A dollop of humiliation with every course

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ONE THING the recent converts and would- be converts to Rome seem to share is a talent for self-dramatisation. It is a gift that comes in handy when one is changing one's mind and feeling perhaps a little vulnerable to charges of betrayal. John Gummer, asked whether he was leaving the Church of England, replied that he was not leaving it, but maybe it was leaving him. The trick is to make everyone look the other way while you execute the humiliating manoeuvre.

It's the old wisdom of Father Brown: where does a wise man hide a pebble? On a beach. Where does a wise man hide a corpse? On a battlefield. Where does a wise man hide a defection? In the alleged general collapse of the Anglican Church and its ancient values. Sheridan Gilley, a theologian at Durham who converted to Rome on Easter Saturday, wrote an article in the latest Church Times. It begins: 'It is Easter and the bells of Durham Cathedral are ringing for evensong. They do not ring for me.'

Yes they do ring for Mr Gilley, and with the same old message: 15 minutes to go, five minutes to go and, finally, one minute to go before evensong. What has changed is that Mr Gilley is in a huff. Mr Gummer is in a huff. Ann Widdecombe has come through a mega-huff, which she has described as voluntary excommunication.

Anyway, last week, in a blaze of glory, she crossed over to Rome, in Westminster Cathedral, with the help of Michael Seed, ecumenical adviser to Cardinal Hume. Fr Seed, former Salvation Army and C of E member, appears to be the Father D'Arcy of these troubled times. He it was who prepared her (it took four months), received her into her new church and gave her (or she took) the name Hugh. I suppose he warned her that Hugh is normally a bloke's name, and I suppose she didn't pay much heed because she had set her heart on Hugh, after St Hugh of Lincoln (who kept a pet swan), and with a nod in the direction of Hugh Latimer, the Protestant martyr.

But, you might say, hang on] Didn't Fr Seed say it wasn't entirely tactful to quote Protestant martyrs on the day she became a Catholic? Well, he might have done but it didn't do much good. What she appears to be telling us, in this public way, is that she is (a) a victim of excommunication, (b) a Catholic saint, (c) a Protestant martyr and (d) a bit of a bloke.

Well, good for her, say I, although the bit of me that says good for her is the same bit that quite approves of people's right to cross-dressing and other deviant practices that are quite explicitly off the Catholic 'menu' as understood by Cardinal Hume. Indeed, there may well have been a slight rebuke implied in Hume's 'restaurant' speech, in which he said that Anglican converts had to take the whole menu and not think they could pick and choose from the a la carte.

Miss Widdecombe does not believe in the Catholic teaching on contraception, that 'to permit contraception by natural means but not by artificial means is a contradiction.' But she went on, 'That is not a fundamental of faith, but a teaching of conduct, which I can live with. Whereas abortion is a mortal sin.'

It's interesting that Miss Widdecombe was brought up in an evangelical home but a strictly Catholic convent school, and that she seems to have worn her old school hat (well, that's what it looked like) at Westminster Cathedral, as if she were saying, 'I'm going back to school.' Interesting, too, the remark she made (apropos the fact that the media outnumbered the congregation 20 to one) that the service was 'a public thing - the holy bit is in the afternoon.'

The holy bit is in the afternoon] What was Westminster Cathedral, if not holy? What was Fr Seed, if not a holy bit?

The 'holy bit' she had in mind turned out to be mass in the crypt of the House of Commons, an occasion so holy that according to Matthew Parris it was attended by a Government whip with a bleeper, whose job it was to inform Fr Seed of any division in the Chamber, whereupon Fr Seed would allow the MPs to pop off and vote. In fact, it seems the Widdecombe faction hijacked a mass intended for all Catholics around the Palace, and they turned it into a demo.

What was the demo about? It was about the fact that two government ministers, Mr Gummer and Miss Widdecombe, have decided the Church of England must be punished for proposing to ordain women. The punishment they have in mind is disestablishment and confiscation of property, as Mr Gummer made clear in an article he bounced off the Tablet into The Times on Friday.

Now, the General Synod of the Church of England decided in 1975 that 'there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood'. Between then and last June the momentous step was discussed and legislation was drafted. Mr Gummer, a member of Synod, spoke in the June debate, and declared himself 'agnostic as to whether women can be priests'. His concern was not with women so much as with the future position of those in the Church of England who held 'orthodox views'.

Mr Gummer believes that the Synod was ultra vires in introducing a novel doctrine into the church, not because this was the proper task of some other body within the C of E, but because nothing could be done about this matter until the C of E and the Church of Rome moved as one. The Church of England must not move on this matter without turning its back on the Elizabethan Settlement. To ordain female priests is to disestablish the church, or as Gummer put it, 'the General Synod is busy with the privatisation of the Church of England'.

This, to me, is, I freely and humbly confess, amazingly recherche. The Church of England is viewed as being bound to Rome by the terms of the Reformation itself. But the Church of Rome is not bound to the Church of England, because it doesn't recognise the Anglican priesthood.

As Fr Michael Gedge made clear in a letter to this paper on Saturday, the decision of 1896 still holds: Anglican orders are null and void. To be ordained priest in the Roman Church, a former Anglican must deny his previous priesthood. He must come to admit publicly that, although he thought he was a priest, he was deceiving himself and therefore others. He was a quack.

This is the kind of humiliation the converts must undergo. This is what the defection means. This is what Fr Kit Cunningham prays for at St Ethelreda's church in Central London: 'Every Wednesday I say a prayer for the conversion of England and I make no apology for it.' This, to use the terminology of the ghastly Cardinal Hume, is the Wednesday menu. This is the liver and onions of the Apostolic Succession.