Fr Peter Geldard: Journey Home

23 11 2010

This interview with Fr Peter Geldard, a former Anglican and now the Catholic Chaplain of the University of Kent, was released in 2008 but is now very relevant to the current situation:

When the Church of England’s General Synod voted to allow the ordination of women to the Anglican priesthood in 1992, it caused a seismic row in the Anglican church. A number of clergy, including five bishops, eventually left to join the Catholic Church. Among them was Fr. Peter Geldard, who, as chairman of the Church Union, led the opposition to the ordination of women and opened the debate by speaking against the then-Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. The debate took place not merely in the synod itself but throughout the media in the days and weeks beforehand and in churches and organizations across Britain. Fr. Geldard tells his story:

I did not grow up in a church-going family. My father always used to say, “The only time you’ll ever see me in church is in a box when they take me in!” I was baptized as a baby, although in rather unusual circumstances. It had been a difficult birth, and because my mother was gravely ill and I was apparently dying, a Catholic nurse simply gathered me up and administered an emergency baptism, giving me the name Peter, because the shadow of St. Peter’s church next door fell across the room. My parents had planned to name me John but accepted the name she chose.

In my teens, as a pupil at the grammar school in Bexhill in Sussex, I encountered the great reality of the Church in history lessons. It was clear to me that there could be only one Church and that it must be the Catholic Church.

But a visit to the local Catholic church did not bring me any sense that I had met this universal Catholic institution that was the central reality of history. It felt small, obscure, foreign, and alien—as the old jibe puts it, a church run by the Italians for the Irish. This was before the days of the Second Vatican Council, so the Mass was in Latin. It simply didn’t seem part of normal English life.

English Comfort

Very near my school was an Anglican church, offering solid High Church Anglicanism, with a celibate clergy and strong sacramental teaching. Here, it seemed, was the Catholic Church for the English people. Here I learned to serve Mass and received my formation in Christian belief. We always understood that union with Rome was essential. We were part of a small group in England that had held onto Catholic life and the sacraments, believing that one day there would be full reunion. This was what Ronald Knox believed in his early days, and it was a reality in our lives. It was possible to cocoon yourself in this system and assume that the rest of the Church of England was an aberration.

When I made it clear that I wanted to be a priest, there was not a great deal of enthusiasm at home. I think my father frankly thought it was a bit sissy. He would have liked me to follow him into engineering. He designed bridges—more specifically, during World War II, ways of blowing them up. But he didn’t try to stop me from becoming a priest, and I applied to King’s College, London, to study theology. Before taking up my place there, though, I had what we call in England a “gap year,” a time off from school to work or travel. My gap year lasted two years, actually, working first as a crane driver in Sheffield in the steel industry and then in the theater as a stage manager and acting a few walk-on parts in plays. Then, with the benefit of having tested my vocation by deliberately going away from it for a time, I went to London and started at King’s.

I was exceptionally fortunate in my tutors. I studied under Eric Mascall, and for philosophy we had the Jesuit Fr. Frederick Coplestone. But that was just on the academic side. It was now the late 1960s, and these were exciting years. I got involved in student politics, becoming president of the local student union and active with the National Union of Students. In that momentous year of 1968, with student riots and a sense of revolution among the young, I was in Paris, throwing bricks at policemen. The NUS was the focus of left-wing action in Britain in those days, and I was campaigning alongside Jack Straw (now foreign secretary in Britain’s Labour government) and Charles Clarke (now home secretary).

But the call to the priesthood was stronger, and it pierced through the politics. I remember seeing a poster for the Catholic diocese of New York. It showed a priest in a cassock walking through a crumbling tenement block, and it said something like “When Father O’Malley was younger, he wanted to change the world. Now that he’s wiser, he just wants to change West Bronx.” This spoke to me. I remember thinking: If something isn’t local, it isn’t real. I wanted to do something genuine and positive to make a difference in people’s lives.

I continued my training at King’s College post-graduate program, which in those days was in Canterbury and was called St. Augustine’s. By then I was well established as what we termed an “Anglican papalist.” We recognized that reconciliation with Rome was essential, that our task was to help make this happen by working steadily and unremittingly toward it. I was deeply influenced by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who was then archbishop of Canterbury. Many years earlier he had written a book called The Gospel of the Catholic Church. I think by the 1960s it was out of print, but I had an old copy and devoured it. This was my church: fully Catholic in its teachings, but Anglican.

