Sermon preached at St Barnabas Tunbridge Wells 25 April 2010

by Father Robert Van de Weyer

In the year 664 a meeting took place on the windswept cliff-top at Whitby on the Yorkshire coast. It was to decide the fate of Christianity in these islands for the coming nine centuries. Pope Benedict’s proposal, published last November in the document entitled Anglicanorum Coetibus (Fr. Ed interjects: what i have refered to as ‘the Ordinariate’!) ¬ which, literally translated, means ‘For groups of Anglicans’ – should be understood as an attempt to repeat in a modern context the achievement of Whitby. For this reason it should stir the hearts of all true British Christians.

In the previous two centuries Christianity in the British Isles had developed independently of the rest of the Christian world. And the stories of the early Anglo-Celtic saints – men like Columba and Aidan, Ninian and Kevin – and the poetry composed by them continue to inspire us. They had learnt to find God’s presence in every animal, bird and even stone; and they believed that every person could live in perfect unity with God, with Christ as the exemplar. Then in 594 the Pope sent St Augustine to bring the Anglo-Celtic Christians within the orbit of the Catholic Church. At first the Anglo-Celts were suspicious; but, as the decades passed, a growing number were inclined towards Catholicism.

Whitby was the home of one of the greatest Anglo-Celtic monasteries, in which men and women lived with the same community. Hilda, its abbess, had been a pupil of St Aidan, but had also travelled to Europe where she had encountered Catholicism. So she understood both sides. At the Synod the main protagonist of the Catholic cause was Wilfred; and his argument was one of authority. He summarised the argument in a simple question: how can the Christians inhabiting islands on the edge of the world claim to know better than the universal church? The answer is that they can’t. It is through the Church that we have the Bible, which tells us of God’s revelation in Christ; and in the Bible Christ promises to send his Spirit to the whole Church, to convey and interpret that revelation to each generation

Wilfred prevailed; and so the Ecclesia Anglicana, as it came to be called, became part of the Catholic Church. At the same time it retained its Anglo-Celtic identity; and its contact with wider European Christianity actually strengthened that identity, which has remained strong right up until quite recently. It derives ultimately from those early saints, and its essence is to find God in the everyday -– in nature, in family life, in work. Thus the great British theologians have tended to see the universe as a direct emanation of the divine mind, so that everything in the universe is sacramental – a means of divine grace. And our great spiritual writers, like Mother Julian of Norwich, teach us how we can relate to God in the ordinary events and ordinary objects of our daily existence.

Finding God in the everyday has led to two special features of English worship. The first is the English daily office, which most of us know as Morning and Evening Prayer. These services are the telescoping of the medieval monastic cycle of prayer, and are intended to comprise the daily prayer of ordinary families in their homes and parish churches. So the great Anglican vision is of how normal daily life can become as much a school for holiness as the monastery. The second special feature of English worship is the hymn, in which sublime Christian poetry is set to the best of popular music, so that every man, woman and child can participate – even singing hymns under their breath as they dig the garden or wait at the bus-stop.

So what has happened to the glory of English worship and spirituality? What has become of English theology and spirituality? I became a Christian forty years ago in 1970 at the age of 20, and an Anglican three years later. In those days the Anglican church still treasured its distinctive tradition. It also continued to see itself as one part of the global catholic church, and looked towards eventual reunion – indeed in 1966 the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury publicly committed their churches to that aim, recognizing the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.

But in the intervening decades mainstream Anglicanism has changed beyond all recognition. A rapidly rising proportion of Anglicans, both in England and around the world, are evangelical. And while I have a great deal of admiration for evangelical Christianity – indeed, I preach once a month at an evangelical church in Lincolnshire – it has very little sense of tradition, and on principle no sense of itself as part of Catholicism. Much of the rest of the Church of England is in thrall to various forms of fashionable liberal opinion – again with no sense of itself as part of the catholic church. It’s not surprising then that Anglicanism is breaking apart.

