Former Anglican Clergymen Bolster British Catholicism


It is now a decade and a half since the "big exodus" in Britain of clergymen from Anglicanism to the Catholic Church. Today, you will find former Anglicans in all sorts of places in the Church—one is an auxiliary bishop in Westminster, another a monsignor, several are university chaplains, one is the director of a major Catholic charity, and another is a leading journalist and writer.

When the Church of England voted in November 1992 to ordain women to the priesthood, it brought a major crisis to those who had always considered themselves, although Anglican, to be part of the wider Catholic Church.

"The scales fell from my eyes" is an expression often used by those in this position. They also cite the need to be able to trust. One convert put it like this: "As an Anglican I seemed to spend a lot of my time shoring up the walls against heresy. As a Catholic you simply don’t need to keep doing that—you have a locus of authority."

The Clergy: A Matter of Integrity

In the fifteen years that have elapsed since the Church of England’s General Synod decision, some 400 clergymen have left the Anglican communion to become Catholics. Not all have gone on to the priesthood—some are working in various fields, some Church-related, some not. In one case, a man returned to the Church of England and resumed his former ministry.

Those who have become Catholic priests have brought considerable vigor, dedication, and commitment to the Church. These men were offered a special form of re-training which involved working part-time as lay assistants in parishes while attending a two-year program at a diocesan seminary. Ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood then followed. Pope John Paul II urged the English bishops to "be generous" in dealing with these men, recognizing that this was a crucial moment in British Church history. His advice was followed. Today, these men seem to have fitted into Catholic life in Britain as if into a seamless garment.

Those who converted included five retired Anglican bishops, one of whom—Dr. Graham Leonard, the former Bishop of London—became a spokesman for many of the clergy. He is today a monsignor, and a patron of the "Path to Rome" conferences run by the Catholic Miles Jesu movement.

The decision to leave the Anglican communion was not easy (although Anglican authorities noted the specific issues raised by the ordination of women and offered a special package of financial and other assistance in recognition of the years of service these men had given).

"It was much harder for some men than for others" says Fr. Peter Edwards, now parish priest of St Joseph’s Catholic Church in New Malden, a London suburb.

Of course for married men it often meant big sacrifices and risks—the loss of home, of a clear career path, and so on. But you cannot look back, and you have to trust God. The only moment that you can ever fully live is the present one. That is the only reality that exists for you and for which you can take responsibility, doing the right thing and trusting God to help you to do it.

Fr. Peter was vicar of a church at Swanley in Kent, and he left the Church of England with both his curates and some 30 members of his congregation. He emphasizes that for each it was a personal decision—there was no dramatic farewell sermon or exhortation. The decision has to be based on truth and reality.

"You don’t become a Catholic because you dislike things about the Anglican Church," he says. "You become a Catholic because you recognize that is where truth and authority reside." And there is more. "Once the scales fall from your eyes and you see that it is just a fantasy to assume that there can be a form of Catholic priesthood within the Anglican communion, then you must leave—it becomes a matter of integrity."

Another who followed this path was the Rev. Alan Hopes, a London clergyman, whose curate Rev. Peter Wilson also made the decision.

"I went to see my vicar, to tell him that I had made up my mind," Fr. Wilson recalls. "And he told me that he was taking the same path!" Fr. Wilson is now Catholic chaplain at London University, running Newman House, a residence for students and center of Catholic activities. Rev. Alan Hopes went on to become a priest too. He was appointed parish priest in Chelsea—where the church is dedicated to the Holy Redeemer and St. Thomas More—and was then consecrated a bishop of the Diocese of Westminster, working with the Archbishop, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

Three of the converts with whom I spoke for this feature were named Peter—the third is Fr. Peter Geldard, now chaplain at the University of Kent at Canterbury. He had been the leading spokesman in the Church of England for those who opposed the move for women’s ordination, and in that capacity was prominent in all media debates, on the BBC, in the press, and on independent TV and radio stations. When he became a Catholic, all that stopped. He has no regrets at all.

"All I wanted was to be a Catholic priest," he says. "Part of the delight has been that, in the Catholic Church, there is no need to campaign and crusade about issues of doctrine—these are simply truths and you have the assurance that they cannot and will not change."

