Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Letter to the congregation

Following the recent events I have written to all members of our congregation. Here is the letter:

A letter to all members of the Congregation of St John the Baptist in Sevenoaks.

18th November 2009

My dear brothers and sisters,

So many different things have been thrown about on the media in these last few weeks regarding Anglo-Catholics. This media speculation was mostly inaccurate and also caused deep confusion. It has created a wind that will make the dust take longer to settle. I write to put in context and in order the events that have happened so that you can have, hopefully, a clearer picture of what is going on.

The background
For many years, it was our rightful delight to claim that the Church of England (CofE) is a broad Church that could hold together people of different Christian traditions and disciplines. We had different ways of doing good things but at the end of the day we all came together as members in full communion with the same Church. That broadness was being undermined since the late seventies. The trigger to this was the admission of women to Holy Orders. Many in the Church of England rightly questioned the ability of the CofE to do this without making reference to what other Christians in the world were saying. This is a point that the Archbishop of Canterbury emphasised in a letter he wrote to the Anglican Communion in July 2009. (http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2502).
Some members of the CofE decided to bring about some fundamental changes. For those who have not studied theology these seem trivial, but indeed are not. These matters go to the heart of what it means to be the Church faithful to Christ. The ordination of women to the priesthood and now to the episcopacy are part of a wider tendency to be led by public opinion rather then by the Gospel. For us Christians, Christ is the heart of our being, our minds are conformed to his and his Gospel is our law. Just look at the way the Gospel book and its proclamation is done at St John’s and you will see how central this is.

The dialogue with Rome
For the last 40 years, the CofE has been engaged in dialogue with the Roman Church. There were signs of great hope especially in the 1980’s. These talks were aimed at full unity,  but it is clear that what some in the CofE wanted was co-operation and not unity in Christ. Recall that every year for the past 100 years we spend a week every January praying for Church Unity and not inter church co-operation!

Our place in the map
St John’s always formed part of that movement in the CofE known as Anglo-Catholicism. Its main thrust was to uphold the faith as received from the apostles and to bring back unity with the Church of Rome. Many clergy and laity in this movement have devoted their lives, sometimes at great personal cost, to uphold the Faith Catholic within the CofE, whilst respecting and allowing space to other traditions. This is now becoming increasingly difficult. The issue of women priests is just one side of the argument and by no means the whole reason for this disunity.
You all know about those fateful debates in General Synod where it was believed that a show of hands could change the discipline of the Church Universal for the last 2000 years. St John’s took steps to ensure it stayed away from this dangerous innovation and was placed under the guidance of the Bishop of Fulham.

Of promises and trust
It is now increasingly clear that the structures and promises made by the CofE to Anglo-Catholics in 1992-94 were not genuine. They were aimed at the short term. It was believed that churches like ours would change their minds, accept the changes and in ten years time or so all would be history. How wrong they were! Seventeen years on St John’s is still here and thriving. The Anglo-Catholic movement is still producing men giving up their lives to become priests, it is a movement that is stronger than ever before with men and women engaged in proclaiming Christ to our nation. Look at what goes on here at St John’s.
Our position is a traditional one in the CofE. As General Synod was debating women bishops, the Catholic Group in Synod explained that although it is against the admittance of women in Holy Orders, it would not dictate on other people’s consciences and humbly asked to be given a separate and secure structure where it could live its life in integrity. It asked for a non-geographical diocese with its own bishop/s and to share resources with the CofE in all things possible. Every person of good will could see that what was being asked for was very simple and just. One would have thought that it would be a simple arrangement whereby the CofE could carry on with its innovative agenda and Anglo-Catholics could get on with their work in integrity. This has not been the case, year after year, the powers that be have shut and bolted every door we knocked on and have given strong indication that promise made will not be honoured. This undermines the broadness of the CofE, imposes on consciences and is a worrying sign of the thin end of the wedge: people rightly ask what next?
It is in this context that the recent events can be seen.

Take 1
In July 2008 General Synod decided to have women bishops with a code of practice for those of us who object in conscience. That meant that our priests and parishes would be dependent upon the willingness of the local bishop (male or female) to honour the code of practice and from experience we know what that would entail. In other words, General Synod was firmly pointing us towards the door. This unleashed uproar even from some bishops who ordained women and so a Revision Committee on Women in the Episcopate was established to look into it. No easy task.
On 8 October, this committee issued a press release saying that it had reached a consensus. Traditional bishops looking after Anglo-Catholics would not receive their authority from other bishops (as some would be women and therefore not bishops at all) but from statute, that is from the law of this land. So once consecrated a traditional bishop would receive his powers of jurisdiction automatically. Anglican fudge you might think and I agree with you but at least a place to start, a bargaining tool for when the whole matter arrives before General Synod.

