(reposted from Mgr. Edwin Barnes’ blog)
Why is it that the American Ordinariate seems so far ahead of us in England? Part of the reason I suggest has to do with buildings. Whereas in the States it is sometimes possible for the Ordinariate to purchase a former Episcopal church, this never happens here. Indeed there are some Anglican bishops who have said they would be more ready to let a church go to Islam than to the Ordinariate. It is very rare indeed (I only know of the Torbay Mission) where a church building has been bought by the Ordinariate – and that was formerly a Methodist, not an Anglican, church.
It all stems, I think, from history. Until the 1530’s every church in England was Catholic. After Henry VIII – and once his bastard daughter Elizabeth I was on the throne – every church was nationalised for the ‘Church of England’. At different times, churches have occasionally been handed over to other Christian bodies. French Protestants, for instance, were given the use of some churches when the Huguenots were exiled to England. In the 20th Century, some churches have been given to Orthodox communities, or they have been permitted to buy or share them.
Also in the 20th Century there have been instances where other religions have bought or been given church buildings – the former St Luke’s in Southampton is now a Sikh Temple. The occasions when Catholics have been able to take over or use an Anglican building are very few indeed. In 19th Century Arundel there was a great legal battle when the Catholic Duke of Norfolk presumed to rebuild the ruins of the Chancel of the Anglican Parish Church where his ancestors were buried for a Catholic Chapel.
In Walsingham, the equally ruinous Slipper Chapel was rescued from its use as a barn and brought back into Catholic worship. There is the former chapel of Ely House, London, home at one time of the Bishops of Ely which had been sold and laicised long before. And that is about the sum of it.
In London, though, where Catholic congregations customarily fill their churches to bursting, the good old Church of England hangs on to its buildings even when congregations are down to a mere handful – in the hope perhaps of realising a good sum from a developer.
I was reminded of all this on visiting Wilton. There the old church was pulled down in the 19th Century and only the chancel left standing. In its place a sumptuous Italianate church was built by the local grandee, the Earl of Pembroke; and it was fitted out with stained glass, carved woodwork and stone from all over Europe – the aftermath of the French Revolution and other upheavals. It must have seemed perfectly reasonable to the noble Lord that these Catholic artefacts should become decorations in an Anglican building.
We are very wedded to our buildings and our history, in a way which it must be hard for others – especially Americans, I think – to understand. Perhaps the time is coming when Parliament will recognise that the Church of England is no longer the religion of the country, and that it would be sensible to find other bodies to take over some of the buildings which it struggles to maintain – but don’t pray for it too hard. St Paul’s erstwhile Cathedral would make such a good Mosque.