NO CATHOLIC had attempted anything so shocking beneath the House of Commons since Guy Fawkes in 1605, if the advance publicity for Ann Widdecombe's conversion from anglicanism could be believed, writes Andrew Brown.
At a sung mass in the chapel in the crypt of the House of Commons, the social security minister received her first communion as a Roman Catholic. She had left the Church of England after it decided in November to ordain women as priests.
The chapel could not have been more beautiful, and the minister scuffled round it before the service as transparently happy as a child at the end of term.
The occasion, she had explained, was planned so all her friends irrespective of denomination could share her joy. There had first been a service of reception in St Peter's Crypt, Westminster Cathedral; the mass, she said had the full co-operation of the Anglican authorities.
Her brother, an Anglican evangelical, read the prayers. The first lesson was read by John Gummer, the agriculture minister, still just an Anglican. He, too, has been thrown into torment by the general synod's decision. He read Psalm 42 as if he meant every word: 'As a sword in my bones my enemies reproach me: they say 'where is thy god?'
The congregation sang lustily 'To Be a Pilgrim' as if to encourage him on his way.
The liturgy itself seemed very low. There is far more pomp and incense when Anglicans are playing Catholics than at the real thing.
Miss Widdecombe had said farewell to the Church of England with a blazing newspaper article that charged it with being at the mercy of every passing feminist fashion. This made all the more delightful the sermon from the celebrant, Fr Michael Seed who kept calling God our mother. 'When we put ourselves in the hands of God it is very like putting ourselves in the arms of a good mother - or father' he added, almost as an afterthought.
St Peter, from whom the popes trace their authority, had 'a tendency to run into the darkness and make wrong moves', according to Father Seed. 'Jesus seems to specialise in choosing very weak and awkward people.'
If the Bishop of Durham had said this no doubt Ms Widdecombe would have asked questions in the House. Coming from Father Seed it just increased the general joy. 'It is only a person's conscience that can tell them what to do,' he said. 'What Ann has done is an authentic movement of the holy spirit and there must be no hint of triumphalism,' Father Seed said.
At the end the congregation sang the fine old triumphalist Catholic hymn 'Faith of Our Fathers':
Shall win our country back to thee;
And through the truth
that comes from God
England shall then indeed be free.'
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