A priest’s guide: How to Swim the Tiber Safely

November 29, 2010

About 50 Church of England priests opposed to the consecration of women as bishops are expected to be in the first wave of Anglicans to take up an offer by Pope Benedict and convert to Rome. The traditionalist priests will be joined by five bishops and 30 groups of parishioners, in a structure called an ordinariate, or a Church subdivision, in the new year.

About 300 priests switched in the early 1900s when women were ordained as priests. Then they did not have the comfort of moving over in groups, and nearly 70 returned to the Anglican fold.

Here, one priest explains why he stayed, while another describes why he returned.

boltonPeter Bolton, left, was a priest in the Church of England for 10 years before becoming a Roman Catholic. Just one year later he returned to the C of E. Since his return he has served in parishes in Salford, Watford and Weston-super-Mare. Recently he took early retirement on grounds of ill health. The opinions expressed are his own.

Why did I come back? Because I had not counted the cost. I knew I would lose house and income – I was a Vicar – but I had not reckoned on the utter loneliness of the experience, the personal cost.

Priests and people in the local Catholic Church were wonderful. The Bishop was kindness itself. There was a warm welcome for me. But what I had not understood in advance was the damage my becoming an RC would do to relationships with those I had been close to in the past.

But I will never forget how I felt when I realised how much my own mother was hurting because I had gone to Rome, or how my best friend could hardly bring himself to speak to me for days after my Reception and Confirmation. There were others too.

So I came back. I could not bear hurting people. Now? Well, now I wish I had been better prepared; that I had had the foresight to talk things through with people in advance. I deeply regret that I did not see things through. The question is, would the Ordinariate have helped? I offer two brief answers:

Those who join the Ordinariate must beware. Precisely because they are going as a gang, they are in greater danger of ignoring the feelings of those who they will leave behind. Hopefully, however, because they will have mutual support from each other, they will be better emotionally equipped to deal with what will happen to them. They have my loving support.

But if those who are joining the Ordinariate must not be blind to the feelings of those they will leave behind, they need to be even more sensitive to the Catholic Church they are joining. There is a great deal of tension brewing: how, for example, will other former Anglicans feel when these new converts are given a luxury coach when they had to slog it alone on foot?  (Members of the Ordinariate will be ordained within about four months of reception into the Catholic Church; a friend of mine who went over two or three years ago has only just started a four year course at Seminary).

All sorts of difficulties will present themselves: money, stipends and buildings and a Catholic Church which is short of priests and now taking on all these new priests to minister to tiny congregations. The existing Catholic clergy might feel that there is an imbalance in this. Will the Catholic faithful want to pay for priests who do not minister to them?

The most explosive question, of course, is about how the Catholic Church in England and Wales will cope not only with the odd married priest but, much more significantly, with married seminarians. If the Ordinariate continues to have married priests beyond the first generation then, it seems to me, we could see a complete revolution in the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

This very conservative little group may actually be founding the place that Liberal Catholics have longed for: a place where married men may serve the church as priests.

On the other hand, if the English Catholic Church is to have an authentically English Liturgy and an English way of doing pastoral care, this could prove to be the best possible springboard for the evangelisation of England since 1829. With the Church of England losing all sense of itself and its history, this reaching back to an English past may prove to be the coming of age of English Catholicism. I pray that it is.

Father Jeremy Davies was brought up in the Church of England in Suffolk. His grandfather had been an Anglican vicar. Father Jeremy has been an administrator of Barnet parish, in London, for six years. The opinions expressed are his own.

I have no regrets in becoming a Catholic, not withstanding a few setbacks along the way. I am minded of Blessed John Henry Newman’s journey of faith which was far from easy, often tortured. But never again do I have to justify why I call myself a priest, a constant bone of contention among my peers in the Anglican Church or explain why I won’t marry divorced couples in church.

I may struggle at times with Catholic teaching, but I love the clarity with which the Church speaks on faith and morals. I believe what my bishop believes and I share in the transmission of that faith at the local level. I have been Administrator of Barnet parish for six years now and never once has anyone denigrated my priesthood, either as a former Anglican or as a married man. In fact, quite the opposite. Our numbers at Sunday Mass are on the rise, the number of activities is ever increasing and the sense of well-being in the parish is palpable.

That is not to say there are some things I still miss about the Anglican Church. The beautiful buildings for one.  I was brought up in rural Suffolk amid beautiful medieval churches one of which was my family church for thirty years. Conversely, the church in which I minister today is a 1970’s disaster which is in desperate need of improvement. I also miss enthusiastic congregational singing which is a hallmark of Anglican worship.  I’m dismayed by the lack of a good a repertoire in Catholic parishes, though there are definite signs of improvement in my parish.

My family were generally okay about my decision to leave the Anglican Church, though couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. My grandmother, who had herself been married to an Anglican vicar, was very upset at first but came to understand my reasons eventually. My father-in-law, coming from a strongly evangelical background, was the most outspoken.

Yet even he, when he fell seriously ill, came to appreciate the depth of Catholic spirituality. We grew closer than either of us could imagine in those months before he died. I shall always be grateful to him for that. My wife, though she has not become a Catholic, has supported me all the way. Indeed, I could not have made this journey without her. We have a private family life when time allows but she’s very understanding about the long hours I have to spend in the parish. Finding the balance between home and parish life is not easy, something I share with many married couples in our country.

To those who are coming into the Ordinariate I wish them every blessing. It will not be easy to adjust to the new life. Spiritually, it is a coming home, culturally it is a foreign land. It is not until you come into the Catholic Church that you realise the impact of the hierarchy. Parishioners will have to get used to first referring to their bishop and to teachings of the Church before looking to each other for guidance.

For the priests, there is a lot to be said for a slowish process of enculturation. It takes time to get used to the ways of the diocese. But after a while, having found their feet these new Catholics will be eager to explore the delights of this gloriously diverse and colourful Church. It is truly a catholic Church, something you also don’t appreciate fully until you’re a member. There will always be misunderstandings and set backs, the institution is far from perfect, but as a visible sign of Christ’s presence in the world, I know of no better place to be.

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