From the Sunday Telegraph, by Jonathan Wynne-Jones:
Dressed in their black cassocks, the three Anglican bishops had hoped to pass unnoticed as they emerged from the Vatican into the shadows lengthening across St Peter’s Square.
Having just assured one of the Pope’s key advisers of their momentous decision to defect to Rome, they walked along the cobbled streets fearful of being recognised, hoping to keep these discussions to themselves.
But they were betrayed even before they had returned to England, with word of their meeting spreading from one rectory to another, angering and alarming clergy loyal to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who feared he was being undermined by this papal gambit tempting disaffected Anglicans to join the Roman Catholic Church.
This week, the plots hatched behind closed doors in the Vatican last year will be played out in the open as the former bishops lead dozens of clergy and hundreds of worshippers in taking up this historic offer.
They will be confirmed in services that will mark a significant watershed in the Anglican Church’s long-running battle over moves to allow women to become bishops.
It represents a new beginning for those entering the Catholic Church, but their departure has deeply wounded the Church of England, which is already riven by bitter rows over gay clergy, and now faces an exodus of traditionalists.
The Pope’s offer to Anglicans has divided parishes across the country – even causing an acrimonious split in a convent – and has sorely tested relations between the two Churches, with Rowan Williams reduced to a mere bystander as a congregation in his own diocese became the first to head to Rome.
Anglican bishops have visited their traditionalist clergy in an attempt to prevent the wave of defections from growing. Meanwhile, their former colleagues travel the country talking to priests considering joining this quiet revolution.
In the dioceses of Rochester and Chelmsford alone, there are at least 15 priests who are considering joining the structure, called the Ordinariate, that welcomes Anglicans into the Catholic fold.
According to Fr John Broadhurst, one of the former bishops who has been pivotal in establishing the framework, the exodus to Rome could swell to tens of thousands once the Ordinariate begins to take shape.
“This could herald a real transformation of the English religious scene and be an aid to the conversion of England,” he says.
Fr Broadhurst became increasingly disillusioned with the Church of England, accusing it of breaking promises to opponents of women bishops and describing it as “vicious” and “fascist”.
For him and dozens of other traditionalists, it no longer resembles the Church they entered. Instead, they feel it has grown increasingly liberal and intolerant of dissenters. “It has changed out of all recognition from the Church I joined,” says Fr Geoffrey Kirk, of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, and the former secretary of Forward in Faith, an Anglo-Catholic group representing up to 1,000 clergy.
“Orthodox Christians in the Church of England are being marginalised by this liberal agenda that keeps on accelerating. You look around the leadership of the Church and there’s no one there who is likely to stop it.”
Although traditionalists have been concerned by the change in the Church’s stance on divorce and acceptance of gay clergy, their main cause of resentment has been the inexorable drive towards promoting women to be bishops, which Fr Kirk regards as a “heresy” and unbiblical.
Last year, traditionalists looked in vain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom they hoped would persuade the General Synod, the Church’s parliament, to offer them pastoral provisions in the event of women being consecrated.
Yet even as Dr Williams was preparing to address the Synod in York, Anglican clergy were meeting with a senior Roman Catholic bishop in Leicester to express their interest in joining the Ordinariate.
The Archbishop’s supporters viewed such acts as chicanery, more akin to the ruthless politics of the boardroom than the ecclesiastical world, and further evidence that he was being double-crossed by traditionalists calling for his help at the same time as talking to the Catholics.
Senior bishops are dismayed at how he has been treated by the Vatican, which informed him of the Pope’s plan only days before the offer was announced in 2009.
“I think it was an insensitive act [the papal offer] as it came at a time when the Church was still in the decision-making process on the ordination of women and came with minimal consultation,” says the Rt Rev Christopher Hill, Bishop of Guildford, who is the Church of England’s chair of the Council for Christian Unity.
“It was awkward and embarrassing, not just for Archbishop Rowan, but also for the English Catholic bishops. I don’t think they were enthusiastic about it and we realise that it has put them in a difficult position.”
Aware of how explosive the papal offer could be to relations between the two Churches, the plan was not discussed outside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of the most powerful Vatican departments and the successor to the Inquisition.
According to one of the Archbishop’s senior aides, he had been reassured by another department that no such scheme existed when he inquired about a report in 2008 in this newspaper which revealed talks had been taking place.
A leaked email between Andrew Burnham, formerly Bishop of Ebbsfleet and a leading player in the Ordinariate, and a Catholic bishop, reveals the clandestine nature of the talks. It refers to meetings between the three former bishops, high-ranking cardinals and Vatican officials.
“I am taking the liberty of mentioning, in confidence and with his permission, that we are in touch with Mgr Patrick Burke at the CDF [the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith],” he wrote.
