Anglicans prepare for a dive in the dark

Mark Greaves meets the brave members of an Anglo-Catholic parish in Kent who are preparing to cross the Tiber together in Holy Week

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on April 4 2011.

At an Anglican theological college in Oxford two 25-year-olds were sitting by a computer. They had the Vatican website up and were clicking “refresh”. They had an inkling that a document was being published that day. Eventually, the words “Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus” popped up on screen. They clicked on it and read, for the first time, the details of Pope Benedict XVI’s historic offer to Anglicans.

The document was issued on November 4 2009. Then, the two young men – Daniel Lloyd and James Bradley – were studying to become Anglican priests. Two weeks ago they joined the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. They are the only Anglican deacons – they were ordained last year – to do so. And they will both be putting themselves forward for the priesthood.

James Bradley, a bright, sincere and rather priestly guy, is with a group in Sevenoaks, Kent. There are 39 of them, all from St John the Baptist Anglo-Catholic parish. They range from a woman in her 80s to newlyweds and teenagers. Many of them have worshipped at St John’s all their lives; they were baptised or married or have family buried there. Yet they are willing to give it all up because they feel that this is what they need to do.

I meet them just before they are due to leave. Fr Ivan Aquilina, the parish priest, and Fr James, then deacon, are shortly to be homeless. Fr Ivan must vacate the vicarage by July. His son, in the midst of this, is revising for his AS-levels; his daughter is working on her GCSEs.

To my surprise, the group hasn’t really talked about the decision much, as Fr Ivan’s approach has been so low-key. He didn’t want to put anyone under pressure. “The last thing you want is a bandwagon,” he says.

One parishioner says the process felt “a bit secretive”. His main source of information, he says, was blogs. But Fr Ivan was keen for everyone to make their own decision. “That’s why there were no loudspeakers,” he says. Fr Ivan, who is from Malta, adds: “It’s like going to Walsingham: we go on the same bus but you have to buy your own ticket.”

James arrived at St John’s – from St Stephen’s House in Oxford – just a few weeks after the release of Anglicanorum coetibus. There was, he says, a “very positive atmosphere” about the Pope’s offer. But things only really got going towards the end of last year, when, on November 8, five Anglican bishops resigned.

Two weeks later, on November 20, the parish had an Ordinariate Exploration Day. Prominent Anglo-Catholic clergy sympathetic to the Pope’s offer were invited to speak. The church was packed, and some of the audience was hostile. An aggressive question prompted clapping. One parishioner says that “it wasn’t quite ‘no popery’, but it was something like that”. It was the first and last time the parish as a whole gathered to discuss the ordinariate.

In the following weeks, forms were handed out to people who wanted to join. Applicants had to fill in basic personal details, including date of baptism, and to sign a statement on the back which said: “I now of my own free will ask to be welcomed into the Personal Ordinariate of the Catholic Church…” Some signed this straight away; others are waiting until shortly before they are to be received in Holy Week. (After Easter, the forms will be passed on to the Ordinary, Mgr Keith Newton.) During the same period, Advent was proposed as a “period of discernment” for people to make up their minds.

By January, a group was clearly forming. For James, it was “a bit of a wake-up call”. He had not planned to join the ordinariate in the first wave. “I’m not usually someone who acts on impulse,” he says.
He talked to Fr Ivan, and together they decided they “just had to get on with it”. “It’s a difficult decision to make at any point,” he says.

One of the first people to decide was Robert Smith, a theology graduate. When Anglicanorum coetibus came out, he and his wife Frances downloaded it on to an e-reader. They wanted to digest it properly, so they went to a cafe in Sevenoaks and “picked it apart”. Their reaction, says Frances, was “wow, mostly”. Robert says: “We were thinking, this is such an unprecedented offer. There’s been nothing like it.”

I spoke to them over tea at their house in Bat & Ball, near Sevenoaks. Their living room is stuffed with books: whole shelves of Terry Pratchett alongside books on theology and Church history. They moved in just before they got married a year and a half ago.

