given Rome’s adamant rejection of women priests, not to mention the similar stance of the Orthodox Church.
“But there were many other doctrinal issues which pointed to the question of authority,” said Vannan. “Anglicanism has never had a magisterium, but it did believe that it shared a common deposit of faith which nobody was authorized to change. Now they do change it.”
Some of the disaffected Anglicans left for Catholicism, the Orthodox Church or Lutheran churches as individuals, but many left their national Anglican churches within whole parishes. These then coalesced into two distinct, and sometimes competing, traditional Anglican communions in North America.
The one Father Wilkinson and Vannan joined was the Anglican-Catholic Church of Canada, which became part of the 240,000-strong worldwide Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), as did the like-minded Anglican Church in America.
Father Wilkinson became the pastor of Victoria’s traditional Anglicans, then the western Canadian bishop and finally the metropolitan of a scattering of 38 parishes comprising 1,500 individuals across Canada.
In 2007, Father Wilkinson and two other TAC bishops proposed to Pope Benedict XVI a package deal: bring in the Anglican Catholics en masse, but with provisions for the retention of existing parishes, those elements of the Anglican liturgy compatible with Catholicism and the married priesthood.
Pope Benedict was as enthusiastic as the TAC leaders had hoped.
“Some of our bishops had been meeting with him personally since the 1990s,” said Father Wilkinson. “They really liked him. And I had corresponded with him myself — in fact, I wrote him a fan letter. I even had an appointment to meet him, but it was the very week Pope John Paul II died, and he couldn’t see me.”
Father Wilkinson’s own personal road to Rome was partly paved by Pope Benedict’s 1986 book Seek That Which Is Above, which “spoke in a reasoned way, but also from the heart in a way that was fresh. It revealed the whole man. I hadn’t found that in other Catholic books.”
He said that the Pope shares the Anglican-Catholic belief “that the saints and beauty are the Church’s two great converting forces.” This is why the Pope permitted the Anglican Catholics to keep their traditions centered on the Book of Common Prayer.
“It is in our bones,” said Father Wilkinson of the 463-year-old prayer book. “It is written in beautiful, sacral English, intentionally using a higher register of language.”
After the Pope issued his invitation to Anglican converts in November 2009 through his apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, many Anglican Catholics turned out to be less enthusiastic than the leadership for communion with Rome. Of 38 parishes Canada-wide, only three have entered into full communion, with 150 members.
The parish Father Wilkinson started in Victoria has split twice over such issues as the authority of the Pope and the loss of local autonomy. In the second split, it lost its pastor. A similar reduction in expectations has occurred in the United States.
But this is not necessarily a bad thing, said Vannan. “Before, the tension was always there under the surface. Now, we are completely united. There is a great sense of peace.”
On the other hand, some Catholics have had difficulty grasping the Anglican-Catholic attachment to its liturgy and wondered why Father Wilkinson’s group could not simply have converted as individuals. But most have been “very welcoming,” said Father Wilkinson. He praised Victoria Bishop Richard Gagnon and Father John Laszczyk, the rector at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Victoria, for their support.
“Everybody has been wonderful,” said Father Wilkinson. As for Father Laszczyk, who stood in as pastor for the past few months and is a strong proponent of beauty in liturgy, he described his experience with the Anglican Catholics as “profound.”
The small parish of 22 people now has its own home in a former Anglican church. And instead of Father Laszczyk celebrating the Mass in a deep baritone, they will again have Father Peter Wilkinson’s tenor chanting.
Looking ahead a few days before Father Wilkinson’s ordination, Vannan commented, “It’s a wonderful time for us. I am looking forward to his next Good Friday sermon on the Crucifixion. It is the same every year, and each time I understand a little more of it.”
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.