Two Anglo-Catholic Moments
  • Friday, May 10, 2013

By Zachary Guiliano

Two celebrations in mid-April marked contemporary Anglo-Catholic life in the Church of England: a “Solemn Pontifical Mass with the Commissioning of Dr. Colin Podmore as Director of Forward in Faith,” held at St. Alban’s, Holborn, April 15, and a “Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit” at Church of the Annunciation, Marble Arch, April 18, for the launch of the group Anglican Catholic Future. To an outside observer unschooled in the subtleties and shades of Anglo-Catholic expression, the two meetings might have seemed much the same.

They both met in historic bastions of London Anglo-Catholicism. Both used nomenclature rarely seen elsewhere (e.g. Pontifical, Votive). The celebrating bishops, in both cases, described the Mass as a “foretaste” of the eschatological gathering of God’s people. Many a genuflection and sign of the cross were made in the course of both. The Regina Cæli was sung with an exuberance normally reserved in the U.K. for the football field rather than the sanctuary. And, of course, a tasteful wine reception with conversation followed each Mass, where the term Catholic was bandied about like it was going out of fashion. But the devil, as well as the divine, is often in the details, and a number of differences were evident.

Forward in Faith
If those planning the Solemn Pontifical Mass hoped for an awe-inspiring show of unity, they were surely successful. The crowd of more than 400 filled St. Alban’s to capacity. Rarely have I attended a Mass with such joyous and overwhelming singing. Although some worshipers noted that the service observed an admirable restraint (as one told me, “it could have been more Roman”), the presence of nearly 70 concelebrants in matching chasubles assured that Pontifical carried more than one resonance: Vatican City is normally the theater for such sights. More significantly, of this number, 11 were bishops. Still, the symbolism was not lost, given the purpose of the meeting: a commissioning.

Rather than coming across as a cowed theological minority, as some might imagine Forward in Faith (FiF) to be, those present seemed quite ready to meet the future with confidence. Although there was no preoccupation with the issue of women’s ordination, no apologetic tone was struck either. In the words of the Rt. Rev. Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham and chairman of Forward in Faith: “It is a tragedy, and an astonishing one at that” that those opposing women’s ordination should be considered “disloyal, a fifth column perhaps,” when FiF understands itself as “deeply committed to the widest, most inclusive vision of unity and catholicity.”

Bishop Baker and Dr. Podmore, in their respective sermon and comments, emphasized a generosity of spirit and a commitment to the Church of England which is, whether fairly or unfairly, rarely associated with FiF by those outside its membership rolls. As the bishop said, FiF members cannot “give anyone the excuse to suggest … we are simply another churchy pressure group.” There was a statement of commitment to “the most positive programme of our life” which was not defined simply by certain issues but expressed instead in the questions put to Podmore in his commissioning. These questions focused on his commitment to upholding and proclaiming the catholic faith, praying and working for the unity of the Church, supporting, advising, and defending the members of FiF in their ministry, working with other Catholic groups, and promoting “unity, peace and love in the Church and in the world.”

Anglican Catholic Future
The launch event of Anglican Catholic Future (ACF) could only seem a modest affair or even a fairly “low” liturgical celebration in comparison to FiF’s more elaborate proceedings. True, the space and attendance were smaller, perhaps around 300, and enthusiasm was a little less evident, but it was by no means absent. The Rt. Rev. Stephen Conway, Bishop of Ely, was the lone celebrant. But the event was accompanied by a letter of support signed by 20 other bishops and a similar letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury, which garnered impromptu comments and applause at its reading. The congregation was a good mix of clergy and lay people. All in all, it was a remarkable beginning for a group that still seems to be defining its role and purpose.

It would perhaps be unfair to judge the group’s launch and goals against Forward in Faith’s. But the group invites such comparisons, if only by the presence of ordained women at the altar, as well as its oft-stated intent to articulate the Catholic identity of the Church of England rather than focus on divisive issues. Anglican Catholic Future is both strident on certain issues and strategically silent on others. The group’s website (www.anglicancatholicfuture.org) says that “the Catholic tradition in Anglicanism has become fragmented and nerveless,” a state which has made “many” feel the need to “rediscover our Catholic roots and values.” A clear claim is thus made about recent Catholic efforts and history, regardless of protestations otherwise. When I showed the statement to a member of the Catholic Group in General Synod who was not previously aware of ACF, he cringed. The positioning is apparent to readers, however implicit it may be.

