Fr. Nichols, 2/1/2011

What I think about the ordinariate
by Aidan Nichols, OP

Roughly twenty-five years ago, I started thinking about what an Anglican Uniate Church might look like. It was already obvious, even before the Church of England’s ordination of women vote in 1992, that the Anglican Communion, taken as a whole, would not be able to come into union with Rome. 

    Think of the ‘Christian atheism’ of the ‘Sea of Faith’ movement, or attitudes to Eucharistic presidency in the Anglican archdiocese of Sydney and you’ll soon realize why! So instead I went through the history of Anglican theology and picked out the elements I thought would be compatible with communion with the Pope. 


    Of course, this was only a thought-experiment. It produced a paper Church, not a real one – though I still think it would be a useful rough and ready guide when the powers that be are selecting what could usefully be taught to Anglican Use seminarians preparing for the Roman Catholic priesthood. 

Tractarian ambition

    Anyhow, I’m obviously not a prophet because my imagined Uniate Church doesn’t look much like the Ordinariate, which is what is actually happening. The bishops, priests and people who are joining the Ordinariate come from the nineteenth century Oxford Movement. In fact, they are following out the logic of that movement to the end.  
    The Tractarians were not mainly interested in looking back at earlier Anglican writers for bits and pieces they agreed with (though they also did that). They were mainly concerned with restructuring Anglicanism root-and-branch on Catholic principles (for which the older writers were sometimes useful, and sometimes not). The Tractarians wanted to reshape the whole of the Church of England – not just the High Church party – along Catholic lines. 
    We know how much was achieved along those lines, in preaching, Liturgy, devotion. But when in 1992 the Synod voted for the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood, that crucial Tractarian ambition was frustrated for ever and a day. 

Corporate reunion

    That did not mean, however, that the aims of the Oxford Movement could not be realized in another way. Once the Tractarians admitted Rome was a genuine Church, and not a parody of a Church, as earlier polemics had it, a number of those who remained loyal Anglicans started to thinking about ways in which corporate reunion might be possible.  
    Even when Anglo-Catholics were not Anglo-Papalist, they were often what we might call ‘Patriarchalist’. They thought that the Church of England was a detached portion of the Church of the West which needed to be 
reunited with its patriarchate. So for the heirs of the Oxford Movement to enter into corporate union with Rome, preserving what is best in their theological, liturgical, devotional and artistic patrimony, is not to confess that the whole thing has been a failure. It is to say that there is still – thanks to Anglicanorum coetibus – a way in which the unionist aim can be made (spiritually speaking) a roaring success.


    The pioneers who are going forward at this early stage are, for the sake of this goal, taking a brave step into the unknown. I find it entirely understandable that many Anglo-Catholics baulk at the prospect. Those who, despite having pictures of the Pope in their clergy-houses, sacristies or even churches, cannot imagine ever moving into another ‘part of the Lord’s vineyard’ (as Pusey put it) need to be clear, however, that achieving tolerated status within the Church of England (a.k.a. The Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda) is not what the Oxford Movement was about. 
    Again, I appreciate that many mainstream Anglicans are irritated by the establishment of the Ordinariate.  But that is because they do not grasp the logic of those who worked to achieve it. What would be very sad is if the Ordinariate were to become, for this reason, a constant thorn in the side of Anglican-Catholic relations. Sad, and also unnecessary. 
    It should be possible to recognize how the Oxford Movement can continue to give inspiration to those in communion with Canterbury in a more diffuse way, while at the same time giving inspiration to Anglicans in union with Rome in a more focussed way. Seeing it in those terms makes Anglo-Catholicism, as the outgoing Bishop of Ebbsfleet liked to say, ‘a common treasure’. One obvious fashion in which the Church of England can acknowledge that sharing of spiritual riches is by generosity in allowing the members of the Ordinariate, where feasible, the use of churches and chapels that were brought into existence to serve the Tractarian cause. 
    The Ordinariate can help the Catholic Church in England to be more obviously English. But it can also help English Roman Catholics to appreciate what is beautiful about the ethos of the Church of England, unless through an evangelistically pointless anger the opportunity is thrown away.