The Mission Society of
Saint Wilfrid and Saint Hilda
The Bishop of Beverley on
Much has been mistakenly alleged about the Society
New ideas, like new plants, often need the ground first to be cleared if they are ever to have an opportunity of coming to fruition. Much has been mistakenly alleged about The Society, recently formed and living under the patronage of S. Wilfrid and S. Hilda. Such misunderstanding suggests that there is considerable ground clearing to take place if ever The Society is to grow to its full potential.
The mistaken idea has been abroad that The Society has been brought into being as part of some plot to entice people away from the newly formed Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Some have even promoted debates entitled 'Ordinariate or Society?' This is entirely to miss the point. No one should doubt the integrity of those whose consciences demand they should now enter into full communion with the Pope by means of the Ordinariate. But, the integrity of those who feel called to remain as members of the Church of England, at least until decisions over the admission of women to the episcopate have finally been taken, equally should not be lightly dismissed.
We are, perhaps, in need of a sensible and well-informed theological debate as to the pros and cons of joining the Ordinariate. What must never be in doubt, however, is the reasonableness, not to say the duty, of those who are remaining as members of the Church of England to organise in a way that they believe both to be practical and to have theological coherence. The Society seeks to be the appropriate vehicle which, through its life and witness, proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ as it believes the Catholic Faith has always embodied it.
The Society is not yet one more Catholic society. Those who fear such multiplication are probably wise. The Society, by contrast, seeks to be the way in which all of us are able authentically both to experience and to live out what it means to be within the Catholic Church. The normal way, of course, in which Catholic Christians through the ages have done this is by sharing in the life of a diocese under the care of its bishop who, in turn, relates all its members to the wider church.
There have been, though, and still are other ways of experiencing a true Catholic life. The recent establishment within the Roman Catholic Church of the Ordinariate provides but one example. The General Synod sadly refused the establishment of additional dioceses that would especially cater for our needs by grouping together parishes that were not contigual.
The Society, were the Church of England prepared to legislate for it even at this late stage, could still provide us with bishops who adhered to the faith of the undivided Church. Such bishops would guarantee for us priests in whose orders we would have complete confidence and of whose sacramental ministry we would entertain no doubts.
The parishes entrusted to The Society, together with the priests who ministered within it, would find themselves to be also part of the local diocese.
There would have to be careful thought as to how this shared authority between the local bishop and The Society's bishop was to be worked out. The ill-fated archbishops' amendment at the July 1910 General Synod possibly began to hint at how this might be done with its reference to 'co-jurisdiction'. The essential thing would be for those within The Society to know that the Society's bishop was exactly that, that their sacramental life flowed from him, that he was their primary leader in mission and so had the sufficient jurisdiction for this to be a reality.
There would be, of course, theological anomalies within such a way of working. To be an Anglican, though, at least since the Reformation, has arguably always meant living with some degree of theological anomaly. Sometimes, indeed, that anomaly has been considerable as when, until 1662, non-episcopally ordained ministers from main land Europe were occasionally instituted into Church of England benefices.
The key question is how far any anomaly might be bearable during the time in which we seek to recall our church to Catholic orthodoxy that would bring about the eventual ending of the anomaly. Within the wider ecumenical movement the concept of bearable anomaly as a step along the pathway to further unity is well understood. We need perhaps to work far harder at discovering what further anomalies might now be acceptable within a church that permits, at least in theory, even opposing views on the acceptability of ordaining women to the priesthood to be held as equally valid.
It will be essential for The Society that it does not come to be seen, or worse still, to understand itself as being some kind of safe ghetto for a faithful Anglo-Catholic remnant, a kind of ecclesiastical equivalent to the reserves that were once established for the indigenous Americans by their conquering European émigrés.
The Society must remain actively committed to the original ARCIC vision and be eager to restore communion between our church and the See of Rome. That in turn means that members of The Society must be active at all levels of Anglican life and seeking to exercise influence within it. The purposeful work of recalling the Church of England to its Catholic heritage was a cause dear to the hearts of the founding fathers of the Church Union. We should not shrink from it.
In similar vein The Society is nothing if it is not The Mission Society. In some recent discussions it has often sounded as if the heart of mission is little more than trying to win members from one part of the Christian Church to another. That debate is not to be belittled.
Faithful Christians will want to proclaim to their fellows what they see as a fuller understanding of the Christian revelation. That, as we have seen, is what we hold to be one important part of our mission to fellow Anglicans. If, however, the Church is to be one, as Jesus prayed, that is because it might then be more true to its mission. We need to be more and more active in evangelisation.
Many Catholic parishes are growing as they make new Christians and not by primarily enticing folk from other worshipping communities. In many places Roman Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans find that, for all their differences, there are vast numbers of ways in which they can evangelise together.
If being the case, it should surely be possible for us to do far more together with fellow Anglicans of different viewpoints. A strong participation in Anglican mission initiatives could probably give The Society more credence as being an essential part of our church's life than many of the other things on which we are tempted to spend our energy.
Christian mission, of course, is about far more than evangelisation however important that might be. Our forefathers in the Church Union soon realised that Catholic social theology, together with the action that flowed from it, is an important part of mission for those who put a particular emphasis on such seminal doctrines as the Incarnation and the Kingdom of God.
Many members of The Society, who are at the forefront of living out this part of our heritage, soon discover they are anywhere except in a ghetto.
Adherents to other Christian traditions, those of other faiths, indeed, those of no faith whatsoever but with good will towards their fellow men and women, soon begin to recognise the contribution we can make in partnership with them. Folk recently walking through central London, towards Westminster Cathedral for a celebration to honour Our Lady of Walsingham, would have encountered a vast march rightly or wrongly expressing concern about current government economic policy.
They might just have wondered where in London Our Lady might be choosing that afternoon to sing her 'song of high revolt', the Magnificat.
The next year or so should reveal whether or not the Church of England will enact the necessary legislation for The Society to become part of its official life and so safeguard for us the possibility of an authentic Catholic future within the Church of England. We do not know. Recent votes in the General synod offer little hope. We remain duty bound, though, to try, even at this late stage, to win over our church.
We can, meanwhile, begin to live as The Society and to sign up to it. At one level this means that tasks like that of producing a constitution are well under way though even a constitution must remain in part provisional until the Church of England legislates for it. At an equally important level you and I can begin to live as The Society.
Groups of traditionally minded priests and people are beginning to organise themselves as parts of The Society, seeking to gather around their local Catholic bishop, be he their diocesan, provincial episcopal visitor or more local provision by means of a suffragan.
Wider national and regional events are under discussion. Thousands of people are signing a membership form, saying they support the aims of The Society and seek for our church to provide for them in this way.
The aims of The Society are to be found on its website (www.sswsh.com) together with the supporting letter from the Catholic bishops.
If you have not already done so, come and join us. Help make The Society a powerful testimony to the reality of the Catholic life within the Church of England.
Living under the patronage of St Hilda and St Wilfrid