Give that Father Harper a free transfer

Churches are like football teams; whatever their colours, they play the same game. Paul Handley deplores the testimony of an Anglican priest who has turned to the Orthodox Church.
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The Independent Online
Newcastle United play in black and white stripes. Orthodox priests are the ones with beards. It has to be said right away that these are unrelated facts: the Catholicos of Armenia is not thinking of signing up a team for the Premiership. They are instead an aide-memoire to two people who have come to my notice this week.

The first is seen off pretty quickly. Martin Wharton, a not very noticeable bishop in south London, has just been appointed the next Bishop of Newcastle. In his little publicity spiel, he said he was a keen football fan: "I very much look forward to supporting Newcastle United." So farewell, then, Wimbledon, or wherever it is that Bishop Wharton has been gracing the directors' box. Keen football supporters just don't do that sort of thing. It's the equivalent of announcing, "Well, mother, I've got another job at the other end of the country, so I'll be supporting another mother from now on."

Mothers come into the story of the second figure, Fr Michael Harper, who has just written a book about his journey, at the age of 64, from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy. Harper writes in his introduction that he tries to avoid "conversion mentality": "I do guard against being over- enthusiastic about the Church I have joined and hypercritical about the one I have left." So is this breathtaking, or what:

What about the Church of England? Was that

not "home"? I had a struggle over this for a long time . . . Then one day I found a way of adjusting my thinking about this dilemma. I saw the Church of England as my foster-mother. She had looked after me with great devotion until I found my real mother. Now I had "come home" to where I was always meant to be, where my real mother was.

Well, sod off then, Michael Harper. I generally lodge calm, tolerant, ecumenical feelings in my breast for people who move from one Church to another. The seven former Anglican priests who will be prostrating themselves before Cardinal Hume in Westminster Cathedral today - the latest of the 90 or so to be re-priested in the Roman Catholic Church - excite no animosity in me. But then, those who convert (or "vert", as the Church Times would once have called it, short for "pervert") are usually persuaded to keep their mouths shut, for changing teams is a very personal decision, and it does no harm to be a bit shamefaced about it. But not so, Fr Harper. I find that any tolerance I might have had vanishes with that cruel kick to the uterus; "foster-mother", indeed.

To gauge just how successful Fr Harper is at guarding against convert mentality, one need read no further than the title: The True Light (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 7.99). And that's as far as one ought to read. As soon as the introductory proviso about being over-critical is over, off goes Harper, like a ferret up a trouser-leg.

The odd thing is, his criticisms of the Church of England read exactly like those of a newspaper columnist. As a former priest and cathedral canon, one might have expected his encounter with his old Church to have taken place at a deeper level than the knee-jerk headlines: the Myth of God Incarnate book, Bishop David Jenkins, the Crockford's Preface affair, the Anthony Freeman sacking, the ordination of women. Add gay priests to collect the set. But as anyone in the business knows, these are just media distractions, making little impact on the spiritual lives of ordinary Christians, least of all those in the charismatic evangelical tradition which was Harper's own. And if Harper's chief criticism of the Church of England is its sponge-like tolerance of unorthodox doctrine and practice, the activities of some of his fellow Charismatics have stretched that tolerance as far as any radical theologian.

I say that is the odd thing. But far odder are Harper's reasons for joining the Orthodox Church. Here is a list, as full as I can make it, of what he says he has discovered from his new mother: the importance of the eucharist and sacraments, the place of bishops, the importance of tradition alongside scripture, the centrality of the Trinity, calling priests "Father", church unity (within Orthodoxy? Tell that to the Ecumenical Patriarch), the Holy Spirit's role in baptism, the position of Mary as Mother of God, the communion of saints, church decoration, a concentration on incarnation, and icons.

I'll allow him icons, and, though he doesn't mention them, priests with beards. But what Harper doesn't seem to have realised is that he didn't have to traipse off to Antioch to find all that stuff: the church round the corner could just as easily have furnished him with the whole list. What he's done, in fact, is stumble upon ordinary common-or-garden Anglo- Catholicism.

Churches are like football teams. They might wear slightly different strips, but they kick the same sorts of beliefs and practices around, whether their grounds are in the north or in the east. Give that Harper a free transfer.