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…