A New Oxford Movement

The following sermon was preached by Father Gordon Reid, whose parish, St. Clement’s in Philadelphia, hosted the Society for mass of our Fifth Annual Conference. 

In the English Church in Pau in the South of France near Lourdes, there is a plaque, which states baldly: This church was built for English Catholics”. This does not mean “English Roman Catholics” but Anglicans who regarded themselves as Catholics.

In 1887, when St Andrew’s, Pau, was built, the Oxford Movement, or the Tractarian Movement, was forging ahead with its mission of recalling the Church of England to its Catholic roots, and the builders of St Andrew’s, Pau, were confident enough about their position to call themselves simply “English Catholics”. (The amusing side of that position was that some of them referred to the Roman Catholic Church in England as “The Italian Mission to the Irish”!)

It is true that two other Anglican churches were built in Pau around that time, one very Low Church, the other “Middle of the Road”. Well, the Low Church is now a French Reformed church, and the Middle of the Road one is a pornographic cinema. But the one built for English Catholics, like John Brown’s soul, goes marching on.

I tell you all this because I think that the name you have chosen for your Society is exactly right. You are (or will be) unapologetically Catholic priests, needing no qualifications. Of course, you are a Society of the American Episcopal Church in communion with the historic See of Canterbury, which may be regarded as the Patriarchal See for Anglicans. But the most important thing about you is that you are Catholic priests.

That is what John Keble, Edward Pusey and the Tractarians of the Oxford Movement were primarily concerned with maintaining, in the face of a Church of England that had largely lost that belief, though it was never totally forgotten, as was demonstrated by the Caroline Divines, among others. They faced a Church that had lost many of the signs of Catholicism and whose priests and bishops saw themselves as ministers of the State, maintainers of the status quo, comfortable deniers of all enthusiasm, whether it came from mystical Roman Catholics or wild Methodists.

The Tractarians saw that the only way for the Church of England to regain its pure Catholicism was to persuade its bishops that they were the successors of the Apostles of Jesus Christ and not important figures in society, and that the priest’s function was to offer the Holy Eucharist and celebrate the Sacraments, so that the Body of Christ might be activated in his followers, and cause them to go out into the slums and places of need, to minister to the poor, the outcast, the neglected, as Christ did in his incarnate life. They were not to be “parsons”, the chief person of the parish, but alteres Christi, other Christs.

It was because he despaired of this ever happening in the Church of England that the most famous Tractarian of them all, John Henry Newman, converted to the Roman Catholic Church. But in total contrast to him, John Keble asserted: “If the Church of England were to fail, it should be found in my parish”. And when we look at the present- day outward appearance of the Anglican Communion, we can see that Keble was vindicated in his steadfastness, and Newman isolated by his lack of vision.

In our present-day Anglican communion, every Bishop would maintain that he was in the Apostolic Succession; the Mass has become the central act of worship in the vast majority of our churches; social concern and action for the poor and needy is central to our mission everywhere.

But there is something wrong, something not quite right. Keble and Pusey and the later Ritualists, both in England and in America were all learned men, products of the theological faculties of the universities. They took it for granted that anyone who became a priest would have a sound education in Latin, Greek and often Hebrew; that they would be conversant with the writings of the Scriptures in the original languages; that they would have read much from the Early Fathers of the Church, and the Creeds they had produced. They would know the history of the Reformation and the doctrinal controversies caused by it.

But the early Anglo-Catholics realized that that was not enough to make a good priest. Specifically, they identified the lack of attention to Holiness in the formation of Anglican priests. It was for this reason that one of their chief concerns was to establish and endow genuine Seminaries for the Church. They came to see that book-learning was not what made a good priest, much less a good Christian, but instead what was needed was a formation in a devout and holy life. So seminaries were built and men went to them after taking a degree at university, so that they might learn what Monsignor Ronnie Knox, himself an Anglo-Catholic convert to Rome, called “Priestcraft”. Knox once said of that word: “I am very proud of what people call priestcraft; since even that accidental term of abuse preserves the medieval truth that a priest, like every other man, ought to be a craftsman.”

I am sure that, if we were about to have an operation, we would not be at all amused if we were told that the surgeon who was about to operate had had no practical experience of anatomy, but have no fear, he has read all about it in the text books! In the same way, the Tractarians emphasized the fact that a Catholic priest would be very little use even though he had read the Bible through and through and knew the works of the Fathers and the decrees of all the Councils by heart. A priest needed much more.

So seminaries were founded and began to teach not only extra academic things like Liturgics and Ethics, but also the things that would turn a seminarian into a priestly craftsman. They ran preaching classes and made the students preach at each other and receive criticism from each other; they taught students how to make their confession, because no priest should ever hear confessions unless they are penitents themselves. Then the seminaries had classes in how to hear confessions, how to baptize babies; how to prepare people for Confirmation and First Communion; how to conduct marriages and funerals and how to interact with the families involved in these occasions.

But, most important of all, the seminaries began to form future priests in ways of prayer and the spiritual life. They ran a disciplined regime, similar to that of the military. To use Cuddesdon, my own Theological College as an example, early rising bells called the students to Morning Prayer, which was followed by half an hour of silent prayer. Then Mass for those who wanted it (note the distinction between the Daily Office which was compulsory and the daily Mass which was not). The morning was spent in classes, the afternoon in free time. Then came Evensong and dinner and, after a short study period Compline. Then (in theory, though students then were as naughty as students now!) the Greater Silence reigned until after breakfast the next day.

