Ten years on former Anglicans enrich Church

Ten years on former Anglicans enrich Church

Fr Peter Geldard

Following the Church of England's decision to ordain women in 1992, a large number of clergy and lay people have entered the Catholic Church. One of them, Fr Peter Geldard, a former Anglican priest, provides an overview of the impact the large number of converts has had on the Catholic Church in England.

Father Geldard is Dean of Chaplains and Catholic Chaplain at Eliot College, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent.

It seems a long time ago - ten years in fact - when I walked down Ambrosden Avenue and tentatively knocked on the door of Archbishop's House requesting whether I might explore with Cardinal Hume the possibility of "groups" of people and parishes being reconciled to the Catholic Church - only to be informed that already many others had made similar overtures.

Since then many hundreds of Anglican priests - together with thousands of their laity - have come into full communion with the Catholic Church. Often very quietly, but nearly always successfully, they have enriched her life.

The radical nature of those early times can easily be forgotten. It is now taken for granted that the process of assessing ex-Anglicans for ordination should be done by a "Triumvirate" here in England and not by the Curia in Rome. We accept the ordination of married men as an actuality, whereas then it was almost unknown in the world and completely untried in England.

The (unfounded) fear by some bishops that such priests would not be acceptable to ordinary parishes could only be appeased by the specific restriction that they should not be appointed as actual parish priests. Today we have whole families living in presbyteries.

For anyone who has shared the joy of an ex-Anglican's ordination it almost goes without notice that there is included within that rite a specific prayer "thanking God for that person's past sacramental life". How many were the hours of deliberation that were needed for that to be included? But initially it was not always quite like that. From 10 years on "the agony and the glory" of those times can quickly be forgotten.

I recall with pain how one Catholic bishop questioned whether we were "traitors and troublemakers" and claimed that in reality we were "only one-issue ultra-conservatives".

How often one had to say then - and sometimes even today - that the events of 11 November 1992 "were only the catalyst". The real issues that were exposed were those of Authority; the true nature of the Church; and, in the haunting words of Newman, that "the spell of the Church of England has been broken".

One quickly forgets that Frs Oliver McTernan, Sean Hall and three other priests circulated an "Open Letter" publicly disassociating themselves from our explorations and describing Cardinal Hume's conversations as "deeply disturbing" and a "potential for disruption and confusion". The method of our possible receptions was described as "divisive" and "subversive".

One could take comfort that historically similar outbursts and hostility had been shown before to previous generations of Anglicans who had made a similar journey; but it hurt none the less.

Sacrifices

One needed always to remind oneself as to how easy it can be for those already within the fold to fail to realise the sacrifices many ex-Anglicans (especially clergy) are required to make in order to "convert": the loss of home and future; sometimes destitution and ostracism; the often impossible conflict between what in conscience they know is imperative for them and their responsibilities for their families. And, above it all, quite rightly, the fact there can be no guarantee that their gifts will necessarily be used in a particular way by the Catholic Church in the future.

But God is always good. He frequently uses the agony of such circumstances for His own glory. One outcome - whenever a particular decision is hard to take - is that it usually results in it only being made by people with phenomenally high qualities. This was clearly in the mind of Cardinal Basil Hume when he openly emphasised, at the outcome of our discussions ten years ago, the importance of "the gifts that such people bring" and how their future life and work "will enrich the Catholic Church in England". And so it has proved to be.

Many of those ex-Anglicans who have become Catholics in the last ten years - clergy and laity - are now exercising their gifts and strengths in the daily life of the Church in a variety of ways. All are contributing to the mission of the Church and building up the Body of Christ.

In many parishes some are involved in catechetical work or administration; in others enriching the liturgy with their skills in music.

Some ex-Anglican clergy are now teaching in seminaries or inspiring parishes with their preaching and pastoral gifts. A few are in the forefront of leadership in the renewal or retreat movements of dioceses or the Church at large. There are now ex-Anglican Area Deans, as well as a Dean of a Cathedral.

Many - including married men - are administering parishes or servicing vibrant communities in prisons, schools or universities. In January, one of them, Fr Alan Hopes, was ordained as an auxiliary Bishop of Westminster. Like ex-Anglican Bishops Manning, Newman or Grant of Southwark in the 19th century, or Bishop Butler and others in the 20th, this is not only right for its own sake but it is also a powerful symbol (and reminder) of how the "doubters" and "scoffers" of ten years ago - like their predecessors before them - are being proved wrong.

We need to recall that under the grace of God, all converts to the Church enrich her because each and every one of them is a unique child of God and brings to the Church particular precious gifts and qualities. When the history of England in the 1990s can finally be written I am convinced that as far as the Catholic Church in this land is concerned, its judgement will once again be, Deo gratias!

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