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.

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