There can be nothing in the world so likely to put a serious theological inquirer off the nature of Anglicanism than the mother of worldwide Anglicanism – the Church of England – herself. Before leaving Canada, I could not have imagined it possible that such a noble ecclesiastical experiment as Anglicanism could go so horribly wrong as it had among Blake’s mountains green. For all the brilliant minds that the Church of England had produced through the centuries, and for all the admirable examples of Christian faith and practice, it quickly became clear to me that this community might possibly have been destined to foster a few individuals in Catholic life, but it could never know any kind of real communion of belief.
A Snapshot of the Church of England
Before proffering any sort of description of the Church of England, I must reiterate how sincerely impressed I have been, and continue to be, by the examples of many of its members. Although their theology may be different to mine, for example, I am especially impressed by the personal integrity of the current Archbishop of York, as well as by the prayerful thoughtfulness of the current Archbishop of Canterbury. In such a tumultuous time as this, I can not really imagine better leadership for the Church of England. And there are countless historical figures as well. Everyone from Richard Hooker – that veritable genius of the Elizabethan Settlement – through the Caroline Divines, to the Oxford Fathers, up to and including Michael Ramsey and even Robert Runcie: together, if in different ways, these men embody much of what it is to be a Catholic Christian.
The problem is, of course, that these are individuals. And no matter what their genius, their personal holiness, how many hymns they translated from Latin, or their individual theological perspective, at best they represent their own laudable aspirations. They do not represent the fullness of what the Church means by Catholic. Which, as I have tried to illustrate in previous entries, is what I found impossible to live with. No matter how Catholic we are as individuals in Anglicanism, as individuals we are by definition not Catholic.
On which note, we turn to the Church of England.
As I mentioned in the closing paragraph of part V, I made the decision to leave the Anglican Church of Canada for the Church of England [at least partly] in order to explore Anglicanism as fully as possible before making any final decision about where I would make my spiritual home. If there was anything I could find to convince myself that the communion to which I already belonged was essentially Catholic, I would then try to reconcile with Anglicanism and continue ministering in the way I had been for the previous six years. So I celebrated my last service in Saskatchewan (a glorious Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist according to the Book of Common Prayer, sung to Merbecke, with all the best hymns) and left the best experience I had ever had of Anglicanism behind.
The parish I came to in England purported to be Anglo-Catholic. In fact, it was three parishes in one: a parish church that had all the right ‘anglo-Catholic credentials’, including a framed ‘papal blessing’ in the sacristy, and two ‘chapels-of-ease’ that were by history and reputation ‘lower’ in churchmanship than the parish church, but in my mind, more authentically catholic than it by far. My experience of this parish was supremely illuminating, and probably more representative of the corporate state of the Church of England than I could have imagined at the time.
Above all, it was an ecclesiological mess. It lived simultaneously under the pastoral oversight of the so-called ‘flying bishop’ and the legal oversight of the area bishop, all by the grace of the diocesan bishop. Some of the people were liturgically traditional while others were happy with all sorts of liturgical innovations. Very few were aware that the Roman Missal was being used one hundred percent of the time across the churches. Many in the parish objected to the ordination of women to the priesthood within the Church of England, although on the part of a significant minority, all that was really wanted was a sincere vicar whom they could relate to.
We had a cycle of ‘masses’ in the parish that would put a medieval monastery to shame, totalling 17 per week with a normal weekday attendance in the single figures, and a maximum Sunday attendance at the ‘thriving’ parish church of about 150. What kept us going were the occasional offices which, as a state Church, we were obliged to perform. In the case of our parish, this would have meant anywhere from 30 to 50 weddings per year, and well over 150 legitimate funerals. I have a hard time even remembering this, as the thought of visiting all those families which had never had contact with the Faith in their lives before, then standing before them at the Crematorium and declaring our Lord’s unmitigated mercy and love as it related to their loved ones, is painful to bear. I felt as if I was no minister of Christ at all; I had become a mere pawn in the business of marrying and burying.
In a small town in Northern Saskatchewan I had learnt to be a priest. I was given the opportunity to guide, to teach, to counsel and to celebrate the Liturgy. In a huge modern city in England, whatever I had learnt before, and whatever I had to offer now, quickly became subordinated to the agonizing burden of political, pastoral, theological, and social issues that make up the Church of England. Everything I had ever loved about the Church – the Liturgy, the community, the continuity with Tradition – had become closed to me in the Church of England, and in the process, I lost a part of myself.
So finally, after many years’ of prayer, thought, reading, and discovery; after influences both positive and negative, I knew it was time to go.
to be continued…