Take 2
Over some years, around 50 Anglican bishops approached Rome for help. Rome signalled the imminent publication of a piece of law on the 20th October and published the whole thing on the 9th November. This is called an Apostolic Constitution (Roman Catholic equivalent for a Measure) and outlines what the Pope is offering to some Anglicans.
The document called Anglicanorum Coetibus (Groups of Anglicans) is the response of the Pope and the Church of Rome to the calls for help raised by some Anglicans. This document has awed Anglo-Catholics as no one expected the generosity that it displays. The Pope offered to some Anglicans what Anglo-Catholics have been asking General Synod for for years. The Pope offered non-geographical diocese-like structures called Ordinariates. He also encourages Anglo-Catholics to keep their distinctive Patrimony, i.e being Anglicans in Communion with the Church of Rome, whereby Anglo-Catholics can start receiving communion in an RC church and Roman Catholics can receive communion in our churches. This is the possible unity we have been praying for and now it is given. I recognise that the Pope is providing a sound structure from which I the Gospel can be proclaimed with integrity and joy.

Take 3
It is reasonable to think that after such generosity and understanding from Rome the CofE would think again and find ways to strengthen the bonds of love and unity. So it was a very painful day when on Saturday 14 November the same committee mentioned in Take 1 took back the promise it made last month and said that women bishops would be recommended to General Synod with or without a Code of Practice for Anglo-Catholics. And Anglo-Catholics have been saying forever that a Code of Practice will not do. I have to admit that this was my saddest day as a Priest in the CofE. I was made to feel unloved and unwanted, my ministry and work not recognised and no place of honour given to a Parish like ours which I have the joy and the great honour to serve and which in a short time I came to love dearly. Whatever the real reason behind this change of mind it just lengthens uncertainty and creates lack of mutual trust.

So, what next?
Nothing and everything. Just be aware of the facts, read if you want to the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Benedict XVI (it is not an inspiring document that will enhance your spiritual life as it is a piece of law, a very good one). You can find this on the web (www.vatican.va) or grab a copy from the back of church. I am sure that in due time and as the dust settles our bishops will speak to us.

PLEASE NOTE
Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that we are all in different places. Some will go one way others in another. What is vital is that we do not allow, for any reason or matter, animosity to enter among us. I recommend to you with all my heart to support each other and help each other in whatever decisions we take. Our Parish can and must show the CofE how things are done in the spirit of Christ. Respecting each others decision is not enough, we need to make sure that we help each other achieve whatever our consciences tell us. And this we must do in practical ways and in all love.

Conclusion
I am sorry to have written such a long letter. You can understand why journalists get it wrong as they need to put in a few inches all these matters that are so complex. I hope that this has answered some of the questions that you might have. I am sure all of us will have more questions to ask in due course and I trust that we will be given the space to ask them and the facilities to get replies. This will be a lengthy process that will span over some years. But here we stand together, never before did Anglo-Catholicsm have such a victory as this and so many choices before it. The old cry: “Set my people free” that dawned with the Exodus is still being answered as we journey together towards our promised land, following in those wonderful footsteps of the Lord.

Yours in his service,
Fr Ivan Dominic Aquilina SSC

3 comments:

Jacob Hicks said...

"He also encourages Anglo-Catholics to keep their distinctive Patrimony, i.e being Anglicans in Communion with the Church of Rome, whereby Anglo-Catholics can start receiving communion in an RC church and Roman Catholics can receive communion in our churches. This is the possible unity we have been praying for and now it is given. "

Father, this is surely slightly disingenous: members of the Ordinariate will be able to receive in Catholic churches because, once they have been *re*-confirmed, they will be Catholics. Once Ordinariate parishes have been provided with priests (which, apparently, the parishes considering this don't currently have), Catholics will be able to receive communion in them because they will be in a Catholic parish.

What will change is that no longer will non-Ordinariate Anglo-Catholics be able to receive in your churches and you won't be able to receive in theirs. The Parting of Friends indeed.

Fr Ivan D Aquilina SSC said...

Many thanks for your comment. I see the question of Confirmation and Ordination to be part of the Ordinariate slightly different from the way you do. I respect your opinion but I do not agree with it. I am not a Roman Catholic priest. The ordination I received was from the Anglican Church. To be part of the family of the Church in Rome, if that is where God is calling me to be, I need to receive also the Roman ordination. Nowhere is it said that I would need to deny my ministry as an Anglican Priest, which I surely am not able to. The same applies for the laity. It is not a denial of the confirmation they have received from an Anglican Bishop but a visible sign of being admitted in a wider family.
If people do not wish to be admitted in the wider family then we need to respect that as they need to respect that they are not able to partake of the sacramental banquet. It does not mean that there will be cessation of friendship, I have many good Roman Catholic friends and the fact that we are not in sacramental communion does not exclude our strong friendship.

Alban said...

The Church of England continues to make all the running here but then she always has. Let us hope however that the liberal majority are generous (after all that is one of the true meanings of liberal).

Is it too much to ask that they let this conservative little rump (their undoubted view of those who hold to tradition) move towards full communion with the Holy See taking their processions with them, i.e., churches, halls, parsonages and the like. Surely this would be a small price to pay for singleness of mind and a new uniformity in the liberal camp, i.e. the new twenty-first century Church of England.

‘Let my people go’!