At Kent, Fr. Geldard is based at St. John Stone House—named after one of the English Martyrs, who during the Reformation maintained the Catholic faith and was executed for it. The chaplaincy is a rather ugly modern building, built in the 1970s and with a chapel which is bleak and rather small. But this is a busy chaplaincy, offering not only Mass and the sacraments for the students, but also talks, instruction in the faith, opportunities for community service, occasional retreats and pilgrimages, and a social life with other Catholics.

A certain attention to liturgy and a commitment to doing things well seem to be trademarks of Anglican converts. There is a deep understanding that true Catholic liturgy is the work of God, not a showcase thing, and not something with which to tamper. "You don’t mess with the liturgy of the Church—it’s not our plaything" is how Fr. Peter Wilson puts it. He celebrates Mass with packed congregations in the too-small chapel at Newman House, and is in the throes of working on plans for a badly needed expansion of the chaplaincy.

Meanwhile Canterbury Cathedral, headquarters of worldwide Anglicanism, welcomes millions of visitors each year. Pope John Paul came here in 1982 and prayed with the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie, at the tomb of St. Thomas Becket. At that time, hopes for Anglican/Catholic reunion seemed high—but the move to ordain women meant that a certain dialogue simply ran into the ground. A common view on priesthood—and, as it turned out, on a number of other issues—was simply not present.

The Laity: One Step Enough

Not all those who convert become priests. Neville Kyrke-Smith decided before the issue of women’s ordination had reached the Church of England’s General Synod. He had been curate at Littlemore—the church built by John Henry Newman in what was then a poor village just outside Oxford—and later vicar of a major Anglican shrine at Willesden in North London.

Married, with a young family, he sought employment as a layman, eventually becoming director of the British section of Aid to the Church in Need, the international Catholic charity founded by Fr. Werenfried van Straaten, which helps Catholics in countries where they are persecuted. He had already, as an Anglican, been involved with helping churches in what was then the Communist bloc of countries in eastern Europe.

His advice to anyone questioning the position of the Anglican Church—especially now that creation of women bishops has become an issue, and with acceptance of homosexual marriage on the horizon—is to look at things from a wide perspective.

"Look outside the Anglican communion at the historical Church which has not been so damaged and blown about by contemporary winds. Keep searching. Don’t be afraid. There are leaps of faith. Remember Newman’s words and take one step at a time: ‘one step enough for me.’ Place your trust in God."

Like others, he stresses the joy and serenity that is to be found in reaching home: "There is an inner peace in the historical Church, with the saints and Our Lady praying for you in all the challenges of life."

Does he have any regrets?

I still miss the music, some of the beautiful churches, and the dignified liturgies of the C. of E. But all that is external. The Catholic Church is "all glorious within." The inner truth is carried, even if the external vessel is a bit leaky—and Benedict XVI is working on these issues now anyway.

Another former clergyman who took a lay position is Dr. William Oddie, who went on to become editor of the Catholic Herald and a distinguished writer and broadcaster.

Leaky Roofs and Naming Ceremonies

Meanwhile, what of the Church of England? Long years ago, John Henry Newman, the most prominent convert of the 19th century, referred to it as a "bulwark against atheism." This was true of Britain at the height of the Victorian era. Large numbers attended church, and belief in God was at the core of attitudes conveyed in school and home.

But this is no longer the case. Today, church attendance in Britain is a minority activity. Catholics now outnumber Anglicans in terms of those actually attending on Sundays—although this is due in no small measure to the recent surge in Polish immigration. Other denominations—notably the growing "Black churches" with African and West Indian members—are also of importance. But most people in Britain attend no form of Christian worship. In many cities Islam is a dominant religion, with mosques a notable feature of the landscape, and Islamic dress a normal part of life in the streets and shops.

The Church of England still lays claim to the historic creeds, and—especially in some Evangelical parishes—shows evidence of life and dedication. Young people gather to pray, and baptisms and confirmations are held. In addition, the ancient cathedrals still ring with the beautiful sound of Anglican choirs, people go to church at Christmas and Easter, and major royal events are still marked with church services.

