Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Fr David Elliott: Choosing an honourable path

Fr David Elliott, of the Most Holy Trinity, Reading, writes these words on his blog:

Followers of this blog may wonder why the posts have been fewer in recent weeks. For the first part of October I was away on holiday/retreat in Italy enjoying a much needed recharge of batteries. On return we had the joys of the Forward in Faith National Assembly. I have as a consequence spent much of this month pondering the future. My own future, the future of the parish I serve, and the future of others in the 'catholic wing' of the Church of England.

I have been much struck in the past year by the number of people from around the world who have assured me personally and the parish of HTR of their prayers. This was magnified by my recent trip to Italy. Many of the nuns I met in various bookshops and other outlets indicated their fervent prayers for us. A Roman Catholic seminary I visited not only showed hospitality beyond expectation but assured their prayers for us and for the success of the ordinariate. In contrast I have hardly received any such messages from the Church of England. These and other issues give a great deal to ponder. Below I offer some thoughts under three brief headings.


Many of us who have not only considered ourselves catholic but who have considered the Church of England to be part of the Church catholic find ourselves in a peculiar position. Our Oxford Movement forebears were able to claim that the Church of England was catholic. Indeed many were angry at the the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in Britain precisely because it cast a shadow on that which they were claiming. As the Roman Catholic Church has re-established itself in these islands we have continued to make claims that the Church of England is catholic. But something has changed. One of the most poignant parts of the recent Forward in Faith conference was the valedictory speech of Dr Geoffrey Kirk who for two and half decades has done more than anyone else to promote the catholic argument within the Church of England. One of the conclusions he has come to realise, and with which I concur, is that the Church of England has taken the decisions it has about women priests and now bishops while we have deluded ourselves about the bogus doctrine of reception as a lifeline for us. We may call ourselves catholic, but when the church to which you belong has no regard for doctrine or the sacraments one must realise that you can't have a catholic PART of the Church. Either a church is Catholic or it is not.

The distinction between our us and our Oxford Movement forebears is that they were kicking up a stink to remind the Church of England that it IS catholic. We are kicking up a stink to tell the Church of England that it is NOT catholic. If we want to be catholic and we are saying that the church to which we blong is not, what's the point in trying to get a haven for ourselves within a church we believe is un-catholic?


Much has been made in recent days privately and in the press about the catholic group in synod. William Oddie has written an excellent piece on the Catholic Herald Website. I note also however that the chairman of this group unwisely wrote a letter in last Friday's Catholic Herald to express his deep regret that Bishop John Broadhurst had signalled his intention to resign. Bishop Broadhurst's reasons will run deep. He has invested a large part of his life to fighting a cause for catholicism within the Church of England. His reasons for now leaving must run along the lines of that which I have written above. But it is important for Canon Killwick and others in the General Synod of a catholic persuasion to note that just as Bishop John has made a monumental decision, their decision to 'stay and fight' is no less monumental. And just as Bishop John will have to justify his reasons so will they. I believe that the decision of most of those who wish to fight on derives from an honourable position to see the business through. Many of them have themselves invested great time and energies to the process thus far and are keen to ensure they look after those who are unlikely ever to leave the Church of England. What is so very difficult however is to see how this can be done in an honourable way.

Another speech at FiF was from Preb. David Houlding, the former head of the catholic group in Synod. He forwarded two contradictory arguments. He argued quite rightly that once you had women priests you have to have women bishops because otherwise you are discriminating on the grounds of gender, but what was needed was generous provision for those who object. With another breath he said (and has since been confirmed in the press) that they think they have a 'blocking vote' in the house of laity with a combination of the Traditional catholic and Conservative Evangelical votes. In other words, there have to be women bishops, but unless we get what we want we'll stamp our feet and block it. Aside from whether this would be an honourable course, it would almost certainly lead to the annihilation of any residual goodwill on the part of those who may be sympathetic to catholics.

No less serious in my mind is this extraordinary alliance with the Conservative Evangelicals. Are we to understand that those with whom on other issues we disagree almost entirely are to be the catholics' bedfellows on women bishops? Is the trade off that lay presidency at the Eucharist is OK (we all know it already happens unofficially). Are catholics to lay down every other principle in order to block a piece of legislation to be passed by an organisation which we already know to be un-catholic? I believe that even were this chain of events to transpire (which would require nobody dying or changing their mind as happened in the early 90s) history would judge those involved as dishonourable. The evangelical dimension is however interesting in another aspect of this current debate:


The Society model as promoted by some 'catholic' bishops has been widely ridiculed not least by Damian Thompson on his excellent 'Holy Smoke' blog. Unlike the previous section I am less concerned here with the 'honourable path' as the 'catholic path'. The Missionary Society of S. Wilfred and S. Hilda is after all intended (as far as one can tell, though it is very difficult to tell anything about it other than it exists - and the jury is even out on that) for catholics who want to remain (either for all time, or just for a while till they are ready to leave or something like that, maybe) in the Church of England. It strikes me that they have a number of options open to them which they may wish to pursue (possibly all of them over time). The question I have for each of these options is: is it catholic?

1) The society model may wish to work with the catholic group on synod to get 'the best possible deal' for those who wish to remain in the Church of England. Aside from my concerns expressed above about being a catholic 'bit' of the Church of England there is a more fundamental question. If some deal is hammered out with the help of Evangelicals and having held the Church of England to ransom, which bishops will sit in a House of Bishops or College of Bishops with one woman on it? It cannot be catholic to do this and turn a blind eye, nor can it be acceptable to say I believe those 99 men are bishops but don't believe that woman is. At this point we enter again into the realm of gender discrimination and the ecclesiological gymnastics involved are simply NOT CATHOLIC.

2) Perhaps there is a will to break away and form some sort of continuing church as we have seen elsewhere in the Anglican Communion. Catholic societies have quite rightly always objected to continuing Anglican churches on the understanding that they are a further fracture and wound in the body of Christ which is the Church. The argument promoted through the history of Anglo-catholicism is that the Church of England is a wound we wish to heal. To break away from the break away is a move away from unity, not a move towards it. It must therefore as an option be NOT CATHOLIC.

3) Perhaps therefore the Socety may wish to become disobedient if they don't get their own way. The great problem ARCIC found throughout the history of negotiations is that the Anglican Churches have a problem with Authority (hence 3 reports on it so far as opposed to 1 on any other issue). Authority is necessary for catholicism - disobedience is NOT CATHOLIC. The argument might be forwarded... what about all those disobedient Victorian catholics sent to prison by their bishops for being disobedient. There is a difference inasmuch as they were disobedient to remind their bishops that they 'were' catholic, whereas this society if it were disobedient would be doing so to tell its bishops that they were not being proper catholics. Well if the Church authorities are not catholic, then neither are the people under them. You cannot have a catholic 'bit' of a church.

4) Perhaps the society sees itself along the lines of the societies and personal prelatures in the Roman Catholic Church. There is a significant difference in that a society in the RC Church is in full communion with that Church. The society model in the RC Church is not an 'alternative to' but an 'as well as'. The latter is catholic, the former is NOT CATHOLIC.

So... is there a future for the Society model. In short, yes. The Society model is a perfect model for disgruntled evangelicals. They too have set up a society (I think it is going to be named after S. Augustine (of Canterbury I guess, not of Hippo)) and for them this is an ideal model. They have very different scruples about what is a church and the society model will work perfectly well for them. They also have the advantage in this situation of not being against women priests but only against women in authority (an incumbent or a bishop) which would make the society model ideal for them precisely because they are NOT CATHOLIC.

No comments: