Affirming Catholicism


After four years as Chair of Affirming Catholicism, I stood down at the AGM yesterday. That wasn’t the good news I had in mind, thought some people may think of it that way.

What is really good news is that I am replaced by Rev’d Dr Rosemarie Mallett, Priest in Charge of St John, Angell Town in Brixton. This isn’t the official press release, so I won’t list all of Rosemarie’s many qualities – just to say on my own account how glad and excited I am that she will help to lead AffCath as it grows and develops.

It’s been a privilege for me to Chair AffCath over the last four years. We’ve sorted out our structures, we’ve made our contribution (we hope helpfully) towards the ordination of women to the episcopate (DV), we’ve helped produce the excellent Gospel Imprint leaflets, run some excellent conferences and retreats, produced some really good books, helped to encourage vocations, and more besides. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Paul Parkinson summed up a real dilemma very well in a reply – thanks, Paul. He said ‘the eventual extrapolation of a liberal othordoxy can end up in the land of the lowest common denominator. The effect of a totally liberal centred desire for a total state of inclusion of all views can actually result in a gospel of exclusion being promoted.’

At what point do you start to exclude people by including those who desire to be exclusive? My own feeling is that we need to tread carefully because there is good on both sides. It’s part of the DNA of the Church, in my view, to include as wide a spectrum of views as possible. So what’s possible and what isn’t?

I think the key thing is to detach (as far as anyone can) two different things: one is the desire to be rid of people I don’t like and who don’t like me; the other is the imperative to preserve the unity of the Church within as wide a boundary as can be drawn. The only way to do that has to be through using objective criteria which help us to avoid justifying our prejudices. Some of them are easy – for me the Catholic creeds provide one obvious boundary. But they don’t say everything, and particularly not when it comes to the bundle of issues around what might be called ‘the inclusive agenda’. We’re called into a difficult process of discernment.

In AffCath’s very first proper book, Richard Holloway wrote this

“Some time ago I copied a few lines of verse from a friend’s bulletin board:

They drew a circle that shut me out ­

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win­

We drew a circle that took them in.

“Is not this what a truly Affirming Catholicism would do? It would bring out of its treasures things new as well as old, and it would see grace in the conflict of ideas and human types. It would draw a circle large enough to include the world that God loved so much that he sent the divine Son into it to affirm its preciousness and die for its freedom. Such a Church would be a church of sinners and surprises – of sinners, because it would be for the not already perfect. It would be for men and women on the way, knowing something of their strength and much about their weakness. It would be a Church big enough to hold the ones whose ritual status is allegedly. not quite perfect, because they have failed some test of acceptability, by their marital or sexual status, or by their inability or refusal to see the point of pretending to exact knowledge of the unknowable mystery that besets us, yet who want to accompany the tradition and, above all, share its experience of prayer and silence. But above all it would be a Church of surprises because it knew that God had not finished yet and no grave can hold the divine.”[1]

Yes, yes: and how many of those who hold the opposite of those things can be part of the same circle? Only when the circle breaks do we find out that we’ve pushed it too far. And then we need wisdom to know what is the most loving thing to do: to hold back from pushing it further in the direction we want to go, or to try to re-draw the circle with some contrary voices outside it. Temperamentally, I feel better about the first than the second, unless I can see a pressing sign that injustice is being done.


[1] Richard Holloway, ‘Behold, I make all things new’, in ed. Jeffrey John Living Tradition (DLT, 1992), 115-130, 128-129.

The Ordinariate is under way. To no-one’s great surprise, Fr. Keith Newton has been appointed Ordinary, and he and the other newly-minted (Roman) Catholic priests begin the process of inducting others to follow in their wake. Having just read Andrew Burnham’s interview in The Catholic Herald, I should think it must be quite a relief for them no longer to feel that they are held in tension between the Church of which they were part, and the Church which commanded their true loyalty. But what of those who remain?

As is often the way, it’s easier to speak the truth plainly when it no longer has personal impact: Fr. Newton is quoted by the BBC as saying: ‘”You can’t have a Church that believes in women bishops and doesn’t believe in women bishops.” Which is of course the point that Affirming Catholicism and others have been trying to make these many years. I do want those who disagree with the ordination of women to stay within the Church of England, if that’s how the Spirit is leading them. Others will feel called – and who am I to tell them they’re wrong? – to join the Ordinariate. But the Church which they are remaining within is either (as at present) one that does not ordain women as bishops, or (as I hope it will be) one that does. It can’t be both simultaneously.

The challenge for all Catholics, always, in whatever church they are, is to (in John Newman’s words)

…  hold in veneration,
For the love of Him alone,
Holy Church as His creation,
And her teachings are His own.

If the Church of England is part of the Catholic Church with authority to order its own life, then Catholic members of it are called to accept its teaching as the teaching of the Church, even if they disagree. If it isn’t – then I suppose there might be a prophetic ministry of trying to call the Church of England back to its true vocation as a part of the Western (i.e. Roman Catholic) Church. But that vocation cannot within integrity camouflage itself merely as opposition to women bishops; it’s about a wholesale change of direction, not a decision on one particular issue.

Having begun to look at Newman’s categories, I realised that all of them for me boil down to one fundamental question, which flows most clearly from his first. Preservation of Type – this is Newman’s first, quasi-genetic criterion for distinguishing proper development of doctrine. Is this still the same sort of body, the same Church, regardless of the changes in its outward form? Newman says:

‘[I]deas may remain, when the expression of them is indefinitely varied; and we cannot determine whether a professed development is truly such or not, without some further knowledge than an experience of the mere fact of this variation. Nor will our instinctive feelings serve as a criterion. It must have been an extreme shock to St. Peter to be told he must slay and eat beasts, unclean as well as clean, though such a command was implied already in that faith which he held and taught; a shock, which a single effort, or a short period, or the force of reason would not suffice to overcome. Nay, it may happen that a representation which varies from its original may be felt as more true and faithful than one which has more pretensions to be exact.’

What is fascinating, though, is the evidence he uses for asserting that the Roman Catholic church of his day is the true example of the ‘type’ of the early church. He takes every example of criticism that the early church’s most inveterate adversaries held against it, and argues that the Roman Catholic Church is still criticised for the same things, and therefore is the true inheritor of the early church. It is a vision of the true church as only appearing when beset by enemies. But for me it omits the one and only question i would ask when trying to discern the ‘true type’ of the Christian Church: does it reflect the ministry of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels?

It’s impossible to answer the question now, but it’s the one we have to keep on asking: does this development enable the Church more coherently to represent to the world the good news of Jesus? The problem in asking this question is that it pushes us back behind even New Testament proof texts relating to church order, and we have to deduce what we can from the stories of Jesus which were never written down to answer this sort of question.

I would argue, though, that the sort of evidence we need is not, either that all Jesus’ disciples were male, nor yet that Mary Magdalene was ‘apostle to the apostles’. Those sort of tangible proofs are not only not conclusive, they are also scarcely relevant. The question goes back – as ‘traditionalists’ have pointed out – to Christian anthropology. That is, what relationship is there between human beings, and their two genders, and the nature of God. Is it true, as Forward in Faith argued in Consecrated Women?, ‘that the most fundamental of all the symbols of the Judaeo-Christian narrative is that of the redemptive sacrifice of a male’? If it is, then maleness is written into the warp and weft of God’s work in the world. As they say, ‘we believe the Bible story to be unimaginable without normative use of male language’. The Fatherhood of God is an essential safeguard against pantheism; the maleness of the Son is an essential part of his reflection of God’s likeness: and if priests and bishops are, as Catholics hold, given the task of representing the divine, they can therefore only be male. The rest of the argument is window dressing by comparison.

