Quiet revolution as women celebrate first communions: Catholics round on Belgian priest who publicly criticised Rome's attitudes at Anglican ordination. Andrew Brown reports
Monday 14 March 1994
It was almost certainly the first legal communion celebrated by a woman priest in this country. The congregation of about 80 was twice the normal size for the eight o'clock service in this large evangelical church; otherwise there was little sign of excitement. Ms Mills preached a short sermon with real assurance and ran through the consecration prayers with hardly a stumble.
'We beseech thee to inspire continually the universal church with the spirit of truth, unity and concord,' she prayed. But her ordination service, boycotted by traditionalists, had already caused an ecumenical incident.
Roman Catholics and opponents of women priests are furious that a Belgian Roman Catholic priest, Fr Marc Cornelis, was allowed to pray publicly at the end of the service in Bristol Cathedral 'that also the Roman Catholic Church may finally be able to overcome ossified and discriminating legislation and allow women to be ordained; and to lead the way in preaching God's word, in celebrating Eucharist, and in showing ways for the community of faith to go'.
Afterwards, Fr Cornelis was embraced by the ordaining bishop, the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Rev Barry Rogerson, who had encouraged him to make his prayer when the two men met during a general exchange of greetings during the Peace in the service.
The Catholic Media Office responded with unusual asperity, describing Fr Cornelis' prayer as 'most regrettable'.
'What we have heard of Fr Cornelius' prayer makes it sound more like an ecclesiastical political statement than a prayer,' the statement said.
'Although it is true that there are pressure groups hoping that the Catholic Church will ordain women, and it is true that women's ordination has never been definitively declared impossible, there is no sign of the Catholic Church moving in that direction.'
As the ordination service took place, the Roman Catholic bishop in north London, Mgr Vincent Nichols, was addressing 400 Anglican laymen, opponents of women priests who were exploring the possibility of becoming Catholics.
The Rev John Broadhurst, the chairman of Forward in Faith, the largest Anglican body opposed to woman priests, said: 'You don't use an ordination to pick up a crackpot from any tradition to attack the integrity of their own church.'
However, Margaret Hebblethwaite, a Catholic theologian and feminist, said: 'Everyone knows the Catholic Church is divided on this issue. It is right that this should be brought into the open.'
Ms Mills said after the service: 'I don't want to triumph over those within the Church who find this painful and are opposed. I long that somehow we can work at holding hands across this issue and serve God together in spite of our differences.'
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