Damian Thompson blogs here about something called The Fellowship of St Gregory the Great. This, he claims, is the proposal being put to the Vatican by the Anglican traditionalist bishops. It will be a fellowship presided over by a Catholic bishop. (Bishop Alan Hopes–a former Anglo– Catholic priest now an auxiliary Bishop of Westminster–would be an obvious choice) This fellowship would be a kind of ‘church within a church’. Anglo Catholics would come over en masse, the Church of England would kindly allow them to keep their church buildings. Their priests (including their married ones) would be fast tracked to Catholic ordination and they would bring all the great riches of their Anglican traditionalism into the Catholic Church. The ones who will try to stop this great event will be the liberal English Catholic bishops.
Fellowship of St Gregory the Great?
I think this would be lovely, and I welcome all Anglo Catholics in England and around the world into the Catholic Church. I think they will be a great gift to our Church and I hope we will all make them welcome, help their priests to enter into the fullness of Catholic ministry etc etc.
However Damian, for all his enthusiasm, doesn’t seem to have grasped some basic realities. Any Anglo Catholics out there also need to be aware of the hard facts. I write this having worked with converts for seven years as a representative of the St Barnabas Society, and having travelled extensively in England visiting Catholic parishes every weekend. Here are the facts which reveal the Fellowship of St Gregory the Great to be a pipe dream:
1. There aren’t really that many Anglo Catholics who are ready to come over. Most of them have already become Catholics when women were first ordained. 1300 signed the letter saying they’d leave, but out of these you need to remove the Evangelicals, a good number of the retired men, the active homosexuals, those in irregular marriages and those who, at some point, were Catholics and converted to Anglicanism. For various reasons these men are unlikely to convert. One high level Anglo Catholic source predicts that there are only 500 Anglo Catholic priests at the very most who wish to convert.
2. The married men present further problems. The English Catholic Church is small. There are more Catholic priests, for instance, in the Diocese of Brooklyn than in the whole of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. However, there are already more married former Anglican priests in England and Wales than there are in the whole of the USA.
These married former Anglicans already occupy the precious few chaplaincy posts which have a salary that could support a married man and his family. In addition, few Catholic bishops (even assuming that they are well disposed to former Anglicans) would wish to imbalance their diocesan list of clergy with an overwhelming number of married men.
3. The experience of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has not been unanimously positive towards former Anglican clergy. Most have fit in well and made a splendid contribution. However, many Catholic lay people are angry that married former Anglicans are allowed to be ordained, but their own popular priests cannot marry.
Furthermore, a few of the former Anglicans have made themselves a proper nuisance. They have demanded all the things they used to have as Anglicans, drained parishes and dioceses financially due to their demands and imposed an Anglican mentality on a very different Catholic culture.
Some of those who came across went scooting back to the Anglican Church after a short time, and even some who were ordained went back. These few bad examples have left a bad taste in the mouth of those who were not very positive about Anglican converts to start with.
4. The idea of mass conversions is pleasing, and in a situation like the group of Assyrians who came in a few months ago, is possible. For Anglicans the situation is very different. We cannot assume, even in the most trad Anglo Catholic parish that everyone in the pew is up to speed on the fullness of Catholic doctrine. Nor can we assume, for all their smells and bells, that they really understand the true reason for becoming Catholic. Each convert needs to be instructed in the faith. We can’t just accept them en bloc.
5. The same applies to the clergy. We can’t assume that every Anglo Catholic priest is necessarily called to the Catholic priesthood. We can’t even assume that they all have much love for the Catholic Church. The Anglo Catholics I know often have a chip on their shoulder about the Pope and the Catholic Church. Each applicant for the priesthood would have to be vetted just like any other applicant. Their religious and spiritual background has to be considered. There are possible canonical, moral, psychological and legal impediments that need to be investigated in each case. It is generally agreed that Cardinal Hume’s ‘fast track’ for Anglo Catholic clergy in Westminster in the early 90s was a mistake.
6. The Church of England is not going to let go of any buildings. Remember, not all Anglo Catholics are Benedict XVI loving traditionalists. The liberal, homosexual and feminist Anglo Catholics will only be too happy to step into the breach in these churches, keep swinging the incense and protesting that they are the true Catholics. In this way a form of Anglo Catholicism will continue to exist within Anglicanism.
7. Finally, there is the international situation. I doubt whether Rome will come up with a solution that only applies to England. Far more likely that they will come up with some advice for troubled Anglicans worldwide, and that advice is very likely to be: by all means join us. Come one by one and be reconciled at your local parish church.
I should make it clear that I am not happy to point out these details, and I am not trying to attack either Anglo Catholics or the idea of the Fellowship of St Gregory. I wish to do everything possible to welcome Anglicans. I’m just pointing out some of the hurdles that will need to be overcome.