But how long can this last? In cities, old churches are now too large for small congregations of faithful worshippers. Upkeep can be a massive headache: Leaking roofs admit rain, and vast interior spaces need to be heated at immense cost. In rural areas, caring for medieval buildings is a problem, even though they are cherished and loved. Regular maintenance can prove impossible where many inhabitants of the villages are second-home owners whose connection with the local church is nonexistent.

Recent changes in the law enable weddings to take place at any officially registered place, so hotels, country clubs, and old castles have become popular venues. The role of the Church of England in "hatching, matching, and dispatching"—baptisms, weddings, and funerals—is fading from public consciousness. Funerals take place at crematoria which have interdenominational chapels for this purpose. Baptisms are neglected in favor of "naming ceremonies"—a new trend—with poetry, music, and a lavish party.

In the face of all this, the Church of England seems ill-equipped to face the challenges. In the 1960s Bishop John Robinson published Honest to God, a book which appeared to question Christ’s divinity and provoked a nationwide debate. Today, even that seems mild, as the Anglican communion is rent by disputes over issues that were not open to question among Christians for centuries.

Britain’s Post-Protestant Future

The death of Pope John Paul and subsequent election of Pope Benedict dominated the media in Britain in the spring of 2005, prompting a letter to the editor of a national newspaper asking whether or not Britain was still a Protestant nation. The answer, of course, is that it is not. But neither is it Catholic. It could probably best be described as "post-Protestant," with a deep-rooted Christian heritage. Schools are still expected to teach Christianity—although other religions must be taught as well—and pupils are meant to receive basic instruction in the events of the New Testament. Christmas and Easter are still marked by televised services from well-known cathedrals. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a recognized public figure whose speeches are reported and whose comments are sought on issues of the day. But can this last?

It seems unlikely that there will be another major exodus from the Church of England. Those who, while opposing the ordination of women, remained in the Anglican communion, belong to "Forward in Faith" and have their own magazine, New Directions. There is talk of a "Third Province"—a non-geographical province in addition to the geographical ones of Canterbury and York—that would cater to traditionally minded Anglicans. These already have their own bishops, who perform ordinations and confirmations so that they do not have to be part of the structures involving women clergy, whose orders they do not accept as valid. The future looks confusing.

If female bishops become the norm, will everyone accept the ministry of those ordained by such women? How will things work? And will there be any unity on other issues?

There is no "Bible Belt" in Britain, and enthusiastic Evangelical Christianity, while it can be found, is not a dominant force in community or political life. Indeed, any public expression of it is often dismissed as "an American import." However, there are courageous Evangelical campaigners, in groups such as the Christian Institute, which speaks out for Christian values in public life, and in the pro-life movement.

Talk of the future also involves discussions about the British monarchy. What form will the next coronation take? Everyone hopes—and expects—that it will occur many years hence. But discussions focus on what form of religious life will prevail in Britain by that time. Will the coronation be a multi-faith service? An Anglican ceremony with members of other religions invited? Will a female Archbishop of Canterbury preside?

Meanwhile the Catholic Church faces its own problems—similar to those in the rest of Europe and in America and Australia. We need more priests, a restoration of beauty and dignity to the liturgy, and better instruction in the faith in Catholic schools. We need bishops who will defend the Church’s teachings and call us all to courage in the face of an often brutal secularized culture. But one message which has emerged in Britain is that the Church has an ability to renew itself, that God brings new gifts when they are needed, and that we should trust him and seek to do, each day, what is right—and let him lead us on.

SIDEBAR

Who Worships in the UK?

In an April 2007 poll, 53 percent of adults in the UK surveyed identified themselves as Christian, while 6 percent identified themselves as non-Christian. The remainder of those surveyed claimed no religion.

Among those surveyed:

  • 10 percent (4.9 million) attend church weekly
  • 15 percent (7.6 million) attend church regularly (at least once a month)
  • 7 percent (3.4 million) attend church between one and six times a year
  • 28 percent (13.7 million) no longer attend church
  • 32 percent (15.6 million) have never attended church.

(From "Churchgoing in the UK" an April 2007 research report by Tearfund, a Christian relief and development organization)


Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster, and journalist living in London with her husband, a lawyer. Her most recent book is English Catholic...

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 1.