But on the other hand: if the predominance of male language for God reflects both the (proper) desire to indicate that God is truly personal, and the (misguided) assumption that males were superior to females, and therefore female language would demean God’s glory – then the fundamental point on which all agree, that God is beyond human gender, becomes much more significant. If it was only because of human ingrained patriarchy that God was revealed through predominantly male language and persons, then our calling as God’s people is to grow out of that limitaiton towards the full riches of God’s nature. In which case a priesthood and episcopate which includes both men and women will be a greater reflection of the God who is beyond all our gender distinctions.

If you believe that gendered language represents something about God which we can only point towards through that way – that the analogy of maleness is essential – then it follows from a Catholic perspective that only men can be called to the ordained ministry. It is because I believe the opposite that I think women bishops are traditional: that is, they help us to understand more deeply the very roots of the Tradition by brgining us closer to God. Women’s ordained ministry overturns a tradition as long as the Jewish food laws, which were overturned for Peter in his vision at the house of Cornelius. Something which seemed of the essence of faithful practice was revealed to be only a stage along the way, something that was now preventing rather than enabling faith.

But as Newman also points out, ‘by their fruits you shall know them’. None of us can say with absolute certainty that we know God’s will: we can only follow faithfully in what we understand.

Well, here goes – my reasons why those best of enemies, Affirming Catholicism and Forward in Faith, really need each other – or to be more accurate, really need the Catholic insight that the other holds. Equally loud screams ensue from some on either side at the very idea that there might be anything to learn from the other …

So a bit of quasi-historical overview; you could argue with some chance of success that there have always been two major strands in Anglican Catholicism: one that regarded the others as not really Catholic, and the other regarding its others as not really Anglican. With some inevitable exceptions, you could map these two streams onto Affirming Catholicism and Forward in Faith. AffCath represents those Anglican Catholics who recognise in the Church of England an authentic part of the Church Catholic in its own right. As such, Anglicans have the right and responsibility to govern their own life, which includes matters of doctrine, liturgy and orders of ministry – the whole lot. Although it is a tragedy that the whole church is divided and cannot make these decisions jointly, Anglicans are not beholden to any one before deciding how their church should be organised. In particular, we do not have to wait for the Roman Catholics or the Orthodox Churches to endorse a change before it can be made. The Catholic appeal from this position is particularly to the undivided tradition of the Church – not so much as a template from which nothing can change, as a source of theological truth which cannot be disregarded or treated as mere secular history.

Not nearly Catholic enough, FiF would reply. They represent the Anglo-Catholic tradition which sees the Catholic claims of Anglicans as rooted in the historical link to the Western i.e. Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England is an unfortunately detached part of the Western Church, and its Catholic identity is dependent on that origin. So the more divergent Anglican and Roman Catholic structures or doctrines become, the more endangered is the Anglican claim to Catholic identity.

OK, so this is so much of a summary that it’s nearly a parody, but this is a blog not a monograph. If there’s something in this typology, it leads into a clear complementarity between the two approaches – a mutual corrective that neither ‘side’ might particularly want, but which each needs if it is to live out a Catholic vocation in an Anglican setting. If the Catholic tradition is to engage creatively within Anglicanism it needs to have confidence that this church has its own vocation within the Church Catholic, that its individual contribution (patrimony, perhaps?) may be part of what God is doing. Hankering after Rome is not a way of living out the gospel.

But equally, the Catholic tradition within Anglicanism needs that continual reminder that Catholic identity entails answerability to others, not just those with whom you happen to agree; it demands that changes be made in the light of tradition, and only if it appears that the tradition is unfolding itself into a new thing which the Spirit is revealing. It demands a recognition that the unity of the Church is not sometihng that just happens when everyone finally agrees about everything: it needs to be sought, sacrificially.

So each ‘side’ needs the other, precisely in order to prevent it from falling into the less truly Catholic tendencies of its own set of preferences. Any chance? Probably not yet, but I’m still looking. And it doesn’t stop me (to mention one current issue) being thoroughly in favour of women bishops in the Church of England (but for that see the next post …)