He’s a cheerful and friendly man with a warm smile. He’d probably describe himself as “ordinary.” Which would be exceptionally accurate, because that is absolutely and literally what he is. Msgr. Keith Newton is the new Ordinary of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Msgr. Newton—born and brought up in Liverpool, a former bishop in the Church of England, and a man with much pastoral experience, including several years as a missionary in Africa—was appointed when the ordinariate was formed in January 2011. He was ordained a Catholic priest along with two fellow former Anglican bishops in a packed Westminster Cathedral on a day that opened a new chapter in Britain’s ecclesiastical history.
Just in case you’ve somehow managed to miss or ignore the significance of the Ordinariate, here’s what it’s all about.
Benedict Makes History
Some 20 years ago—in November 1992, to be precise—the General Synod of the Church of England, voting in London, decided to ordain women as priests. This shattered any hopes for future formal unity with the Catholic Church. A number of Anglican clergy and laity left the Church of England and joined the Catholic Church. A substantial group, while sharing a conviction that the Church of England had no authority to ordain women, remained and formed themselves into a network of parishes for which eventually special provision was made. Three bishops were appointed to minister to them. Nicknamed “flying bishops,” they travelled the country to visit the various churches, ordain clergy, and preside at ceremonies.
But the position was always precarious. For those who genuinely believed in apostolic succession, the crunch was going to come if and when the Church of England voted to create women bishops. When the Synod voted to do just that, a new situation arose.
Back in 1992, the Anglican clergy who looked to Rome had a number of meetings during which they asked if it might be possible for them to have some form of arrangement in which elements of the Anglican heritage—specifically in liturgy and in associated customs and traditions—might be retained. It seemed achievable, but it was not to be, and eventually the various clergy made their own way individually to ordination in the Catholic Church.
But one of those in Rome who had been central to the discussions was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and by the time of the major Anglican vote on women bishops, he was pope. He listened to the new plea from the remaining Anglicans who now looked to Rome. He took hold of the situation with both hands and offered them a lifeline. In October 2009, he issued Anglicanorum Coetibus, an invitation to Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church as parish groups, lay people together with their clergy, coming home to Rome and bringing with them all that they could of their liturgy, customs, heritage, and traditions hat would be compatible with the Catholic faith.
The three “flying bishops” and a good number of clergy and laity responded. They made the decision to say a grateful “Yes” to the pope, and history began to happen.
“We Believe the Catholic Faith”
“It’s been quite an emotional time for people—in some cases people are leaving behind churches where they have worshipped all their lives,” said Msgr. Newton when I met him to talk about all of this. He was guest speaker at a conference of an international Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need—one of several groups that in recent months has been inviting him to come and talk and tell Catholics about the Ordinariate and future plans.
“The Apostolic Constitution [Anglicanorum Coetibus] was a response to a number of Anglicans who had approached Rome and said: Look, what we believe is the Catholic faith, and all that we really want to do is lead our people to union with Rome.”
The three “flying bishops” were united in their approach to Rome, and remain strongly linked as a team.
“What we were offered was astonishing. People say that the Catholic Church thinks in centuries—but this all happened with astonishing speed. And now here we are. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wanted to have men in place to greet the clergy and people as they joined the Catholic Church.” One of the “flying bishops” was clearly going to be appointed to head the new structure, and as Msgr. Newton puts it simply: “the lot fell to me.”
A New Kind of Shepherd
He has a tough assignment. Some 60-70 former clergy elected to join the new Ordinariate, bringing with them varying numbers of laity from their parishes—the final tally seems to be something just over a thousand. Many of the clergy are married and some have young families. All will need housing. Some of the wives have jobs, but many don’t as they are busy raising the children at home.
“In the Constitution it states clearly that the Ordinary has responsibility for the needs of his flock,” notes Msgr. Newton wryly. “I asked about this, and the message came back clearly: Trust in the Lord!”
So far, the trust hasn’t been misplaced—fundraising is ongoing, and there has been a welcome from Catholic parishes and from Catholic priests. “Our clergy will clearly be working closely with local priests. Some of our Ordinariate parishes will be small at first, perhaps 40 people. So there will be plenty of opportunity for our clergy to give help elsewhere—Masses, the sacraments. Already all sorts of things are being worked out.”
Initially, the new Ordinariate parishes will share facilities with local Catholics. Hopes that there might be possibilities for using Anglican churches have, so far, been in vain. Perhaps attitudes will change as the years go by, but Msgr. Newton is not relying on that. He is too busy with today’s practicalities. His duties are wide-ranging.
“Essentially, the Ordinariate will function like a diocese—I will do everything that a bishop of a diocese does, except that I can’t ordain. So I will ask a bishop to do that.” He cannot be a bishop himself because he is married. The Newtons are a very united family: His wife entered the Catholic Church alongside him and was present at his ordination as a Catholic priest in Westminster Cathedral. The three wives of the three former Anglican bishops presented their husbands with vestments, in an unforgettable and moving scene, unique in the cathedral’s history. Later, one of the first acts of the newly ordained Fr. Newton was to baptize his first granddaughter. His daughter Lucy had become a Catholic some while before and is married to a Catholic. Their first child arrived, very opportunely, suitably in time for Grandpa’s ordination.
It has perhaps been something of a roller-coaster ride for Msgr. Newton. There are huge new responsibilities, limited resources, and no map for guidance, because the whole concept of the Ordinariate is a new one. But things have been falling into place one by one. And the human side of things has always been reassuring. “On the evening of the ordination at Westminster Cathedral, we were relaxing at home, and the doorbell rang—it was a local Catholic priest with a bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates for us. We were so touched. And it’s been like that all the way along—so much warmth and friendliness.”
A Glimmer of Hope
Britain is in many ways a very secularized society, with churchgoing definitely a minority occupation. But the Anglican tradition has become part of the weave of British life—its hymns, its Harvest Festivals and candlelight carol services, its presence in people’s minds for baptisms and weddings and funerals. In the last two to three decades, that presence has been steadily less and less of a reality: Most weddings now take place at secular venues, baptizing babies is no longer the norm, and even funerals are not viewed as having to be Christian. The great hope could be that before the folk memory fades, the Ordinariate can capture the best of the old Anglican tradition and bring it alive—breathing into it fresh life and joy, the truth of the Catholic faith.
That is a large project for what has begun as a collection of small groups—but the Ordinariate will grow. The talk is now of the “second wave,” and the practicalities are the full-time job of Msgr. Newton and his team. Support from the wider Catholic community has not been lacking and there is a sense that, at a time when the Christian scene in Europe generally seems bleak, something is stirring in Britain. Watch and pray.