Faith and Reason: Standing next to Mary Magdalene: Margaret Hebblethwaite, an assistant editor of the Tablet, the Roman Catholic weekly, this week continues our series on catholicism with a robust attack on the Anglican version.

JUST over the road from our house is an Anglo-Catholic theological college. David Hope, the Bishop of London and last week's contributor to this series, used to be the principal. The smell of incense does not quite waft out through the firmly locked gates, but the bells can certainly be heard ringing for the Angelus. Old boys in impeccable black clericals cluster back to the Alma Mater on special days, pinching the residents' parking spaces. One had a card in his window which read 'Priest visiting': I never saw if the traffic wardens respected it but I hoped not.

When my pious, Catholic mother-in-law was staying with us, she went for a walk down the street. She came back looking delighted as she untied her head scarf. 'Where do you think I've been?' she said, 'I've been to church, just at the corner.' 'It's an Anglican church, you know,' we told her. 'Can't be,' she said, 'It's got the Stations. And a priest there asked me if I had come for confession, but I only went last Saturday. They had a box too.' 'Anglo-Catholics,' we explained. 'Ee,' she said, catching her breath in horror. 'That was a narrow miss.'

They think they are Catholic, but are they? 'Catholic' means 'universal', and being Catholic means being one body with the universal Church. If you are not in communion with the rest of the body you are not Catholic: that would seem to be obvious. And Anglicans are not in communion with Rome.

The communion of the universal Church happens through the Mass, though it takes a degree of mystical awareness to understand it. At Mass we are united not only with the others in the building, but with all the others around the world who are taking part in the same event - not a similar event, but actually the identical event. Nor does it stop there, for the universal Church stretches through time as well as through space. We are united with millions and millions throughout the last two millennia, going right back to those original women who followed Jesus from Galilee and stood before him at the Cross. The Mass is not a re-enactment of Calvary, but the original enactment, made really present once again in our midst.

At Mass we are present where Mary of Magdala was present - the 'apostle of the apostles' as Thomas Aquinas called her. We are present at the self-giving of God into the hands of sinful humanity on Calvary - indeed into the hands of sinful men in this case. We are present at the self-revelation of the risen and ascending Christ in the garden, as he gave Mary Magdalene - and through her, us - the mission to spread the good news. (The 12 male apostles were not there as a matter of history, neither on Calvary nor in the garden at dawn, which could form quite a good argument against having men as priests if one were disposed to be difficult. It is Mary Magdalene who is recorded by all four Gospels to be witness to the Crucifixion and first witness to Easter.)

When I go to Mass I stand before Christ in the presence of his saints, with Mary of Magdala, with Catherine of Siena, with Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala . . . It is worth putting up with a lot of Vatican nonsense to be admitted to such a company. What holds me in unity with them is not just the fact that I think highly of them and want to recognise them as belonging to the same church as me. It is also that they recognise me as belonging to the same church as them. They will not do that on my merits, which would never earn me a place in such impressive company even supposing they had heard of me, but only because I am held structurally in the same body. Rome provides the structure for unity. We know we are in communion with each other because we are each in communion in Rome.

It does not follow that the Roman structure has to look and feel the way it does. In a reformed Catholic Church there would still be a successor of Peter as a focus of unity, but he, or she, would behave more as Peter did, especially when Paul challenged him to his face and won the argument (Galatians ii). In today's unreformed Roman structure there is sadly another factor that unites Catholics, and that is their common suffering at the hands of Rome. As a matter of experience, that breeds great solidarity across the continents.

I am not sure that the Roman Catholic Church is identical with the catholic Church of the Creed - 'we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church' - for Rome is deeply flawed in its catholicity by the number of evident Christians who are outside the communion. And so the Roman Catholic Church is less than fully catholic. But it is nonetheless the least inadequate approximation we have to the catholic Church of the Creed. There is no other plausible contender. We could hardly give the title to the Anglican communion, founded on no better theological basis than the old British Empire and the marital infidelities of Henry VIII.

Rome has the closest claim to being the catholic Church for a number of reasons. First there are its roots: there is some sort of continuous succession from the primacy of Peter - a primacy found in the gospels, which cannot be argued away. Secondly, there is the highly significant matter of its size: so long as Rome has more members than anyone else, it can hardly avoid being the mainstream. And thirdly there is its theology: on almost every theological point of dispute between Christians, from the role of tradition to the functioning of the sacraments, I am convinced that Rome's theology has basically proved sound. In the way I see it, Rome is at the centre of the body of Christ, the kernel of the catholic Church, while other Christian denominations are like a penumbra around the edge - appertaining to the one Church, because there can only be one Church, but not yet fully held in the communion.

While I was writing this article a young man came to the door, collecting for Christian Aid. I handed over my envelope and asked where he came from. 'Over the road,' he said, pointing at the Anglo-Catholic college, and he added brightly, 'the odd lot.' 'Ah the odd lot,' I nodded understandingly. 'I don't know if we appear an odd lot?' he inquired, rather less brightly. 'Oh you do,' I assured him. His face fell. 'We're not really an odd lot,' he said sadly as he went away. Such is the Anglo-Catholic dilemma - wanting to be separate and yet wanting to belong. You cannot have it both ways.

This has not been my most ecumenical week. Perhaps I was put in the mood by having enjoyed Professor Torrance's blistering attack on Catholicism last weekend in the Church Times. Maybe we all ought to have a Christian Disunity Octave to balance the Christian Unity Octave, when we can all reveal what we really think before resuming polite relations for the rest of the year. And such brutal honesty might even end up making us closer as Christians.

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