Apostates and Excluded Clergy

I have not written anything on the Anglo-Catholic since the end of August 2010, and I simply have not gone along with what some might term as “ordinariate fever”. Deborah Gyapong has written a sensitive (albeit timid) posting about priests refused for ordination in the Ordinariates for reasons that were dispensed in others. I was rather inclined to pass over this subject. Perhaps I have written everything I have to say and can only offer permutations on the same theme. Or, can a difference be made in relation to a certain “orthodoxy”.

Have we not been fighting the wrong war? This is a question I have asked before, and which will continue to haunt many of us.

The article in question is A Matter of Consistency. Naturally I refrain from “preaching to my own parish” or any kind of “self-serving”, because I sent no application of any kind to Rome and I suspect my former Ordinary has not done so either – and I have received no communication from Rome or any Roman Catholic authority. I am as indifferent about the question as whether it is raining in Peking.

Deborah has written sensitively and with consideration, and we still talk from time to time on Skype. What I would have found heart-wrenching a year or two ago is some of the comments. It is now more like water off a duck’s back.

As the argument goes, a converting priest has no right to anything as he (returns) to the Roman Catholic Church. He has to throw everything to the winds for the sake of the truth. No one can have any expectations or rights, but has to give up everything. The priestly vocation is not a right for anyone, nor is it something individual or personal. Its sole purpose is to be of service to the people of God at the discretion of the Church. Many have reconciled with their Church at the cost of their vocation and lived as laymen. They accepted the suffering and the harsh judgements, and took it all like the Gospel narrative of the rich young man. Conversion is unconditional submission.

The person expressing this way of thinking, actually, is not wrong – in his perspective of a conservative Roman Catholic. One converts to the Roman Catholic Church because one is convinced that it is the true Church (extra ecclesiam nulla salus), one has a conservative mindset and accepts that being a Roman Catholic is being part of a totalitarian system in which one has no say. It is a point of view, and if that is what one believes, then one should act in consequence.

As some in the blogosphere have observed, there is a difference between pre-Christians and post-Christians. One cannot undo the experience of life. Fresh ex-Anglican converts find something fulfilling their expectations and desires for perfection. Someone who has been there is burned out. I suspect that many of the conservative-minded people writing their pieces have not had the experience of human nature at its worst in the institutional Church. They have not hit the hard reality. They were too young or were not around during the worst of the Paul VI and John Paul II years. They were not psychologically or physically abused by clergy or victims of the ecclesiastical equivalent of omertà.

Those of us who are less convinced by the claims of conservative Roman Catholics see through this stuff like clear glass. Indeed, the leadership of the TAC, not just Archbishop Hepworth, but the whole TAC episcopate, made a big mistake in assuming that Rome would do anything other than filter each and every priest and apply the same mechanical criteria. Invite your garage mechanic to dismantle your car, and he will gladly do so – and send you the bill! Anyway, this is not time for recriminations.

Some have nowhere to go in ecclesiastical terms. There are alternatives to conservative Roman Catholicism – living a perpetual contradiction between the claims of the conservative apologists and the reality of the local parish, between the way the ordinariates were established in three countries and the ongoing ecumenical dialogue between Rome (or rather local RC dioceses and provinces) and the Anglican Communion. This cognitive dissonance is something that dogs many converts, and sooner or later, a resolution has to be found or the whole belief system can only be rejected for the sake of a person’s mental health.

We live in a very critical time for Catholicism and indeed any kind of Christianity. Modernity and democracy, the movement tracing its roots to the Enlightenment, have made us more critical, as has the experience of totalitarianism (or at least the experience of our parents and grandparents) in the twentieth century. Prelates in Rome assume that all the “little” scandals about sex abuse and financial delinquency will just blow away and their institution will still be there in a thousand years. Complacency reigns supreme.

The truth is that this kind of Catholicism will not triumph, any more than it did in the nineteenth century faced with modernity, democracy and increasing criticism of clerical obscurantism. Churches are empty and there is no sign of a reversal of this trend. There is still some life in city churches in places like Paris or London, with Eastern Europeans and Africans, with the new charismatic communities and a European form of the American mega church complete with “praise band” and projection screen. The traditionalists seem to be a “creative minority”, but their ideology is triumphalist and totalitarian.

The problem with Churches is that they depended too much on political power and coercion. When the power and influence was lost over the people, the truth could be observed. People did not believe in what the Church was teaching them. If force and coercion are the only ways to keep the praying, paying and obeying faithful – then there is something intrinsically wrong with the message itself. That is what the atheists concluded, and also those who do believe in a higher and transcendent reality, who are not materialists, but who belong to what Nicholas Berdyaev termed as the aristocracy of the spirit.

