Holy war: the battle of St Stephen's

Women priests were the final straw for a Kensington vicar: he converted to Rome. Now his church is Anglican in the morning, Catholic in the evening and something has to give ... Jonathan Glancey reports

"Where can I find St Stephen's Church?" I ask an efficient looking Kensington matriarch swaddled against the May morning chill in a Puffa jacket and Scotch House kilt. "Oh, St Stephen's," she barks. "Bang opposite the Mongolian Barbeque in Gloucester Road." I thank her, patting the impatient foxhounds circling her blue court-heeled shoes. She smiles condescendingly. Then a look of patrician disdain crosses her steely visage. "You're not a ... Carth'lick are you?", as if to say Mongolian.

It seems strange that a Catholic should be taken for a dangerous exotic. But then St Stephen's, Kensington, is a pretty rum church, having been split since Easter between Roman Catholic and Anglican, or more strictly, Anglo-Catholic congregations. Anglo-Catholics belong to the highest branch of the Church of England, a Victorian scion, Catholic in name even, but they owe allegiance to Queen and Canterbury rather than Pope and Rome.

What this schism means is that staunch but unknowing devotees of the English faith could well turn up at St Stephen's at the wrong time of day and find themselves struggling in the profane arms of the Strumpet of Rome. Equally, those brought up to sing "Faith of our fathers living still / In spite of dungeon, fire and sword" could find themselves praying for the Queen and Protestant establishment rather more often than they would normally expect to do.

Saturday morning at 10 o'clock is a slot claimed by the Anglo-Catholics. Morning Communion this Saturday was celebrated by Fr Bill Scott, who leads the two thirds of the 100-strong regular congregation who have stayed loyal to the Defender of the Faith. Aside from Fr Scott, Holy Communion was attended by an acolyte, the verger (Gordon Nunn) and two elderly ladies, one in a hat. They were enough to warrant Fr Scott's dressing in splendid white and gold vestments, and for the church bells to chime (with what hope) across the ceaseless roar of nearby Cromwell Road at the elevation of wafer and wine.

At six o'clock the same day everything changed. Vigil Mass could not have been more different, at least in terms of scale. The nave was lit, incandescent with light from tall altar candles and the evening sun. The bell rang and incense wafted over the bowed heads of 40 or so new Romans. Fr Ignatius Harrison, from the Brompton Oratory, resplendent in exquisite vestments, celebrated Mass, joined by a tanned and fit-looking Fr Francis Jamieson, home for a few days, we learnt, from his work in the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia in Abu Dhabi.

"Joy to thee, O Queen of Heaven", we sang, and the spot-on choir took up with the Kyrie from Mozart's Orgelsolo-Messe (KV259). It was the sort of Mass that, despite only a token smattering of Latin, many Catholics dream of: dignified, uplifting and still recognisably part of a ritual dating back to the earliest days of the Church. In this guise, the Queen of Heaven and her attendant church are very seductive.

The one person missing on Saturday evening was Canon Christopher Colven. Before Easter, Canon Colven would have taken both morning communion and evening mass, and under the banner of one denomination. For, until last month, the Canon, 50, was a senior Anglican. He was Dean of Kensington, Master of the Guardians of Walsingham (the Anglican pilgrim shrine in Norfolk) and Master of the Society of the Holy Cross (an Anglo-Catholic coven founded in 1855 when smells, bells and operatic vestments were back in vogue). Then Canon Colven turned to Rome, and rent his church asunder.

Canon Colven made his decision to convert to Roman Catholicism several years ago, and began discussions with his parishioners in 1994. A devout traditionalist, his principal beef with the Church of England is the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood, which he believes to be anathema. It was upon this point of faith that he split St Stephen's.

On the weekend of 13-14 April, the Anglo-Catholic priest was anointed by Monsignor Harry Turner at Westminster Cathedral and thus became a priest of the Roman church. A third of his 100-strong congregation converted (or "graduated") the same weekend and were welcomed into the Catholic church by Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster. The ceremony was a feast of liturgical frocks, the Strumpet of Rome at her most comely and gorgeous.

Canon Colven had met Cardinal Hume as long ago as February 1993 to discuss the possibility of conversion to the Roman faith. That meeting, among others, led to the drawing up of Forward in Faith, a petition from diehard Anglo-Catholic traditionalists signed by 700 C of E priests and deacons. Since then, more than 300 Anglican priests have followed the call to Rome and a further 120 may follow in their Oxfords and brogues before 1996 is out.

This shuffling of priests from Canterbury to Rome continues to take place under a veil of near-secrecy. Priest passes on telephone messages to priest, each unwilling to discuss the curious case of St Stephen's. Even the most innocuous inquiry - is this going to set a precedent? - is met by guarded whispers and hands across receivers. This is the delicious stuff that Protestant and evangelical nightmares are made of. One can almost smell the treacherous Jesuit of Protestant lore hiding behind the arras waiting his chance to poison the body ecclesiastical and politic.

