A personal rationale

This was originally prepared as an individual layman’s response to a particular sermon in a particular church.

First, it’s necessary to take issue with some emotive language. The Ordinariate is not an enclave, a Church within a Church. It’s not intended to be that, and it must not be allowed to become that. A similar structure actually exists within the Church of England, where the Bishop to the Forces has a personal diocese, not a geographic one. There is a particular ministry there with its own forms of service, but it’s not an enclave. The Ordinary of the Ordinariate is directly subject to the Pope and members of the Ordinariate will be fully Roman Catholic, but with dispensation to use special forms of service. That’s not entirely new to Rome either: the Roman Church has had autonomous Churches of the Eastern Rite for centuries, each recognising the primacy of the Papacy, but with their own liturgy and forms of service; and — while slightly different from the Ordinariate — those Churches are not enclaves. Members of the Eastern Rite, the Ordinariate and the rest of the Latin Rite are free to attend any service in any Rite.

While there are issues of doctrine to consider, these are not necessarily insurmountable. The three dogmas most often cited are Papal Infallibility (dogmatised at the First Vatican Council in 1870), the Assumption (dogmatised in 1950) and the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady (1854). The Assumption and Immaculate Conception of Mary have been celebrated widely within the Church of England since before the Reformation. The Assumption is supported most obviously by Revelation 12 and backed up by the assumption of Elijah and the [deuterocanonical] assumptions of Enoch and others. It’s a doctrine which is not contrary to Scripture and finds support within it. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is an ancient doctrine, dogmatised in the nineteenth century, yes, but dating back more than sixteen hundred years before that. It is the basis for Cranmer’s inclusion of “The Conception of ye Blessed Virgin Mary” in the BCP Calendar — even the Reformation could not completely expunge it! Again, it’s not contrary to Scripture and finds support within it, specifically in Luke 1:28 (“full of grace”) as well as other OT verses (eg Exodus 25:8–11). And Papal infallibility is incredibly narrowly drawn by the documents of Vatican I — it’s certainly not the blanket “What he says goes” by which it is generally caricatured. The doctrines evidence a different emphasis around the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. It is interesting that when comparatively recent dogmas are customarily cited as stumbling-blocks in the Faith, even though their doctrinal origins are ancient, the same view is not taken of the Church of England — prepared to dogmatise a far more recently-changed doctrine (that of the nature of priesthood) and anathematise those who do not accept it.

I, and everyone who is contemplating joining the Ordinariate, have considered arguments for and against, have prayed long and hard about it. It’s not a kneejerk reaction to anything. It affects my life. Others are affected even more and for them it’s a life-changing decision. Gamaliel’s thesis may be applied: if something is of God it will succeed; if not, it will fail. If the Pope’s offer is of God, is it right to ask anyone to set their face against that call? Say you would rather the choice were not made, by all means; regret any potential consequences, as we all do; even question whether the offer of the Ordinariate is born of the Holy Spirit, as there’s nothing wrong with critical examination of something new. But don’t criticise a decision made in conscience.

So what are the reasons to choose the Ordinariate? Everyone must make an individual decision, but let me attempt to explain mine, always bearing in mind that to try and set down in words what is essentially inexpressible is doomed to failure.

It’s not simply a question of disagreeing with those who would make women bishops — the presenting issue in my specific example above; or of the diocesan attitude to money; or of a response to those who would allow homosexual marriage in church. Ultimately it’s a question of communion. With whom are we in communion?

There is no doubt that every member at a church is in communion with other members of the congregation, even if they hold differing views on those thorny issues. We disagree in charity, and that charity is enormously valuable and greatly prized. If it were possible to isolate an individual congregation, to declare UDI and insulate ourselves from the turbulence in the wider Church — and the perverse decisions of those who are supposed to be helping us to serve Christ in the world — then everyone would jump at the chance.

But that’s not possible. Just as a Christian cannot be a Christian without worshipping with others, a congregation cannot go it alone. The Church of England is not congregational. It’s catholic and reformed, and congregations — together with members of those congregations — are members of the whole Church.

So who am I in communion with? With others in my own church, yes, I believe so. What about other Anglican congregations in the town? I would like to say “all of them”, but there are some who would far rather not have to acknowledge a poor parish with a rare gift for outreach to those who are even poorer; and others who are positively hostile. The same attitudes are mirrored in the wider Church of England — the opprobrium and venom which has greeted the establishment of the Ordinariate has to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, I have seen it and experienced it first-hand.

So who am I in communion with? Anyone who has experienced a Roman Catholic service recently may well have found a great deal in common. And that commonality is shared with every congregation: every Mass is the same; clergy and people from Indonesia or Eastern Europe are welcome at any altar in England, and vice-versa. And it is the kindness and generosity which has greeted the establishment of the Ordinariate which has to be seen to be believed. I’ve experienced that first-hand too.

I know with whom I am in communion. Yes, individuals at my own Anglican church. But not the Church of England at large, and it’s for that reason that it’s necessary to explore membership of a Church with whom I can be in communion. To leave a congregation is always sad, particularly one where I have spent nearly half my life. In respect of change, Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer from the 1930s is often quoted. Well, God has granted me the serenity to recognise that I cannot change the Church of England; and the courage to change myself.