But ACF has laudable goals, beyond the simple formation of a Catholic group that supports women in the episcopate. It seeks the renewal of Catholic expression, with a focus on theology, spirituality, vocation, and social justice, among other things. The group also hopes to have various events of pilgrimage or reflection on vocation for Catholic-minded Anglicans. It explicitly looks back to the Oxford Movement as a model and is thus preparing teaching pamphlets, “tracts” even, which focus on aspects of Catholic teaching and practice or on basic questions of Christian confession. Although these tracts remain in draft form, they are fairly impressive in terms of general, succinct teaching as well as design.

All of this stands in line with the sermon by the Rev. Peter Groves, vicar of St. Mary Magdalen’s, Oxford, a sermon which positioned the launch and Catholic identity of the group rather specifically and neatly, while avoiding certain topics and jargon. There was a clear valuation of the Church’s theological tradition, and of the Anglo-Catholic past, although the emphasis was upon Catholic identity as a sign of humility. The individual requires the Church for prayer, worship, and reflection due to human weakness, and the Catholic, according to Groves, acknowledges that Christians do not have all the answers, whether individually or as a group, but only as the Spirit guides us into all truth.

While Father Groves would almost certainly loathe the term, and disavowed “theological liberalism” in his sermon (to some small chuckles in the audience), it is hard not to recognize liberal Catholicism here in its classic form. How such liberalism is expressed will perhaps be the key. Is it open to the future, to discovery and questioning? Or will it turn into a lack of discernment and public expression of teaching? The danger for ACF is its resemblance to similar attempts from the past. Everyone I spoke to said, more or less in joy or dismay, that they saw the movement as “Affirming Catholicism under another name.” The mere presence and continued emphasis on teaching and theology might belie such an association, while the avoidance of certain controversial issues would strengthen it. Only time will tell.

What to make of both events and movements? Oddly, they both took place in London the same week, and seemed to draw on distinct groups of clergy. Little overlap was in evidence.

Such facts might be taken as signs of division. I remember vividly a series of articles by Damian Thompson of The Telegraph in the last several years, trumpeting the dissolution of the Catholic Movement in the Church of England, which he believed to be sapped of strength by the establishment of the Ordinariate and to be falling into fissiparous, weak-willed contention, with neither liberal nor traditionalist Anglo-Catholics able to win over the other. Such differences remain, but we can frame the point with more Christian hope.

FiF has a stance which still seems fundamentally defensive: preserving Catholic faith and practice in a surprisingly hostile environment. ACF, on the other hand, is positioned more openly: the discovery of Catholic faith and practice, the arrival at a place we have not yet found. Yet the differences are liable to overstatement, and there were many similarities in evidence. Both outline a number of goals entirely congruous with each other, aimed at renewal and restatement of a universal faith, open to the witness of the Christian past, and centered on the expression of the Catholic faith in and as the Church of England has received it. There is a sense, I believe, among Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England that they are reaching a real turning point or settlement, with a need to renew or refocus efforts toward the broader life of the Church of England and its identity in Christ’s “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

We will do best to hold such groups to their more positive statements and commitments. ACF must move beyond non-competition to cooperation. The presence of FiF’s new director at ACF’s event may be a sign of such realization. We shall see. FiF needs to hold to its commitment of “speaking the truth in love” and engaging generously with the Church, rather than turning to a more insular mission. Again, FiF gave more than one sign of that in the commissioning of Podmore, which was incredibly heartening to this Anglican. For both groups, of course, it would be all too easy for good intentions to dissolve into backbiting and ill will between each other and other organizing groups in the Church of England. It would be all too easy to disown the other, as well as those less persuaded towards Catholic expressions of Christian faith.

But I am hopeful. As Father Groves preached: “Hope is the Christian attitude towards the future.” Hope and not despair; hope, which is not optimism. Moments like these can seem small and insignificant when compared to the great events of our time. But they can also be signs of a renewal right around the corner, with a significance that may yet surpass the great tragedies and triumphs that surround and putatively overshadow them. For now, we can only hope, pray, and await such renewal. We can work quietly toward its realization in small ways. In returning and rest shall we be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be our strength (Isa. 30:15).

Zachary Guiliano is a doctoral candidate in medieval history at the University of Cambridge. He is co-editor with Charles Stang of The Open Body: Essays in Anglican Ecclesiology (Peter Lang, 2012) and a parishioner at Little St. Mary’s, Cambridge.

Two Anglo-Catholic Moments


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