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The Ordinariate may be Benedict XVI’s most enduring gift to the Church.

Ordinariate. The word is not familiar to most Catholics and has a slightly clumsy ring to it. And the concept, while not particularly difficult to explain, needs to be put into its historical context for its importance to be realized. But the project is a crucial one.

The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in Great Britain was established by Benedict XVI: a call to members of the Church of England, both clerical and lay, to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, bringing with them their customs, traditions, music, and heritage—all those things that can be described as an “Anglican patrimony.” It is now three years old, and it is worth reporting on its progress. I am focusing on Britain, and indeed on my native London, but there are Ordinariates for Australia and for North America.

The Ordinariate may be Benedict XVI’s most enduring gift to the Church. It is certainly going to be of lasting importance for the English-speaking world. And for anyone with a sense of history, it is something rather moving and carries a resonance that takes it out of the realm of the practical and everyday (although it is both of those things, too).

This writer is an English Catholic with no special link to the Church of England; childhood visits to Anglican churches were for special services or to explore history on country walks. But our family believed in goodwill between all Christians, and this was also the era of strong ecumenical efforts. Like most Catholics of my generation, I grew up to work with—and admire, and serve under—Christians of all denominations on campaigns supporting marriage, opposing pornography, and defending unborn babies.

My husband is a convert; he joined the Catholic Church a couple of years before we met. My involvement in the Ordinariate, therefore, is that of a Catholic who, recognizing the riches of an Anglican tradition which I am aware is a part of my country’s heritage, felt a thrill when news of the Ordinariate burst upon our mass media. It seemed the fulfilment of so many hopes and prayers.

Some four hundred years after Henry VIII’s break with the Church, the Ordinariate comes in the wake of ecumenical goodwill generated by the Second Vatican Council and following two highly successful papal visits to Britain by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Benedict’s was a formal state visit and included an address by the Pope in Westminster Great Hall. It was here that St. Thomas More—and later St. Edmund Campion and his martyr companions—faced trial and condemnation to death. For a pope to be welcomed here, led in by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury to the sound of trumpets, would have been unimaginable even a few decades earlier.

Of course, the Ordinariate has its own specific history. It came formally into existence in 2009 with the announcement of Benedict’s Anglicanorum Coetibus—literally, an appeal “to groups of Anglicans.” And the origins of this in turn lay further back.

In 1992 the General Synod of the Church of England voted to ordain women as priests, and this closed the door on any formal reunion with the Catholic Church. After this, there were meetings in Rome between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Anglicans who longed for union with the Church but were in anguish over the Synod decision and seeking some way forward.

And so to the Ordinariate. Its founding in Britain in January 2011 involved the ordination in Westminster Cathedral of three former Anglican bishops as Catholic priests. These had been the “flying bishops” created by the Church of England to minister to Anglicans who could not in conscience accept women’s ordination and who had formed a network of parishes under the banner “Forward in faith.”

Now ordained Catholic priests in full communion with Rome, these former bishops would minister to the parishes of the newly formed Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, under the patronage of Bl. John Henry Newman (beatified by Benedict XVI in 2010). The leader, Msgr. Keith Newton, was appointed the ordinary, with the authority and status of a bishop; the other two were appointed his assistants.

Thus, today, as an English Catholic, I can attend evensong in a London Ordinariate church with a Sunday school, church wardens, harvest Thanksgiving, and other Anglican traditions. There is an Ordinariate rite of Mass, with language from the Book of Common Prayer (though most Ordinariate priests use the ordinary Roman Rite).

But the number of Ordinariate-run parishes is small. There had been hopes—given the years of goodwill that preceded the Ordinariate—that when Anglican clergy and their flocks wished to unite with Rome they would be allowed to continue using their own churches, perhaps under a sharing arrangement.

But nothing of the sort has been offered by the Church of England. Instead, when the first wave of Anglicans sought to join the Ordinariate, they were told to leave their churches and vicarages and were suddenly homeless and without income.

The Catholic Church, of course, rallied with funds and accommodation. While the former Anglican clergy were undertaking study and training in preparation for ordination as Catholic priests (a procedure known among them as “being resprayed”), they continued to meet with the members of their flocks who had entered the Catholic Church with them.

And then after ordination—what happened? The situation has varied. Some former Anglicans have been given Catholic parishes and are functioning as ordinary Catholic priests, sometimes in parishes, sometimes as hospital chaplains or in similar roles. But some Catholic churches have been given over officially to Ordinariate care.

In London, there are two such churches. One is in Warwick Street near Piccadilly Circus. This church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory, is the “headquarters” church, and Msgr. Keith Newton and his wife live in the rectory. The church has a rich history: It was originally the chapel of the Portugese Embassy, and, back in recusant days (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries) was thus a place where Catholic Londoners could attend Mass in safety, being technically foreign soil.

Today it has a regular Sunday Mass in the Ordinariate rite with a professional choir, and it hosts the Ordinariate’s annual Chrism Mass and special events such as Nine Lessons and Carols at Christmas.

Across the Thames, in the diocese of Southwark, is the Church of the Most Precious Blood at London Bridge. Here, Ordinariate priest Fr. Christopher Pearson runs a thriving and growing parish in which former Anglicans from his church of St Agnes at Kennington have meshed with long-time parishioners in what is rapidly becoming a look-this-is-how-it-could-be-done scenario.

Sunday’s main Mass is always sung—various English settings, an occasional Missa de Angelis—and there is a thriving Sunday school to which children walk in procession during the Gloria. There is a full program of parish activities ranging from Lenten evening talks to carol singing at the big London Bridge railway station in December. Msgr. Keith Newton came to administer the sacrament of Confirmation earlier this year, and the Archbishop of Southwark came to dedicate a shrine to Bl. John Henry Newman.

Processions led by the rector in cope and biretta —one in May honoring our Lady, another for Palm Sunday, and the big Corpus Christi procession in June—have become features of local life. One such procession recently appeared in an advertisement promoting London’s tourist attractions.

The parish has, frankly, been transformed by the arrival of the Ordinariate. The church, once grubby and neglected, has been cleaned, new heating installed, the sacristy restored to its former beauty (it has a fine Victorian ceiling that had been boarded over), the choir loft put back in use, and statues rediscovered.

The liturgy is reverent, the sermons excellent. Mass attendance has risen steadily and is still rising. Ecumenical relationships are good: the rector led an interdenominational Walk of Witness, starting at the Anglican cathedral, on Good Friday. Catholics, Anglicans, and others join together for Remembrance Day at the local war memorial.

Could the future see other Catholic parishes given to Ordinariate care and thriving in this way? Yes, but in order for this to happen our bishops need to be forward-looking, large-minded, and quietly courageous. Media coverage of the Ordinariate has not been kind: One major newspaper headlined it with “Pope parks his tanks on the Anglican lawn.” Some Anglicans have been fairly open in their dislike of the project.

Numbers in the Ordinariate are small. Eighty Anglican clergy have joined so far. Funds are needed; leaving the Anglican ministry means losing home and income. But the venture has begun, and it is a sign of hope and vigor at a time when the Catholic Church needs it.

A parishioner at Precious Blood church sums it up: “I’ve never looked back, not even for one moment. This is what we always prayed for.”

Pope Benedictus XVI at a private audience, January 20, 2006. Photo by Giuseppe Ruggirello

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