Robert says that, after reading the Pope’s offer, he immediately thought “this is where I need to be”. He had considered becoming a Catholic before and knew the local Catholic parish, St Thomas’s. Frances, on the other hand, only committed to it at the last minute. She had been at St John’s all her life: she was baptised and married there, and her father, who is not joining the ordinariate, sings in the choir. She explains that she can walk round the church and say “I mended that, I painted that; I know what board to jump over because it tips”. “It’s home,” she says, “and always in some way will be.”

Frances says that what amazed her about the Pope’s offer was the way it allowed groups to bring with them their Anglo-Catholic heritage, “not leaving it at the door, but building on it”. She cites a 19th-century vicar, Fr Charles Lowder, who served the slums of east London and died from overwork. “That’s where we’re from,” says Frances. “It doesn’t matter what you wear, or how many candles are on the altar. It’s what you’re doing.”

Frances rubs her hands excitedly when I mention the papal visit. A group of parishioners went to the vigil at Hyde Park and were totally bowled over by it. Frances describes how, during Adoration, with tens of thousands of people there, “you could have heard a pin drop”. They weren’t the only Anglicans, either: at one point, the big screen zoomed in on a nun they recognised as Sister Carolyne Joseph from Walsingham; three months later, she and two other nuns left their community to take up the Pope’s offer.

The following day parishioners gathered in front of a big screen in the parish hall to watch the beatification Mass. Fr Ivan claims they had the first ever shrine to Blessed John Henry Newman, dedicating it only “four or five minutes” after the beatification happened.

The Pope’s visit deeply impressed another parishioner, retired academic John Moore. John, a professor of moral philosophy who left to work with learning disabled people and who retired last year, says he saw a lot of the Pope on television. “Here was this little man in his 80s, hard-headedly addressing issues [about the effects of atheism on society] that politicians are terrified of addressing. And not in an ethereal way at all, but in a way that was tough,” he says.

John says that news of the Pope’s offer was not, for him, a “John Kennedy getting shot moment”. The remarkable thing, he says, had been the last few months. “It’s suddenly moved from being an elevated discussion between clerics to us making personal decisions about our destiny.”

The process, John says, has been a bit of a muddle. Fr Ivan and Fr James, he suggests, were not able to talk openly about their plans because of fear of what the Church of England might do. He says: “It’s been pretty fragmented. I thought we’d have get-togethers, a bit of soul searching, a bit of mutual reasoning about why we were doing it. But there hasn’t really been that.”

He describes how, at the parochial church council, no one even mentioned that the parish was going to split. “We were talking about the usual things, a new glass door in the church, getting rid of the pigeon poo and so on, and I had to say: ‘I can’t do this’.”

Only a few weeks later, the ordinariate group attended their last service at St John’s on Sunday, March 6. Parishioners presented Fr Ivan with a cheque, and gave flowers to his wife, Claudia. Two or three people not joining the ordinariate told Fr Ivan and Fr James to get in touch if they were ever stuck for a meal or a place to stay.

During Lent the group are attending St Thomas’s Catholic parish. They will be on a Eucharistic fast and will have catechetical sessions every Sunday.

A few weeks in I call Ivan – he and Claudia are in the middle of house hunting. “I have to find a house by July,” he says. The Archdiocese of Southwark, he explains, has agreed to support him. Just before I put the phone down, he says: “Although things are not definite yet, I want to say I have a great sense of peace and joy, that shortly I will be part of the Catholic Church.”

I also go for lunch with James. Since he is no longer an Anglican curate, he is in mufti – corduroy trousers, a jumper and a shirt. His future is even more uncertain than Ivan’s. As an Anglican curate he already had the date of his ordination in the diary. Now, as a soon-to-be lay Catholic, all he knows is that he is to undergo further formation.

As a single man, he would be celibate. Obviously, he says, that has been a big decision. But he explains: “One day I walked into the church and I saw the altar and thought: ‘I want to stand at an altar and say Mass more than anything else in the world – that’s what I feel called to do, what I feel set aside for. [Celibacy] will be an ongoing struggle, but that’s what a sacrifice is.”

At the moment, for the ordinariate group, things are similarly uncertain. They do not yet know where their new home will be. James describes it as “jumping off a diving board in a very dark room, and hoping there’s water at the bottom”.

Another parishioner strikes a more defiant note. “It doesn’t matter where we go,” he says. “It could be in my house or the garden – as long as we stay together and follow the right things.”