I could react to the apologists with a “sour grapes” argument, but I am genuinely happy for those who have found their fulfilment and happiness (even though these terms are taboo).

My thought has developed along the lines of reading the signs of the times. People generally stick with the Church they were brought up in – or leave institutional Christianity for atheism or an “alternative spirituality”. Those who “convert” from one Church to another are definitely in the minority, extremely zealous – perhaps fanatical – to begin with, and then the disillusionment sets in. Enthusiasm is a fleeting phenomenon.

Some of us may have to make the sacrifice of our priestly vocation, if no institutional church will have us and the existence of “vagante” clergy is found to be futile and illusory. Some of us would do well to take some time away from the hubbub and reconnect to reality – the modern world with its warts, its sins and its pains. We would do well to listen to those who are scandalised by the Church and who find it so difficult to believe in a personal God. I think this whole experience will teach some of us to appreciate our Anglicanism better and seek the ideal of moderation and kindness, a true liberalism and primacy of the spirit over the more dubious ideas of truth.

The bottom line is that I would agree with what those people say in that being a priest or a deacon or a bishop is of much less importance than following what we really believe in. Themselves, they would say that being a discontented Anglican is not enough to become a Roman Catholic – you become a Roman Catholic because you believe in it. If we accept and believe the claims of Roman Catholics (and I put it this way deliberately), then that is what we should do.

I became a Roman Catholic just over thirty years ago, converting to an image of Roman Catholicism proposed by conservative and traditionalist apologists. The reality just did not correspond with the ideology. I don’t think it did in the nineteenth century either. With a study of church history and experience, it all became hollower and hollower. To be sure, there is a high ideal and many beautiful words and texts come from that source – but we still confront human evil and weakness, and a message that is too incoherent and full of contradictions. The experience burned me out after about fifteen years of excessive perseverance, and I just cannot return for more…

There are alternatives that are just as honourable and which may also demand the sacrifice of our vocation – but which can bring peace and a “high” view of life and the world. The tendency of the conservative apologists is to say that you have to be convinced to make the step of conversion to Roman Catholicism, and then in the next breath to trash those who are not so convinced. There is no other honourable way out. Except, paradoxically, returning to one’s Church of origin, even if it ordains women! Then, of course, we can be accused of adjusting our intimate convictions for the sake of pragmatism and opportunity. The shadow of the Inquisition dies hard!

Perfection will never be found anywhere, and we will still have to accommodate the weaknesses and sinfulness of others as for ourselves. Things have to be weighed against each other, and other things need to be grown out of…

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6 Responses to Apostates and Excluded Clergy

  1. “Some of us may have to make the sacrifice of our priestly vocation, if no institutional church will have us and the existence of ‘vagante’ clergy is found to be futile and illusory.”

    AND

    “The bottom line is that I would agree with what those people say in that being a priest or a deacon or a bishop is of much less importance than following what we really believe in.”

    Addressing the second statement first: I BELIEVE (in the same sense that “I believe in one God”) in my vocation to the priesthood. Therefore, I cannot in good faith be part of any Church that does not allow me to exercise this vocation. I will take this one step further: since for me my vocation is an object of faith, any jurisdiction which does not recognize this vocation is for me to that extent (at least) deficient in the catholicity of its faith. I have become convinced that I cannot be saved unless I continue to exercise the ministry of the priesthood, that the priesthood in my case is an integral part of the process of sanctification.

    Regarding the first statement: being a priest in a vagante jurisdiction brings its own interesting challenges and ministry opportunities. One must, however, be willing and able not only to think outside the box but, often, to disregard the container altogether. I often characterize my ministry with a reference to a fictional religious order found in a novel, “The Last Western” popular in certain U.S. RC circles back in the seventies: “the Silent Servants of the Used, Abused, and Utterly Screwed up.” However, it may be the case that for many, if not most, vagante clergy, their primary religious function will be that of prayer and of offering the eucharist – in solitude. If so, such clergy may well look to Blessed Charles de Foucauld as intercessor and patron. I sometimes wonder if the Lord is raising up so many vagante priests at this time to offer the Masses day-by-day that would otherwise be offered if Rome were to get its act together with regard to correcting the shortage of priests in its ranks.

    • I thank you for this input.

      It occurred to me, as I put to sea in my little boat today, that the apologists advocating the rigorist policies of the Vatican should undertake to live in parts of the world where there are no priests. They could get jobs as oil mining engineers in Saudi Arabia or Iran, where atheism isn’t even an option. There’s a choice of Islam, Islam or Islam. Step out of line and you get your hand chopped off or 500 lashes or other such delights. Without going to such exotic extremes, there are parts of France where your average country parish church is unlocked maybe once a year – for a funeral conducted by “committed laity”. My wife knew a couple of such charming ladies in her grandmother’s parish, nicknamed the Nanny Goat and the Mosquito, on account of their singing voices.

