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.”

The MP who shrugs off the ‘hyenas’

Mark Greaves meets Paul Maynard, a Catholic MP with mild cerebral palsy who refuses to be defined by disability

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on February 25 2011.

Paul Maynard has a low opinion of what counts for debate in the House of Commons. In October, when he was speaking about the child trust fund, Labour MPs kept on trying to interrupt him, to put him off his stride. He has mild cerebral palsy, which affects his coordination and the way he talks. He noticed that they started pulling faces at him – “really exaggerated gesticulations, really exaggerated faces”. One Labour MP said it was like “hyenas going in for the kill”.

Maynard, when I meet him for tea at Westminster, strikes me as the opposite of a typical MP: his manner is not very smooth, but he is a sharp thinker, bursting with big ideas.

He agrees that the atmosphere in Parliament can be quite juvenile. He says the standard of debate is low “most of the time”. (It is better, he says, “more courteous and policy-focused”, in Westminster Hall, where a smaller group of MPs sit in a horseshoe arrangement rather than on opposing sides.)

But he is keen to “draw a line” under the incident with Labour MPs. “I’m very gratified by the support I’ve received, but now is the time to move on,” he says.

Maynard is a high-flyer: before he won his seat of Blackpool North and Cleveleys last year, he worked as an adviser for Liam Fox, and as a speechwriter for William Hague. He also has a First from Oxford.

Part of his job as an MP, he says, is to speak up for groups that are so small “they don’t have a proper voice”. He says he has just met people from a tiny charity called Epilepsy Bereaved, which works to prevent SUDEP – Sudden Unexplained Deaths in Epilepsy (about 1,000 people die from SUDEP each year). Maynard himself has epilepsy, and, since he lives alone and has seizures at night, is “high risk”. He says: “I know it’s entirely possible that I could go to bed one night and not wake up again.”

Maynard describes himself as a “typical cradle Catholic”, and went to St Ambrose College in Altrincham, Cheshire. Before that he attended a special school for two years, where he had speech therapy and intensive physio, some of which involved standing in metal callipers (he paid tribute to the school in his maiden speech in Parliament, saying that without it “I might not have been able to stand here today and make a speech”).

His Catholicism, he says, is an “instinctive part of everything” he does. He explains: “You may not consciously process it in your mind – ‘I am a Catholic, what should I do with this particular issue’ – but it informs the whole way you approach your job, how you relate to your constituents, and how you live your life.” He talks briskly, without any waffle.

He suggests that he is often seen as an “orthodox Rightwinger”, but, on an issue like penal reform, his faith pushes him more to the Left. “I believe in the concept of redemption,” he says.

On abortion, he is in favour of changing the law only slightly. His answer on the subject is thoughtful.

“I think there’s a case for reducing the limit by a couple of weeks [from 24 to 22] to reflect advances in medical science,” he says. “But I think all too often in the abortion debate we get hung up on debating it in terms of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, rather than trying to promote a culture of life. We need to explain better why it is good to be alive, why life is a good thing, and that goes for abortion, euthanasia, and many other moral issues.”

Maynard didn’t see Pope Benedict XVI at Westminster Hall last year – he applied for a seat, but his name was not picked out of the hat – but he shares the Pope’s worry that religion is being squeezed out of the public sphere.

“The secularisation of society is one of my very great concerns,” he says. All faiths, he suggests, are “coming under very great pressure”. But the Catholic Church in particular, he says, “has such a stake in public policy in this country that it has earned its right to have a voice”.

He points to the Church’s role in welfare provision and social care, and cites charities such as DePaul UK, the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Bourne Trust (now PACT).

Maynard goes on: “Merely because we have a faith doesn’t diminish the value of what we have to say; indeed, by locating it within a wider framework of beliefs it makes what we have to say that bit more powerful, perhaps, because it isn’t governed by the hurly-burly of politics.”

Of all the issues we talk about, Maynard seems most worried about the NHS and its treatment of the elderly. Just before we meet, a damning ombudsman report says the NHS is failing to recognise the “humanity and individuality” of its elderly patients. Maynard argues that our ageing population – by 2034 about a quarter of us will be over 65 – is one of the “biggest moral challenges” we face.

“You increasingly hear views that I would define as taking a utilitarian approach to life: that your value as a human being depends upon the extent to which you can function or play a role in society,” he says. “If we start apportioning care on the basis of perceived social value, I get very, very nervous.”

Wanting a change from politics, I try to ask Maynard about God – how has his relationship with God changed over the years? He pauses, and then says: “It’s become more conversational… Thomas Aquinas stressed the importance of doubt in faith: if you don’t have doubt, you can’t have true faith. You need to continually question your faith, to seek to justify why you believe what you believe.

“It’s very much the same in politics: you do need to have a degree of doubt, if only to say each time you go through the lobby ‘why am I doing this, am I doing the right thing’.”

Maynard has bags of integrity, I think. He seems like the kind of MP who could help restore trust in politics. But I worry that he seems a bit sensitive for political life. When I suggest that he sometimes sounds a bit disillusioned, he is horrified: “I’ve only been here less than a year, how can I get disillusioned in less than a year?

“It’s a tremendous honour to be here. You can make many, many, many small differences, or that might seem small in the eyes of those outside, but mean a great deal to a small group of people, perhaps. And that’s the joy of being an MP: you have the chance to actually change things.”

His enthusiasm is heartening: I hope he keeps it. As he finishes, he apologises for his aide “flashing fingers” at him: he has run out of time.

“Is that enough?” he asks. He heads off briskly and his aide picks up the bill.