Sunday 17 January 2010

Unity and Patrimony

After the thaw, Holy Trinity Winchester was back on form this morning. They even laughed at the right places in the sermon - so for better or worse, here it is:-

There is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit I Cor xii.4

One of the great men of Methodism was coming to Oxford to speak, and a friend of mine from college dragged me along. Well, it was unity week after all. The topic was to be ‘The Ethos of Methodism’. Little of what he said remains all these years later, but how I felt about the talk I have never forgotten. He had listed the particular emphases which he saw as being the special gifts of Methodism – and each of them seemed to me to belong equally to the Church of England.

It is a little like that over the recent proposals to welcome the special graces of Anglicanism (the Anglican Patrimony, they call it) into the Roman Catholic church. At a meeting about the proposals, held last week in Bournemouth, one Roman Catholic lady asked very pointedly just what we thought we were bringing to the Catholic Church. Did they not, after all, possess every possible gift and blessing already? My hackles began to rise; until I remembered that was just how I had thought about Methodism all those years ago.

We are beginning the week of Prayer for Christian Unity; so it is a good time to be asking about gifts; and especially so in view of today’s Epistle; ‘there is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit’, says S Paul. Perhaps it is because the Spirit is One that I recognised in Methodism things which I had always thought particularly Anglican.

The Holy Spirit, though, does measure his gifts according to the capacity and the needs of those who receive them. The gift of celibacy is just that; a gift, for those who are chosen to receive it. In the Roman Catholic church, that is seen as the special calling of all priests. Not so in the Church of England; and not so in the Orthodox churches, nor even in the Eastern Rite churches of the Roman Church. There is no doubt that a celibate priest can devote himself whole-heartedly to the needs of his parishioners; But there is also a vocation to Holy Matrimony, and the married Vicar, who must give attention to his wife and family, may also have them as his allies in ministry. How many clergy wives have enriched their husbands’ ministry? And how many clergy children, by humanising their father, have made him more useful to the parents and children in the parish? It is not that celibacy or the married state is better or worse than the other; as St Paul tells us, there is a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit, at work in all sorts of different ways in different people.

A very wise Roman Catholic priest told me that he never had any problem with people of other churches when they spoke positively about their belief; but when they said what they DID NOT, or COULD NOT, believe, that was where the trouble started. In the same way, it is no good looking at the Roman church and telling them “Your preaching isn’t as good as ours” or “your priests don’t give the same pastoral care as ours”. Such sweeping generalisations are necessarily wrong, and offensive too.

In fact we shall not know what is the Patrimony of the Church of England until it is working alongside other Catholics in a wider church. When that happens there may be some surprising things that we have always taken for granted, not even noticed, but which others find attractive. Equally, we shall learn just how inadequate we have always been in many ways when we compare ourselves with other Catholics.

Fifty years ago, in a parish in Guildford diocese, we began in a very small way by sharing our parish church with the local Roman Catholic community. Their principal church was in town, a couple of miles away. Their priest wanted a mass centre our near us, and wondered if they might use our Church School. It seemed silly to use a school building when we had a purpose-built church. So, eventually, after a great campaign of persuasion, our Bishop and the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton agreed that we might begin this experiment in sharing.

It began rather tentatively. At first, the priest brought everything with him, his altar linen, an altar stone, vessels, vestments, bread and wine; within a very short time he seemed at home, so that he would ask “I’m a bit short on wafers; could we use some of yours?” Slowly, an atmosphere of trust replaced the suspicion with which we had viewed one another. The experiment. if that is what it still is, continues. Woe betide anyone who tried to stop it.

Now, with the proposals of “Anglicanorum Coetibus”, we have a chance to go much further in getting to trust and understand one another. Already suspicious natures are saying this is a case of sheep-stealing, that the Pope is trying to undermine the Anglican Communion. If we look for the best motives in others, though, instead of always trying to look for the worst, we might discover that this really is someone trying to help us; not just Anglican Catholics, who have asked for provision from our own church and not been given it. No, it is much more than that; if this new experiment works, even in a very small way, it might be the very thing the Holy Spirit is doing in answer to our prayers. Once SOME of us respond positively, it might become possible for others to do the same; not perhaps immediately, but many years from now. After, perhaps, some of the unrecognised gifts of Anglicanism, our hidden patrimony, has become accepted and welcomed by the whole Catholic Church.

I’ve often been dubious about Rabbie Burns, with his wish “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as other see us!” Very uncomfortable, that might be. Yet in the Ordinariate that gift of insight might become ours, painful maybe to realise how irritating the effortless superiority of our Anglicanism must have been… but perhaps, too, we shall find some things in our Patrimony which really are worthwhile, which at present we do not see, but which others will help us to value.