As you can see, this way of formation was based on the monastic life. There is much of it that was arbitrary and would not suit present day seminarians who tend to be older, more married etc. But the most important thing about such a regime was that it inculcated in people like me the habit, and really the need, to maintain a living relationship with God through the recitation of the Daily Office, regular meditation or mental prayer and frequent attendance at Mass. This spiritual discipline has been for me and thousands like me a sort of spiritual Cape Canaveral where the rocket stands firm until it needs to be launched. Without that concrete platform of vocal and mental prayer, the higher reaches of intimacy with the Blessed Trinity would, for me at least, be almost impossible.

Now, as I said, such a monastic regime is impossible these days except for a handful of those preparing for the Anglican priesthood. But I am sure that the end result is still vital. A priest who is not disciplined in prayer and sacrament will only be half the priest he or she was meant to be. So we have to find other ways of formation which will take the emphasis away from just academic ability and achievement and concentrate more on spiritual formation. Finding ways to do this should be one of the chief aims of the Society of Catholic Priests.

Another aim of the Society, which stems from modern conditions, is to recognize that many – perhaps the majority – of our parishes are or will soon be unable to pay the exorbitant cost of a full-time priest. This is lamented in some quarters, but I am sure that it may be a great blessing and a great opportunity.

It is easier in Britain than it is here, since there those students who have been to university will have either no student debts at all or very little, since much of their fees and expenses are paid for by either central or local government. Then when they go to seminary, most of that cost is picked up by the Church. Then, when they get to parishes, they are all paid the same amount for their entire career, and that amount is just enough to live on (at the moment it is roughly $40,000 a year) out of which must come heating and lighting of large Rectories among other things.

Here, on the other hand, parishes are faced with much greater stipends plus all sorts of extra costs like housing allowances, child allowances, and of course health insurance. So a full-time priest has become an expensive item, and small parishes just can’t afford one.

Well, instead of lamenting this, I think it should become an opportunity for a fresh look at the parish priesthood.

In the UK, there are more and more priests who are non-stipendiary, who make their living in other jobs and do their priestly work at other times. There are also more and more locally based courses for training priests that do not involve much residential training. Here in the States, there is a similar trend, but as far as I see, it is still pretty sparse and is certainly sometimes looked on as a second-best option, training second- class priests.

I am certain that this should not be so. For too long we have emphasized academic learning to a ridiculous extent. People take degree after degree because they think it will make them wiser. Thousands of books are published about thousands of uninteresting and uninspiring things of little importance. People struggle to get doctorates and then don’t know what to do with them. Of course this may be true in all professions, but it is a disease that has infiltrated the Church’s thinking about training priests.

I hope that the Society of Catholic Priests may raise its voice in favour of priests being raised up in great numbers wherever they are needed – and that means in every little town of America. Of course they will need some theological knowledge, but the most important thing they need is a loving heart and a disciplined prayer life that connects them to Jesus Christ and his Father and gives them the dynamism of the Holy Spirit. And SCP should begin to produce resolutions for Diocesan conventions and the National Convention to affirm that it is a priority and the best possible use of the Church’s money to make all such training for the priesthood, both full-time and part-time, completely free. Our Church has a great deal of money and much of it is spent on peripheral nonsense. It is time we spent it on the priests of the future, for without them there will be no sacraments of salvation.

To do this, it may be necessary to remind the Bishops that they are the successors of the Apostles, just as the Tractarians had to do. And at first, we may get determined resistance, just as they did. But if the Bishops again took to themselves the choosing and the education of the future priests for their dioceses as one of their most important functions – and made sure that no one was impeded in this vocation by any lack of money, this would be an enormous step forward.

This would go a long way to ensure that the Episcopal Church, which the Tractarians and early Anglo-Catholics had the confidence to declare the purest and closest form of Christianity to that of the Apostles and the Early Church – might be able to be present not only in every little town of rural America, but also in every city slum of urban America. I am the last person to want to see an end to the Ecumenical Movement, but I have to say that I believe it is important for those of us who belong to the Society of Catholic Priests to be quite honest and open about our desire to see many of our fellow Christians delivered from the clutches of fundamentalist churches which have made of the Bible an idol, into a Church which treasures the Bible and the Tradition and Reason as equally important means for God to reveal himself through Jesus Christ to the world today. And
we must be equally (and probably more sorrowfully) willing to proclaim that we are happy to liberate Roman Catholics and Orthodox Church Christians from the misogynistic and homophobic teaching, which is their official line (though thankfully many of their priests hate those teachings privately as much as we do). But why should it have to be private – that is a hypocrisy from which we can deliver them if they will be received into the Episcopal Church.

As you can see, I believe that the Society of Catholic Priests has a great vocation ahead of it in the 21st century. And that vocation is nothing less than a new Oxford Movement. Of course we can’t call it that, but maybe the way forward is to begin a new Tractarian Movement and to shower the Church with hundreds of Tracts for the Times on the basics of the Faith and moral teaching of the Church.

But before we can do that honestly and with hands on hearts, we have ourselves to be in a constant state of connectedness with the Blessed Trinity from whom all our hope, faith and love depends. And for that we need the Daily Office, regular Confession and spiritual direction and the constant joyful offering of the Mass.

My brothers and sisters, there is no greater vocation on earth than the one you have chosen. Go for it!

Father Gordon Reid served as rector of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, PA.