My brother in the priesthood Fr Jonathan Munn has written a thoughtful article on our Silver Jubilee this year of our Diocese. 29th April: a Jubilee for the ACC!
Our Diocese was founded in 1992 by Fr Leslie Hamlett, a former Church of England parish priest who attempted to get the Pastoral Provision of Pope John Paul II implemented in England in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1980’s. It didn’t work out with the local RC bishops and Fr Hamlett and several other Anglican priests sought some kind of solution for the Continuing Church movement. I first met Bishop Hamlett in 1995 when I felt compelled to leave my inextricable situation in the RC Church and seek a return to roots in England. My first contact by correspondence was with Fr Michael Wright who lived near Bath. I was fascinated with the notion of Orthodox ecclesiology and theology in a western context and Fr Wright’s interest in relations between Anglicans and Orthodox. Fr Wright passed me on to Bishop Hamlett who seemed to have much to say from his difficult experience with the Church of England and the RC Church.
I returned to England in the autumn of 1995 after having installed a hefty Harrison organ in the Abbey of San Martino al Cimino not very far from Rome. A couple of Bishop Hamlett’s faithful, Mr and Mrs Caverargh-Mainwaring, offered me accommodation and a workshop at their stately home, Whitmore Hall. After a few months, I was offered a little cottage in the village for a reduced rent. I was received into the ACC as a deacon ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. I was assigned to the Bishop’s parish at Madeley Heath, in a former Methodist chapel. As time wore on, I found Bishop Hamlett aggressive and small-minded, quite stifling. One thing I had learned well at seminary was the liturgy, and I tried to be of help in improving ceremonies at Madeley Heath. This was deeply resented by the Bishop even though I brought matters up in private and respectfully. During my short time with Bishop Hamlett, I made friends with Fr Patrick McEune, who remained with the ACC after the “Bishops’ Brawl” (a number of splits away from the ACC to form independent jurisdictions) in about 1997 (after I had left) and became the Vicar General before later returning to the Church of England. I kept good relations with Fr Wright and tended to be better with clergy in the south of England than the north. I was frankly happy to get out of England to take an organ to somewhere in France or Italy and spend a day or two with my old friend in Marseilles. It was a far cry from the petty-minded parochialism in Stoke on Trent. By September 1996 I was away from Bishop Hamlett and returned to France in late October of that year.
I followed events in 1997 from a distance and was kept informed by Fr McEune. There was a big split in the American episcopate of the ACC and several new groups came into being. By this time, Bishop Hamlett totally repudiated anything specifically Anglican and expressed a fairly “Old Catholic” type of ecclesiology with a strong leaning towards Roman Catholic devotions. Eventually, there would be a split between Bishop Hamlett (Archbishop by that time) and Bishop Wright. Many of the clergy I knew from my time have disappeared from circulation, being neither in the ACC English Diocese as it has happily become, nor the TAC. Fr McEune made a courageous effort to re-order the Diocese and rebuild from the ruins. I frequently received e-mails from him when I lived at the presbytery of Bouloire after my six months in the monastic desert.
Fr McEune himself left the ACC, though I am unclear about the circumstances, and I would certainly be bound to be careful with my words were I more knowledgeable. He sold his nice little church in Wiltshire where I had installed an organ, and he returned to the Church of England. I heard vaguely about a Fr Damien Mead, who was elected to be the Diocese’s Vicar General, and some years later was consecrated a bishop by the Americans. What has happened since in England then is nothing short of a miracle. Bishop Damien has led the Diocese to stability and a unity of purpose we all share. When he received me in April 2013, nothing was the same. All the parishes were in different places. The present list is here.
From the late 1990’s, it became fashionable to denigrate Continuing Anglicanism as being no more stable or united than the hundreds of Old Catholic denominations in America. We still find much of the same rhetoric with Anglicans who have become Roman Catholics over the past ten years or so. As with all human experience, lessons have been learned, and we have a very different quality of bishops these days. This October, there will be a joint Synod of all the main Continuing bodies to work out a journey towards organic unity. This, with the professionalism of our bishops, is cause for hope and optimism. Thus we in England celebrate twenty-five years both of peace and progress as well as of human sin, pride and bad judgement.
Fr Jonathan mentions that he was accused of proselytism in regard to members of Forward in Faith, unjustly. Surely, members of that body know what they want in life and are able to make up their own minds. I have very little experience of Forward in Faith, but have spent time with some of their clergy. In one parish I know – I will not mention the name for the sake of discretion – the explanation of their position is altogether understandable. I simply make the comparison with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1980’s, between the “hard” traditionalists of the Society of St Pius X and others, and the brave old parish priests who stuck it out in their parishes in defiance of their bishops.
The Forward in Faith position might seem to lack theological coherence in terms of belonging to the Church of England. The existence of the “flying bishops” created a church within the establishment Church of England, where bishops who don’t ordain women are “insulated” from those who do. Forward in Faith parishes are enclaves where laity and clergy can live a very “normal” ecclesial existence with a fine Victorian or medieval church building and real parish life. Their existence is surely a good thing where the alternative is spiritual death and another nail in the coffin of Christianity in England. I have great pleasure in visiting the parish whose name I don’t mention here, and the priest I go and see knows my Bishop. There is a sense of stability, at least during the tenure of the parish priest in question.
We Continuers don’t have the large congregations or the big church buildings enjoyed by Church of England incumbents. However, we have an uncompromised ecclesial life with a diocesan Ordinary and a college of priests under his oversight. That Bishop is in communion with the college of bishops of the ACC and its Metropolitan Archbishop Mark Haverland. This is as much of a coherent ecclesial structure as any minor but historical Orthodox Church. Everything is right and correct. The downside is that we are very small and our growth is slow. We have very little in terms of financial or material resources, but this perhaps keeps us humble, realistic and focused on the essentials.
It is a historic year both for the Americans and we English. In America, the movement of unity between the largest Continuing Churches is forging ahead, and this prospect is exciting and encouraging. In England, we celebrate twenty-five years of mistakes and foolishness, and then of sober rebuilding and stabilising. We thank God for the gift of Bishop Damien and his determined leadership and qualities of a true gentleman.
We will have our own Diocesan Synod in London (Westminster Central Hall) on 29th April this year. We begin with Mass celebrated by our Bishop, to which all are welcome. There is a good choir and a talented organist / choirmaster. It is an opportunity to see the beauty of our worship in classical English and what we are all about. I will be there. Last year, since I had no liturgical role, I sang with the choir. This will be a special occasion for us all. I look forward to it. We also hope later this year to have the visit of Archbishop Haverland – so I will have to make another trip to England for this.