My understanding of the position of Anglican papalists had been formed as an altar server. As you knelt near the priest at Mass—and we always called it Mass—the choir would be singing, and under cover of this you would hear him saying the Latin words of the Roman Rite. There was a recognition that the Roman way was the right way, that unity with Rome was natural and necessary.

At King’s, I met Judith, who later became my wife. She came from a family of devout Anglicans and was studying history, specializing in the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent. (Not only did we have our religious beliefs in common, but she was captain of the college hockey team and I was captain of the rugby team, so we felt very well-matched.) As a priest, I was deeply involved in the High Church movement and became secretary of its main voice, the Church Union, which was at that time a highly active organization with considerable influence on the General Synod. After several years as an assistant priest, I got my own parish near Faversham in Kent. It was a glorious medieval church, part of the old priory manor house where the pop star Bob Geldorf lived. As our names were so similar—Geldorf and Geldard—we occasionally got each other’s mail.

Church Politics

The Church Union was involved deeply in church politics and in the massive debates on the theological issues of the day. We influenced a clear 40 percent of votes on the synod, which made it impossible for our opponents to get the two-thirds majority they needed to push things through. And beyond the Church of England, the prospects for union with Rome looked rosy. These were the days of ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, and it seemed possible that we could come to agreement on some crucial areas of doctrine and belief.

It’s strange looking back: As an Anglican and leader of this Anglican organization, I met all sorts of important Catholic figures that I would never meet now as an ordinary Catholic priest. I remember having talks with the then-apostolic nuncio to Britain, Archbishop Bruno Heim, and I went back and forth to Rome several times on ARCIC business.

In 1981 there was the great Eucharistic Congress in Lourdes. Pope John Paul II was to be there, and we wanted to give him a special gift—a gesture of support from Anglicans—so we collected funds from our supporters, raised about $3,500, and had a beautiful stole made for him. It was worked with Japanese golden silk thread and showed the papal coat of arms at the ends, the cross of St. Augustine on the chest, a dove representing the Holy Spirit at the neck. In the back where it couldn’t be seen, we left a sort of private message: a hidden Ut unum sint, a prayer for unity.

The Pope didn’t make it to Lourdes that year. He was shot in St. Peter’s Square and, after narrowly escaping death, spent weeks recuperating. But I handed our stole over instead to his official representative at the Congress, Bernard Cardinal Gantin.

We clung to the hope that things were moving, albeit slowly, toward reunion. We saw signs of progress in our discussions through ARCIC and also through a revival of the “Malines Conversations,” which had been launched in the 1920s by Lord Halifax (a famous High Anglican layman and president for many years of the Church Union) and Cardinal Mercier, the archbishop of Malines, Belgium. I hosted a dinner commemorating these events, and I remember Cardinal Daneels of Belgium reminding me of a saying of Cardinal Mercier that “it should never be said that a stranger should knock at the door of the Catholic Church and not gain an answer.”

Gift Returns

In 1982, Pope John Paul came to England, and there was a great gathering at Canterbury, where he walked up the aisle of Canterbury Cathedral beside the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and they knelt in prayer together. I was overwhelmed to see that the Pope was wearing our stole, the one we had sent to him the previous year. It seemed like a sign.

Meanwhile, in the synod, the High Anglican party remained strong. In the debates on changes to the liturgy, we ensured those changes wouldn’t hinder reunion. In the amendments to the prayer book, we carefully presented forms of prayer that would allow for a Catholic interpretation or simply used the same form used in the Roman Missal. I sat next to Rev. Brian Brindley, another High Anglican, and we worked together. The result was—as you can see when attending any standard Anglican morning communion service—a rite that is, if you use certain options within the prayers available, practically identical to the Roman Novus Ordo. Again and again, we sought and gained small victories that made aspects of Anglican worship seem more Catholic.

But while we Anglican papalists kept active and busy, we failed to notice the larger scene: the inexorable rise of liberalism across the board in the Church of England. We were busy with our specific issues, fighting battles over liturgy and the Catholic aspects of belief.

