Fr. John Maunder of St. Agatha’s Ordinariate Church, Portsmouth, has let us have this report by Darel Stutters on their Day Conference on the role of the parish priest:
Day Conference at St Agatha’s
On Saturday 11th July, being the feast of St Benedict, a Day Conference was held at St Agatha’s Church to discuss the role of the parish priest. The two speakers were Fr Nicholas Leviseur from Pembury and Fr Stephen Bould from Folkestone.
Fr Nicholas Leviseur described the present day view of the role of the clergy and the many aspects of the work. A priest could find himself acting as community leader, financial advisor, social-worker as well as caring for the spiritual needs of his parishioners. Unfortunately no single individual can possibly possess all the skills required to fulfil all these roles.
It is easy to have a misinformed and rosy view of the pre-Reformation church. In reality at that time there were also clergy shortages and priests were overstretched. The pre- Reformation church was running virtually all aspects of society and even today we can see traces of the historic role of the clergy in the political and legal life of the country. The church ran the courts, the hospitals, the civil service as well as the spiritual life of the nation. Mgr Mercer pointed out that echoes of this influence can be seen in African churches today which provide much needed health care, education and scholarships to their flock.
The clergy of the pre-Reformation church were assisted by monks and friars who took on the task of preaching. After the upheaval of the Reformation many abbots became bishops. The monastic libraries were subsumed into the cathedrals and the seminaries eventually became our present day public schools.
By 1899 the population of England and Wales had increased from 2.2 million in medieval times to 32 million. There were now over ten thousand parishes but there was still a severe shortage of priests.
The Anglo-Catholic revival and the opening of theological colleges resulted in a well-educated clergy. Those of private means were able to build churches and maintain their independence. Sunday schools and church schools were established during the nineteenth century, but concerns remained about the role of the priest and the neglect of the parish.
Nowadays the level of education among the clergy is much lower. Many do not have the skills to perform their roles. A degree and knowledge of Latin and Greek are no longer required. A great number of priests work alone and there is a risk of isolation and loneliness. The days of a parish with three or more priests are over.
Fulfilling the spiritual requirements of the work can also be problematic. It is difficult for the priest to visit people during the day as only the elderly and the sick will be at home. Parochial activity is often confined to a two-hour window in the evening. Again it is easy to have a false view of the past. Although the Anglo-Catholic clergy had great vision and accomplished tremendous work in their parishes they did not always engage with wider society.
Should the traditional structure of the parish and diocese be called into question? Pentecostal churches appear to be thriving without such structures. Should the church look at the Saxon minster approach? It would enable the clergy to live in community and thus avoid isolation. They could then operate a mission of outreach. The danger of this model is that it could be seen as a response to an external threat and might encourage the clergy to retreat from society. It could however be an interesting format particularly as many churches are redundant and will soon be obliged to close.
Fr David Stafford pointed out that much had been achieved in the USA. The church there is unshackled by tradition and ancient structures. It is easier to be dynamic and build a different type of church.
The Vatican is very concerned about clergy formation. Many clergy in the Church of England have not experienced the discipline and way of life of the seminary. Ignorance of doctrine has been in evidence for a while and some female clergy appear to have abandoned traditional services altogether. The laity who may have been unconcerned with doctrinal matters is now becoming aware of challenges by the secular state to traditional morality.
How should the Ordinariate respond to this situation? It is tempting to go to Anglican services and offer an alternative by direct communication with the congregation but this form of action could be considered “sheep stealing”. Another approach could see representatives of the Ordinariate attending events and meetings. Should the Ordinariate wait for Anglicans to make the first move?
Fr John Maunder pointed out that our society has changed enormously. Although the teaching of RE even in Catholic schools leaves a lot to be desired, vast amounts of knowledge are available on the internet. The laity can instantly check up on the knowledge of the clergy.
Fr Nicholas reminded us of the appeal of a demanding Christian lifestyle. People are not drawn to an easy path. The basics of Christianity must continue to be taught in our schools and the actual requirements of the Faith will draw people to Christ.
Adrian felt that the laity expected too much from the clergy. The concept of the “priesthood of all believers” could also be utilised, particularly if Christians are prepared to work together even if they come from different denominations. Fr Nicholas reminded everyone of the importance of wearing the symbol of the cross as a visible sign of their allegiance.
Fr Stephen Bould took as his theme Cardinal Newman’s motto “cor ad cor loquitur.” Christian communities need to have a heart-to-heart dialogue with each other. Roman Catholic churches, even if they are modern constructs, point to the future and eternity whereas Church of England buildings encourage a step into the past. The Ordinariate is unencumbered with buildings and this absence is both a problem and a blessing, yet the Ordinariate brings the treasures of a rich Anglican past into the Catholic Church. We need to remember that all Christians, even the most Protestant communities, define themselves in relation to the Roman Catholic Church.
At the Reformation the Church of England transferred its allegiance from the pope to the crown. Unfortunately the creation of a constitutional monarchy has resulted in the church following a state agenda which is now very secular. The Ordinariate has the opportunity to speak to the heart of the Anglican Church and present an alternative path. In this way the Ordinariate will fulfil the brief assigned to it by Pope Benedict XVI to evangelise Anglican Christians.
Unfortunately the Society of St Hilda and St Wilfred have set their face against the Ordinariate and Fr Stephen fears this barrier will operate against groups being received in the future.
The Ordinariate also faces opposition within the Roman Catholic Church from conservative and liberal factions who regard it with suspicion. Members of the Ordinariate should not be dismayed by such reactions but should work to unblock channels of communication and dialogue.
Fr Stephen spoke at this moment of the power of the Last Gospel at the conclusion of the mass. Its message was empowering and motivational and an inspiration to those present.
The Ordinariate must recognise that the structures of the Church of England influence the Roman Catholic hierarchy and even non Christians such as Muslims and Sikhs! Unfortunately this influence can lead to religious leaders, even in the Roman Catholic Church, modelling themselves on the Church of England structure and thus becoming part of the establishment.
Many religious festivals are in danger of becoming secularised, for example Christmas is viewed as a celebration of the family. Islam is not immune to these influences.
Adrian reminded us that Pope Benedict, in opening the door to us, did not see it as being of benefit purely to us. Our presence and the treasures of our Anglican prayer and scholarship also strengthen the Catholic community. Indeed it is our duty to warn the Roman Catholic Church in England when we think it is in danger of falling prey to the perils of the experiments taking place in the Anglican Communion.
Although the Ordinariate is open not only to those Christians with links to Anglicanism but also to Catholics who have not completed their initiation to the sacraments, the vital mission of the Ordinariate is to remind Anglicans that their real home lies elsewhere, in the see of Peter rather than the Canterbury Communion.
(N.B. I do not know whether the proselytising tone in parts of these talks, especially in the conclusion, is a true reflection of the opinions of Fathers Leviseur and Bould or rather of the compiler of the report, but I would very strongly warn against all forms of proselytism, especially “evangelising Anglicans”.
It is not our task to tell Anglicans where their home should be but to live our life of Anglicans in full communion with the See of Peter unequivocally and for all to see and to offer a home for those who of their own accord (and of course with the prompting of the Spirit) come to seek full communion for themselves.