Faith & Reason: The end of the Conversion of England

A Bethnal Green congregation has gone over to Rome. Does this betoken the `greatest realignment of Christianity since the Reformation'? Andrew Brown thinks not.

The announcement of the departure of 67 adults, a curate and a deacon from the St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, in east London, to the Roman Catholic Church last week may seem insignificant. But it is, I think, the end of the Conversion of England. That was a phrase used in an incautious moment by Cardinal Hume in 1992, when he was asked to estimate the effect of the ordination of women.

The idea was less popular among Catholics than among the converts and prospective converts to whom it applied. Naturally, they wanted to be part of the "greatest realignment of Christianity since the Reformation", as the Times called it. Bishop Victor Guazelli, who actually received the congregation of St Matthew's on Pentecost Sunday, said to me: "Talk of large numbers makes my blood curdle."

Bishop Guazelli's haematologist can relax. Leaders of Forward in Faith admit privately that this congregation is about the last that can be expected to move. I don't suppose anyone has kept or could have kept accurate figures across the whole country, but 67 adults following their priest to Rome seems to be by some margin the largest single movement of lay people as part of the Conversion of England. The figures in most news reports have been closer to 20 or 15. And there have been surprisingly few news reports.

At the time of the first ordinations of women, in 1994, the religious correspondents were all scrabbling frantically around to find a parish which was determined to march behind embroidered banners of the BVM into the bosom of the Pope, en masse. We found none. Though there have been a few since, St Matthew's appears to have been the only one where a clear majority of the congregation followed its priest to Rome. In other cases, the congregation moved in dribs and drabs if at all. In all, perhaps 1,000 lay people and 300 priests have converted to Rome to escape from women priests.

There are several reasons why the greatest realignment of Christianity since the Reformation should have turned out such a damp squib. One of the most interesting emerges from an analysis of the figures from St Matthew's: as well as the 67 Anglican adults received into the Roman Catholic Church on Pentecost Sunday, there were 23 lapsed Catholics reconciled to the Church, who had been worshipping as Anglicans. This suggests a fairly substantial previous movement towards the Church of England.

The movement in the other direction was always more of a priestly phenomenon than a lay one: the ordination of women was for most people a dispute about the role and status of priests. Besides, lay people who were upset could simply vanish. They did not have pensions, houses, and dependent families to worry about. Such practical matters seem to have weighed very heavily on a number of Anglican clergy. Fr Christopher Bedford, the vicar of St Matthew's, will delay his own reception into the Roman Catholic Church until September, when he turns 50 and the compensation he is entitled to rises. This is a very prudent decision: one hopes someone has told the Pope that he will become infallible in matters of faith and morals as soon as Fr Bedford can get the Church Commissioners to cough up for his convictions.

Then there is the experience of those priests who have gone over to Rome. Three former Anglican clergy have returned to the Church of England after a brief period as Catholic prospective ordinands, and one of the 11 ordained by Cardinal Hume last December has already withdrawn from public life because of personal problems. The two churches are very different institutions. Anglo-Catholics accustomed to a church where celibacy is optional and public argument essential can find it difficult to adjust to the reversal of both these conditions.

However, the greatest change in all this has surely been the expansion of the Church of England. It now contains not merely two separate and irreconcilable ideas of the priesthood, but the incarnations, so to say, of these ideas. It reminds me of nothing so much as an exhausted, still functioning marriage. The two sides are not staying together for the sake of the children, though they certainly don't want to split and lose the houses. They are really staying because there is no one else so much fun to argue with - and that, I suppose, is a definition of love.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on