Damian Thompson: The Ordinariate needs a London church

18 01 2011

From the Telegraph:

At the first Mass of Fr Andrew Burnham at the Oxford Oratory on Sunday, the great Dominican theologian Fr Aidan Nichols described the Ordinariate as “nothing less than the reconfiguring of Anglicanism by union with the Petrine centre and its criteria of orthodoxy”.

That is a sweepingly ambitious statement of the Ordinariate’s purpose – and it might have seemed over the top had it not been for the extraordinary scenes at Westminster Cathedral the day before, when Archbishop Vincent Nichols ordained the former Anglican bishops of Fulham, Ebbsfleet and Richborough. Rather to the surprise of some commentators, the Bishops of England and Wales really seem to have lined up behind the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Has there been some arm-twisting by the CDF?

But in one respect we’re still in no-man’s-land. The new Ordinary, Fr Keith Newton, has not yet been given a London church to serve as his headquarters. (We can’t use the word “cathedral”, but it wouldn’t be that wide of the mark.) Perhaps the delay reflects the great importance of getting this decision right. Is there a central London Catholic church that can be appropriated without too much fuss? Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, comes to mind, but it’s too small. St James’s, Spanish Place, would be ideal in some respects – but I can’t see its devoted congregation agreeing to vacate such a masterpiece of the Victorian Gothic revival.

Easily the best suggestion I’ve heard is that the headquarters of the Ordinariate should be St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place – the only Catholic medieval church in London, and so a symbolically appropriate choice for a project that seeks to close the rift that opened at the Reformation. Let me put this diplomatically: Ely Place is not what it was, either liturgically or as a parish community, in the heyday of the late Fr Kit Cunningham. How wonderful if its owners, the Rosminian order, were to offer it to the Ordinariate.

There are, of course, several Anglican churches in London whose congregations are now so shrunken that, under normal circumstances, the C of E would be only too happy to hand them over. Unfortunately, Richard Chartres, the current Bishop of London – though grandly High Church – is not keen on “Romans” in general and even less enthusiastic about defectors. Dr William Oddie, himself a former Anglican priest, has the measure of Chartres, describing on his Catholic Herald blog him as “the senior active opponent of the Ordinariate”. I suspect the bishop would sooner allow one of his churches to become a branch of KFC than the headquarters of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? Are there any redundant Methodist or Free Church buildings that could be Catholicised? I’d be interested to hear your suggestions. But I still think the best solution is Ely Place.