I'm filing for next week's America on the world's first Ordinariate, which is swelling in these days from 20 members to over 1,000 (including 64 priests) as former Anglicans are received into the Catholic Church in England and Wales in low-key ceremonies across the nation. A whole new chapter in the story of Western Christianity -- I've said this before, but I really feel it now -- has been opened, and, having walked a little of the way with one group of 16 received last night in central London, I feel something of the excitement of it.
Part of the joy of journalism is getting behind the tags, monikers and agendas and discovering the "real" story, the one not told in the easy headlines.
Being with these very ordinary but deeply impressive people I've been able to nail three big myths about the ordinariate squarely on the head.
The first is that they are "disaffected Anglicans" -- people switching denominations because they disagree with the Church of England's positions on women priests and homosexuality. In reality they are passionate advocates of Christian unity who have long prayed for corporate reunion between the two Churches. But over the years - since the 1992 decision to ordain women, of course, but more especially following the 2008 General Synod and Lambeth conference -- they've watched that dream vanish. Not only has the Church of England demonstrated that it has no internal mechanism for enabling that corporate reunion, but it has also given the message firmly to Catholic Anglicans that it is no longer willing to make room for them. In the midst of this sad realization, Pope Benedict in September 2009 made his dramatic offer, making possible that dream after all. Many of the central London group spoke of how the offer came as a challenge as much as an invitation: this is what they have been asking for; how could they now refuse?
The second myth is that they are high-up-the-candle traddies whose taste in liturgy is far too refined to fit in with modern Catholicism, and so need to keep apart. That idea has been vigorously advanced by certain conservative Catholics, who see the Ordinariate as much-needed reinforcements in their own battle with what they see as as a sell-out to modernity, especially in liturgy. But nothing could be further from the minds of the members of the Ordinariate I met, and from what I can gather, they are representative. They are a very mixed bunch, some coming from evangelical and low-church backgrounds. Liturgy, for them, is not the issue; it is church unity on the model they have always sought -- being unified without being absorbed. The Ordinariate liturgical books, when they are approved later this year, will preserve what is important to them and what they have grown up with: the language of the Book of Common Prayer, for example, as well as Anglican hymnody. But they are quite at home with modern (Roman) Catholic liturgy.
The third myth is that the Ordinariate is a kind of halfway house, a second-tier form of membership of the Catholic Church. This reflects parochialism on the part of Roman Catholics who see the diocese as normative and regard structures which differ from that (as do ecclesial movements, for example) as a kind of "church within a church". "Why can't they just be ordinary Catholics?" is a question I've heard from many of my correligionists. But what they are asking, of course, is: "why can't they be Catholics like us?"
But there are many ways of Catholic belonging, as the astonishing variety of rites, movements, orders and so on attest. Fr Mark Woodruff, a passionate ecumenist -- and himself a former Anglican -- told me last night: "If we are the universal Church, why do we limit ourselves to being one manifestation of it? If we are universal, then it’s no skin off our noses to create an additional space or to give space so that other kinds of Christians can be the Christians they are within our fellowship".
It's an excellent point. As long as the purposes and the apostolic faith of the universal Church are served, and people consent to all that the Catholic Church teaches are true, almost everything else is relative. A visit to the Middle East, and the astonishing variety of sometimes small but vigorous local Catholic Churches -- whose liturgies and languages are so different from each other they can look and feel quite "other" -- makes the point. The Church has always expanded its boundaries to accommodate cultures, languages, traditions; the coming-into-being of the one universal Church will necessarily mean the expansion of the diversity of forms and structures of belonging.
Or as Fr Woodruff puts it: "Our distinctiveness is a richness which God has given us; we don’t need schism for it to be there."
The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, in other words, lifts the veil from what the journey to Christian unity will look like. As it happens, the Ordinariate Catholics look a lot like the rest of us -- even if most of their priests will be married, and they have some distinctive structures (the future Ordinary, for example, will not be appointed by Rome but elected by a pastoral council). But what if the Methodists or the Baptists sought to be in communion with the Holy See? What might their liturgies look like? What room would canon law -- which has an almost limitless flexibility -- make for them?
The men and women -- of all ages and backgrounds -- I watched being received last night spoke afterwards, as all who make this journey do, of coming home, of being more deeply themselves. They are delighted to be in communion, and see themselves as the first of many future waves. They are proud of the ecclesiola they have joined and are creating, and have great ambitions for it: they see themselves as missionaries of Christian unity, invited to serve the deeper cause of Anglican-Catholic unity by bringing with them the gifts of their patrimony.
One young woman told me that this was "a time of renewal" and they feel privileged to be part of it. Another, who is conducting a talent audit of the group, spoke of preparing for mission once their priest is ordained at Pentecost and they are allocated a church. They spoke of feeling freed for Christian witness to the outside world. As he put it: "We want to put behind us all this bickering and do what our Lord asked us to do, which is to go and make disciples of all nations".
This is no tribal enclave. It's a vigorous new local Church, which has gently, quietly come into being -- a visible sign that Christian unity is, after all, possible. It's not Easter yet. But last night it felt like it.