Catholic, High Church, or ‘Faffy’?

St. Peter's Harrow

Postcard from London

The Rt. Rev. Pete Broadbent, Acting Bishop of London, is no stranger to disputes, and his use of social media occasionally causes ripples. In 2010 he drew a slap on the wrist from his superior, the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, for a tweet about the pending nuptials of Prince William and Katherine Middleton. He predicted the marriage would not last and referred to the Prince’s mother — the late Diana, Princess of Wales — as a “porcelain doll.” Broadbent was suspended from duty though it is unclear to what extent the ban was implemented.

Last week Broadbent used his Facebook account to give traction to an advertisement for a parish vacancy in London’s Willesden area, where he has jurisdiction. The advertisement for a team rector of Uxbridge, a town not far from Heathrow Airport, said the parish was in the “modern catholic tradition.” The Facebook discussion that followed prompted one priest to ask,  “Do any of you understand what Catholic means?”

It’s a good question, and Broadbent, an evangelical, is used to dealing with it. A few years ago, when our parish was searching for a new vicar, our draft statement of needs said we were a liberal catholic parish. Broadbent asked us to say what we thought this meant, and he met a long silence.

The online exchanges continued, after which the priest said: “Ahhh you mean ‘high church’! a very different thing.” The bishop responded: “No, I don’t mean high church. High church is faffy ceremonial without teaching the catholic faith. St Andrew Uxbridge is properly catholic, in that they teach the faith there and inhabit the liturgy.”

He added: “High Church in London catholic circles tends to mean just the ceremonial without the deep faith and taught and lived experience that catholic Anglicans understand and live. Ceremony is just an empty shell unless it points people to the incarnate and risen Christ. Beauty of holiness is entirely good but it needs to be rooted.”

Alas, media spin presented Broadbent as attacking Anglo-Catholics. In fact his elucidations were far more nuanced and important. High church and Anglo-Catholic are not the same, a point not widely understood. It is the same point he made when our parish council used loose terminology in the search for a vicar. Because of his rigor,  our parish council is working on how to understand and apply principles of church growth within an Anglo-Catholic tradition.

This media controversy points to deeper questions for this wing of the Church. The Diocese of London is an Anglo-Catholic stronghold by tradition. It seems to me that a tradition that once was an embattled minority has become a victim of its success, but now there is less clarity about its purpose and mission.

Under Archbishop Justin Welby, more and more of the central resources of the Church of England are being redirected to parishes that are implementing strategies for numerical growth. Evangelicals in London lead in this realm, and receive the major share of this funding. The Catholic wing, in contrast, is mostly static, with a certain reluctance to study and apply the church growth principles that are meat and drink to evangelicals. But there are signs of change, and the parish of Uxbridge is one example.

Broadbent has found an unlikely defender in Fr. Alan Moses, vicar of All Saints’, Margaret Street, a famous Anglican Catholic parish in central London. “There’s an element of truth in what he says, but it’s overstated, in his usual manner,” Moses wrote. “He’s given to plain-speaking; he will probably call a spade a shovel.”

John Martin


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