There is, of course, a rump – still quite a substantial rump – of Anglicans who still regard themselves as part of the Ecclesia Anglicana, founded at the Synod of Whitby. In fact this rump includes two groups who uphold the two key aspects of the Anglican tradition. First of all, there are the ‘high church’ Anglo-Catholics, who are dedicated to the notion of Anglicanism as part of global Catholicism – and who have played a distinctive role in maintaining the dignity and beauty of English public worship. And there are the likes of me, who used to form the majority of Anglicans. We are best described as ‘broad church’, not in the sense of having a liberal ‘anything-goes’ attitude, but in the sense of discerning God broadly – discerning God in the everyday; and this process of discernment is through a combination of reason and personal prayer. If you can conjure up in your mind the kind of rural vicar that appears in Miss Marple stories – scholarly and somewhat unworldly, moderate and tolerant – then you are picturing the old-fashioned broad churchman.

It has been to our mutual great detriment that the high and the broad church elements of Anglicanism existed largely grown apart. And this has undoubtedly contributed to our weakness within Anglicanism. To put it simply, the high church has been too Catholic, and the broad church too Anglican. And our weakness has meant that until barely two months ago I felt growing despair, seemingly fated to spend the remainder of my life watching the kind of Anglicanism I love shrinking to the point of disappearance. When last November Pope Benedict published Anglicanorum Coetibus, I thought at first it was relevant only to a few diehards on the extreme wing of Anglo-Catholicism. Then on 1st March this year, a date I shall always remember and mark, it hit me with overwhelming force that Anglicanorum Coetibus is for me and all those like me – those for whom the Anglican spirit courses their veins.

To put is simply, if we accept Pope Benedict’s invitation, we shall be reunited with the authority from which the Scriptures themselves derive. And, as occurred fourteen centuries ago, this will enable us to rediscover and renew our Anglican tradition – our ‘patrimony’, as Pope describes it. We shall be Anglican Catholics.

Let me add a little more historical perspective. The Pope is asking us to form a church within a church – an Anglican church within Catholicism. The last time such a thing happened on this island was in the late 1730s when Methodism formed within the Church of England. Those of called by God to be pioneer Anglican Catholics are helping to bring to birth something which could in the fullness of time prove equally momentous, and ultimately of greater importance.

The task is daunting. While some people in the Church of England will wish us well, others may be less positive. If so we must respond with grace and charity. But the greater challenge is within and amongst ourselves. Together we must learn once again how to be simultaneously Catholic and Anglican – in order to be both better Catholics and better Anglicans.

Let me offer three words of reassurance. The first concerns your church. I am an unpaid priest, and, having for much of my life been a university lecturer, I have for the past decade or so run a legal and financial consultancy. Since early March I have been considering the legal possibilities of Anglican Catholic congregations retaining the use of their churches; and I have received advice from Professor Norman Doe, one of Britain’s leading ecclesiastical lawyers who has particular interest in the legal ramifications of Anglicanorum Coetibus. There will need to be negotiation with the Church of England diocesan authorities, which should be conducted with grace and respect; but the relevant laws put an obligation on all parties to reach a consensus for the good of all. And that means that, one way or another, you shall be able to continue worshipping here.

The second concerns money and financial management. When you become Anglican Catholic, your congregation will in due course grow, boosting your weekly income; I believe financial help will also come from wider sources. So you will be solvent. And there will be such advice and help on the kind of administrative changes that are needed. Those of us that are pioneer Anglican Catholics will be a close-knit family, in which each will enjoy the support of all.

My third word of reassurance is spiritual. We shall start small; and for the first few years we are likely to stay small. But in due course I believe more and more high and broad Anglicans will share the revelation that was vouchsafed to me on 1st March: that Anglican Catholicism is their true home. We shall become the body that carries forward and develops the Anglican tradition into the future. What greater and more exciting prospect could there be? And what greater privilege could God have conferred upon us?

(Originally posted by Father Ed Tomlinson on the St Barnabas blog.)


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