So things moved toward the debate in 1992 on the ordination of women to the priesthood. There already had been the question of admitting women as deacons, which I had opposed, but this issue touched on an absolute essential. It seemed to me that the issue was whether or not the Church of England Synod, as one group of Christians, meeting on its own, could make a definitive decision on this crucial matter without reference to the wider Church. At that time I did believe that, if the pope were to rule it possible, women might be ordained. Later, when John Paul issued a clear statement, that settled it. But as the synod debate opened, the issue was essentially one of authority: Did we have the right to make a decision on this matter or not? Dr. George Carey, then archbishop of Canterbury, presented the case for ordaining women, and I led the speeches against it. The debate was broadcast nationally. It was a defining moment for the Anglican communion and, as history now records, the synod voted for permitting the ordination of women by the narrowest possible margin.

From that moment, everything changed. It was, as John Henry Cardinal Newman had written a century or more earlier, like seeing a ghost: It is impossible to behave as though one has not seen it. Until then, I had believed that I belonged to a Catholic church that had many Protestants in it. Now I saw that I belonged to a Protestant church that had people claiming to be Catholic in it. Scales fell from my eyes. Everything had to be seen in a new light.

Mission Impossible

That week, I was invited to write about the debate in a guest column in the Catholic Herald newspaper. The same weekend saw an article in the Times newspaper by the retired Anglican bishop of London, Graham Leonard. We had both come to the same conclusion: Corporate reunion with Rome was now an impossible dream, and the only way forward was individual reunion. We felt orphaned. We went, as Dr. Leonard put it, as supplicants to Rome.

Cardinal Hume, then the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, was gracious and welcoming, and a joint working party was set up with six Catholics and six Anglicans. All the Catholics were bishops—they included Vincent Nicholls, then auxiliary in Westminster, now archbishop of Birmingham; Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, then bishop of Arundel and Brighton, now cardinal archbishop of Westminster; and Bishop Alan Clarke of East Anglia. Among the Anglicans were Dr. Leonard and myself. A great many things were discussed, including the idea that whole Anglican parishes could come over to Rome, retaining their own liturgy, as had happened in America. I never saw this as a realistic option, partly because of the very different situation presented by an established church in Britain as opposed to the Episcopal church in the United States and partly because most of the parishes that were likely to seek reunion were not using Anglican liturgies in any identifiable sense but something already more or less matching the Roman rite.

In the end a scheme was offered that allowed Anglican priests who were married to seek ordination as Catholic priests. Judith said that I would not be ordained because I was too well-known as a troublemaker.

Homeless, but Home

A great void opened before us. I was fifty years old, and I had resigned from my Anglican orders. There were breaks with old friends. At the practical level, we moved out of the large Anglican vicarage into a small house, so we had to get rid of many things, including most of my books, which I donated to the Franciscan Study Center in Canterbury. Together with some thirty-five members of my former parish (including the churchwardens and all the members of my parish council), I now attended Mass at the Catholic church in Faversham. It could not have been more different from the lovely old church we had left: It was a converted cinema with linoleum on the floor. Judith and I were now simply members of the congregation.

I had known the local Catholic bishop for years, and he talked to me about ordination. I had to send all the relevant papers to Rome, so I set out to collect my baptismal certificate and other materials. Here an unexpected difficulty arose: I had been baptized not in church but by a nurse in the hospital just hours after I was born, because I was in danger of death. My mother was unconscious, and the nurse took me and baptized me, using the proper formula invoking the Trinity. She later wrote a formal letter stating what she had done. This letter, which my father kept, was the only evidence of my baptism.

As the weeks went by and my application for ordination seemed to be held up in Rome, my wife insisted that it was because of my high media profile and my reputation as a debater, campaigner, and general nuisance. But when inquiries were made, we discovered that that was not the case at all. The only problem was this matter of my baptism, and when it had been accepted, the permission came through. I was ordained in the Church of St. Thomas in Canterbury by Bishop John Jukes in October 1996. I got a very kind and touching letter from Dr. Carey, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, wishing me well and sending an assurance of prayers.

After being in the media spotlight during the years of Anglican campaigning, I dropped quietly from view to take up my new life as chaplain at the University of Kent at Canterbury—which I love. There is so much work to do, and it is so satisfying. On Ash Wednesday this year I was distributing ashes at two packed Masses to large numbers of students.

It seems symbolic that my parents kept the name Peter, which the nurse gave me because the hospital lay in the shadow of a church named St. Peter’s, even though they originally wanted me to be called John. The Petrine office is the focus of unity, the unity on which the Church must be based. So Peter has been my patron all along.

 


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