      Rome has a right to want an ever more elitist celibate clergy, and one consisting of men who have lived “in the box” their entire lives, but priests will be decreasingly available for increasing numbers of faithful. Oh well, who cares? Our apologist “taliban” certainly lives in American cities with dynamic conservative parishes where you can still imagine yourself in the 19th century! Let them eat cake, they say!

  2. Foolishness says:

    Dear Father Anthony,

    It is indeed extremely difficult to discern to whom one is giving perfect submission when one looks at the Catholic Church warts and all. I had to ask God to give me three signs that obeying His Church was the same thing as submission to Him. (Making exceptions of course for clear examples of someone in the hierarchy ordering me to cover up the abuse of a child or to participate in financial wrong-doing or other sin). He gave me three signs. He gave me more than three.

    I also have been blessed to know many saintly prelates in the Catholic Church who are signs of hope to me and evidence of the love of Jesus Christ still being alive and well in her.

    The thing is, if you focus only on what people might give up to become Catholic–and many people have lost a lot—-jobs, priesthoods, friends, income, reputation, etc.but there are gains in obeying Christ that the world cannot see—-the joy, peace, love, fruits of the Spirit etc.

    It is not submission to a totalitarian system comprised of sinners, it’s matter of being wholeheartedly willing to obey Jesus Christ and to put everything on the table.

    But this was my “rich young ruler” moment. We all have them from time to time over the course of our lives, no? We have those moments where we are asked to choose—self or Jesus.

    I hope one day we will all be reconciled in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church but at the same time I do not want to minimize whatever psychological abuse or other unjust behavior you experienced as a member of the Catholic Church. I pray that there will be healing—for you and of the Church as an earthly institution. Maybe what people like you need is an acknowledgement on the part of those in the hierarchy that the fault of those who have left is not always that of the one who left—-that those in power can also be to blame for driving people out or crushing their souls.

    • Maybe what people like you need is an acknowledgement on the part of those in the hierarchy that the fault of those who have left is not always that of the one who left—-that those in power can also be to blame for driving people out or crushing their souls.

      Dear Deborah,

      Under John Paul II, Rome was just about getting round to asking pardon from the victims of the Medieval Inquisition and the Jewish people of about the same era. At that rate, they might get around to us in 2650. I suppose historians then will talk about us as we talk about the Dolcinites or the Fraticelli! Perhaps they’ll even make films about us with whatever technology they’ll have… The Name of the Daisy?

      Don’t let your knees go wobbly when someone says: “You have to really convinced to become a Roman Catholic. Being a discontented Anglican is not enough. However, if you’re not convinced, we’re going to trash you anyway“.

      Don’t be timid – challenge them!

  3. Evagrius says:

    Indeed, the leadership of the TAC, not just Archbishop Hepworth, but the whole TAC episcopate, made a big mistake in assuming that Rome would do anything other than filter each and every priest and apply the same mechanical criteria.

    I get the feeling there was a level of miscommunication simply on the basis of false assumption of what was meant by both sides; that is, Rome assumed that the TAC knew what the boundaries were, and the TAC assumed Rome was offering something beyond the normal scope of those boundaries. Perhaps I’m being too generous to one side or the other.

    The traditionalists seem to be a “creative minority”, but their ideology is triumphalist and totalitarian.
    I’m not sure that quite hits the nail, true though it is. Rather, I think the damning thing about them is that their culture is alienating, fractured, exclusivist and toxic. And their ideology is too mixed in with politics, and in the UK at least, class and party divisions (and lets not pretend that certain well-loved London churches don’t cater to the modern “Brideshead set”.) They may be the future of the church, but it will be a self-selecting and increasingly cultic church.

    The way forward is difficult to spot, but it is, perhaps, not in grand liturgies or groaning banalities, but quasi-monastic, urban communities, where the office is prayed regularly. Smaller, more central parishes of 5 or 6 priests doing the rounds of the Liturgy, the Mass (both forms? In either, a contemplative offering), confessions, and from that, welling forth outreach and works of charity and evangelism. Perhaps these would be daughter houses of the great, rural monasteries. Or perhaps this is another castle in the air.

    Perhaps the greatest loss to church architecture was the peristyle courtyard.

    • Christopher William McAvoy says:

      Tis a shame so many are prejudiced against the Orthodox Church and it’s western rite. The path is no more difficult than other mainstream options mentioned here, I think that they offer a fine alternative, as Fr. Aidan Kimel as found.

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