“It has all felt a little bit like Elizabethan espionage but, truly, the informal contact with the CDF has been invaluable, and, if ever Mgr Burke got into trouble, I should write to the Pope and say how splendidly helpful he has been.
“Needless to say, Fr Pat’s help, and the support of Archbishop DiNoia, need, to a lesser extent, to be protected from disapproval at higher levels of the dicastery [Vatican department]. Hence the cloak and dagger.”
Now the plans have been brought into the open and the Ordinariate has been set up, thousands of worshippers are torn between whether to remain in their churches or leave for an uncertain future in this new structure.
For parishioners, this means turning their backs on churches that have been home to many of the most important events of their lives. But for priests, the sacrifices are much more tangible.
In quitting the Church, most of the clergy are losing their jobs, their salaries, and their homes with no guarantees of having these provided by the Ordinariate.
Yet for David Lashbrooke, who is married with children, his concerns at developments in the Church of England outweigh his material needs. “It’s an extraordinarily difficult decision to make as I’m leaving behind people I’ve ministered to for a long time, but I’m disappointed by the Church [of England] and how it seems to be led by popular culture these days,” he says.
Mr Lashbrooke was the priest at St Mary the Virgin in Torquay for a decade, but last month he told parishioners he was “putting away his sword after fighting for the Church to remember her roots”. He then placed his chasuble and stole on the altar and walked out of the church, leaving behind him a stunned congregation, many of whom were in tears.
Such was the distress caused by Mr Lashbrooke’s departure last month that the Bishop of Plymouth, the Rt Rev John Ford, made an unexpected visit to the parish the following Sunday, urging the congregation to “pray and reflect rather than give way to anger and further separation”.
However, the church has been divided by Mr Lashbrooke’s decision, with 50 members of the congregation following him to the Ordinariate.
Wispy clouds of incense still drift through the nave on Sundays, but the air is thick with anguish and regret as hymns, once sung so triumphantly, now sound flat and muted.
“We’ve lost around a third of our parishioners and half the choir, so we have a very depleted church,” says Jennifer Elliott, 73, one of those who has stayed behind.
“You notice the difference. The choir is half the volume it would be normally, with only five or six members now compared to a dozen. Their voices sound thin and hollow.”
Some worshippers claim the breakaway was orchestrated secretively, but Mike Cain, an honorary priest at the church who left with Mr Lashbrooke, says that people had come to their own decisions after becoming disillusioned with the Church of England.
“The truth is that some parishioners approached us to say they wanted to ask about the Ordinariate and others didn’t. It wasn’t a conspiracy.”
Marcia Mitchell, 76, who joined the church in 1980 and was a churchwarden for 14 years, says she had been considering the Pope’s offer ever since it was made in 2009. “I had become dissatisfied with the way in which I felt the Church of England was losing its Catholic heritage.
“When I heard that we were being offered the chance of going into this new pilgrimage of faith, it interested me.”
She will be among hundreds of former Anglicans, including 66 clergy, who will be confirmed as Catholics in services being held at the end of Holy Week.
Figures released by the Roman Catholic Church show that the largest impact will be felt in the Catholic diocese of Brentwood, where 240 people have prepared for confirmation.
In the archdioceses of Birmingham and Southwark, 100 and 167 respectively have begun worshipping in the Catholic Church, and a further 60 have been recorded in each of the dioceses of Plymouth and Portsmouth.
Although these numbers are relatively small, they are nevertheless higher than initially expected, which owes much to the leadership provided by the three former bishops, who have travelled to parishes assuring disillusioned Anglicans of a cherished role in the Ordinariate.
One of them, Fr Keith Newton, the former Bishop of Richborough, who has been appointed as the Ordinary responsible for heading up the new structure, says he had been encouraged by the response – but feels it is only the beginning.
“I haven’t been going around proselytising, but I’ve been helping priests to explore what is a very generous offer from the Holy Father,” he says. “These are not simply people fed up with the Church of England, but people who see a really positive and exciting future.
“This is just the start. Now we are here, I expect many groups will join us in the months and years ahead.”
The Rt Rev James Langstaff, the Bishop of Rochester, is aware of priests in his diocese who are considering joining the Ordinariate. “I’ve met with clergy who have told me it is a live issue for them and I respect their conscience, but I’ve assured them of my support and tried to persuade them to wait and see what happens [in the women bishops debate],” he says.
For Archbishop Williams, the battle to stem the tide of Anglicans defecting to Rome has only just begun. Hundreds, if not thousands, are likely to leave if the Church gives final approval next year to current plans to make women bishops.
Additional reporting by Ben Leach