How could we in the past maintain a Catholic position in the Church of England but can no longer? Church of England Catholics had a tradition that our Church continued as the nation's Church, the Ecclesia Anglicana, founded by St Augustine of Canterbury, the missionary sent by Pope St Gregory the Great to convert the English people. The Church of England had no creeds, doctrines or orders of its own but only acknowledged those of the undivided Church. The breaches with the Papacy in the 16th century were essentially political rather than religious acts. What was put in place was a national state establishment blocking interference from Rome.
The Catholic tradition of the Church of England was maintained by bishops and theologians through the Elizabethan and Stuart periods. They claimed that the Church had been purified from medieval accretions but had maintained Catholic faith and order as defined by the early Councils of the Universal Church. In spite of the weakening of this tradition by the rationalist secularism of the 18th century, it was not lost. Church order was preserved and Catholic practice was recovered in the 19th century by the Oxford Movement with a return to regular Eucharistic practice and to sacramental confession, the growth of devotion to Our Lady, the founding of monastic and religious orders and the revival of liturgical ceremonial.
Indeed, so successful was this Catholic restoration that by the middle of this century the intellectual life of the Church was dominated by Anglo-Catholics, clerical and lay, such as Bishop Kenneth Kirk, Dom Gregory Dix, Austin Farrer, TS Eliot, Charles Williams and Dorothy L. Sayers to name but a few. This induced in Church of England Catholics a false confidence that the Catholic tradition was secure in the Church and would grow.
The recent development of ecumenical relations with the Roman and Orthodox communions and their consequent better understanding of the Anglican position gave Church of England Catholics confidence that intercommunion would be achieved with the two-thirds of Christianity which subscribes to traditional faith and order.
The Church of England had for several decades enjoyed partial recognition by the Orthodox Churches and the good relations developed between Rome and Canterbury during the pontificate of Paul VI pointed a way forward to restored communion with the Holy See. Despite the Roman condemnation of Anglican orders as null and void in the 19th century, the level of agreement in the official discussions between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches gave real hope of reunion. The great sadness was the refusal of the Archbishops of Canterbury to respond to the warnings from Paul VI and the present Pope on the ordination of women.
What Church of England Catholics had failed fully to grasp was that control of the Church was falling into the hands of a liberal party which queried the supernatural nature of the Christian religion and Church and questioned the traditional understanding of the Creeds, the ordinary interpretation of the Scriptures and historic teaching on faith and morals. The liberals' first concern is to reinterpret Christianity to make it acceptable to the understanding of the present secular world. What has caused further confusion is that many in the Church with a superficial Catholic background in essence have embraced this liberal programme.
The Church of England, at least since the latter part of the 17th century, has had three parties: High Church or Catholic, Reformed or Evangelical and Rationalist or liberal. Although the Catholic and Evangelical wings have often been in conflict, the threat to Catholic teaching has mainly come from the liberal wing of the Church and by its anti-supernaturalist reinterpretation of Scripture has also been unacceptable to classical Evangelicals. In the 19th century it was the dominance of the liberals that precipitated the departure of both Newman and Manning to Rome. In recent years with the partial delegation by Parliament of legislation on Church matters to the General Synod, the liberals' capture of control of the synodical and Church appointments systems has precipitated a crisis. The General Synod's claim of authority to approve women's ordination has made it clear that the Church of England as now constituted can no longer uphold its Catholic position.
The dilemma for Church of England Catholics is whether it is possible to remain in a Church divided by internal schism, in order to work towards restoration of Catholic order. Although the legislation enables present diocesan bishops to refuse to ordain women and prevent women priests from functioning in their dioceses, no one consecrated to or transferred to a diocese in the future can believe the ordination of women impossible. Catholic laity and clergy will have no option but to turn their parishes into ghettos out of communion with their bishop. It is difficult to see how the compromises at present proposed can be strengthened to ensure a long-term future for Catholics.
The other options open to us as Church of England Catholics are to join the Roman Catholic church individually, to accept the suggested proposal of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to join as individuals in parochial groups, or to seek reception into the Orthodox Church. For some the Roman Catholic welcome carries difficulties from the required acceptance of the whole of Roman Catholic teaching and the implicit questioning of Anglican orders. Orthodoxy presents a problem through the cultural differences between the Eastern and Western Churches.
The crisis has caused a sad sense of loss but there is another side. It has forced us to reflect on and examine our obedience and trust in Our Lord and has required a deeper realisation of the Christian's dependence on the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. It has provided an opportunity to participate effectively in a reshaping of Christianity and the creation of a more positive Catholic future in Britain.