Already the Strumpet of Rome has seduced Dr Graham Leonard, former Bishop of London, the Rt Reverend Richard Rutt, retired bishop of Leicester and the Rt Reverend Conrad Meyer, retired bishop of Dorchester. The Bishop of Edmonton, the Rt Rev Brian Masters, and the Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Rev John Kylberg, are known to be charmed by her snares. Now she has divided St Stephen's, Kensington. Where will it all end?

No one can, or will, say. In a decidedly English fashion, the congregation of St Stephen's has agreed to split the church. This has been done, not by erecting a stud partition the length of the nave, but by running the church on a time-share basis. The parish council has voted in favour of Catholics holding mass on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but not on Sundays. Fortunately, and for many years, Catholics have been given Papal dispensation to attend mass on Saturday in lieu of Sunday.

The links between the two parts of the congregation are church building itself and Gordon Nunn, the verger. He converted with Canon Colven and now serves Anglicans and Catholics alike, swapping vestments and altar cloths, distributing the Book of Common Prayer on Saturday morning and the Rites of Mass on Saturday evening. The other link is the ladies who clean and arrange flowers: there is, as yet, no such thing as a Catholic daffodil and an Anglican daffodil. And both Romans and Anglicans choose to surround themselves with smells, bells and saccharine-sweet statuary depicting those unchallengable regulars, St Anthony, the Blessed Virgin Mary (or "BVM" as she is fondly abridged), St Theresa and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Anglo-Catholics tend to prefer even more ritual than established Romans and you will never find a clap-happy High Church congregation singing "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam" accompanied by guitars, recorders, cheesy grins and tambourines.

What do parishioners think of the changes at St Stephen's? "I'd sooner see that grinning bloody Blair at Number 10," barked a prosperous-looking new Roman in broad chalk-stripes I met in the porch, "than have some piece of tot pretending to be a priest". An extreme point of view, yet not entirely untypical of those who believe that because Jesus was a man, only a man can turn bread into the body and wine into the blood of Christ.

Some of the new Roman Catholics I interrupted at St Stephen's discussing the intricacies of vestments (they called them "frocks") appeared to be driven in their belief as much by misogyny as doctrine. An established writer on church affairs put the issue into an altogether cruder perspective. Anglo-Catholic priests deserting the Church of England for Rome? Women priests at traditionalist churches like St Stephen's? A cut and dried case of "Poofs out, dykes in".

Nasty, eh? But, the debate over women priests that has, among other things, split St Stephen's, has been far from Christian. A narrow-minded sectarianism has battled a sanctimonious, politically correct faction. Pope (Alexander, not John Paul II) would have called those who conduct these less-than- holy debates "a parliament of fools".

In its defence, while the Pope would say the Church is the Truth, he would also say it is made up of weak humans and to be human is to err. Over time, the purity of the Church's doctrine will triumph, and the divided faithful of stock-brick and stucco Kensington will discover the truth: women or no women at the altar of God.

But does the Church of Rome really want this traditionalist High Church community within its folds? Every born Catholic knows the answer to that: in a word, yes. The Catholic church is what it says it is - catholic with both a big and a small "c". It includes Central and Latin American Jesuits fighting alongside peasant armies and guerrilla factions on the one hand and those "Gin and Lacers", as Anglo-Catholic priests are known among their own, like Canon Colven, who believe every last article of John Paul II's encyclical of 1994, Veritatit Splendor. This is the encyclical in which the Pope railed against sex before marriage, contraception, homosexuality and any sex act precluding the possibility of conception.

Canon Colven sees the present arrangement at St Stephen's as an experiment. Before the split he said: "I am intending to leave [the Church of England] as part of a process and I intend to try to do this with my whole parish. I am going to suggest we take six months to explore whether it is feasible or not. The majority in the parish will want to stay together. I would hope to take the building with us." His prediction has not quite come true. The congregation is torn. The Bishop of London has appointed Fr Reg Buchau, incumbent of St Mary Magdalene, Paddington to oversee the parish council-approved experiment.

"I don't think we'll decamp elsewhere," said a young chap in a blue blazer over a glass of red wine after Mass. "And I don't see why we can't carry on after the six months are up." "It's all a bit like time-sharing," said a lady in a bright red fitted jacket, "and if one can do it with houses, surely it's not a problem with churches." Only when I left the church did a voice of further dissent show. As if scripted by the Dad's Army team, a woman in blue with a Gucci bag over her shoulder who had been standing at the back of the church throughout Mass said "It's not right. No good will come of it." She might have collared Canon Colven himself and given him her views, had he not been absent for the weekend. He was at headquarters. Rome that is, not Canterbury.

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