Jeremy Fletcher's Blog

Is the Church of England a Coffee Chain?


Bishop Andrew Burnham, Bishop of Ebbsfleet, is one of the ‘flying’ Bishops who has announced his resignation and intention to become a Roman Catholic and join the ordinariate. I wish him well: he has been a formative influence on me from the moment, 22 years ago, that we evangelical theological students at St John’s Nottingham had to go and learn what would happen if we were to say Mass at a neighbouring anglo catholic parish and he taught me how to genuflect. We shared ministry in Southwell Diocese. We debated Prayer and the Departed for Praxis once. We had time together on the Liturgical Commission, particularly on the Daily Office Group. I’m glad that he’s one of the ‘authors’ who signed my Common Worship book at the end of the Commission’s work on it. His is a decision I fully respect. His Pastoral Letter is here.

He’s being quoted this week as to some of his reasons for going, and it’s this I want to think about. He’s worried that there are too many versions of the C of E, and likens it to retail chains which need to preserve their brand image. He says (to the Telegraph)

If Costa Coffee, every time you went to a branch, did something different and you didn’t know what the product was, they would go out of business.
We have got to the stage now in the Church of England where there are so many different products that you don’t know what you’re going to get.

The interview seems to suggest that it’s flavours of worship which are assumed here, though it alaso mentions the fact that some churches will have women priests and some won’t. Well…if it’s about worship style then we are in no different a position now than we were years ago – right back to the 1870s when permission was given to do other services as well as the classic BCP ones, and even before that when some started getting ‘high’ under the influence of the Oxford Movement. It would have been very hard, a century ago, to say that the C of E was as unified in its ‘product’ as Costa is now. The Liturgical Commission of which Andrew and I were members made quite a lot of the fact that our worship was not uniform, but had ‘family likeness’. Some of us think it’s a strength.

If diversity is a problem, then I wonder what the effect of the Ordinariate will be on the Roman Catholic Church. Take the home life of priests for example. There are already some Roman Catholic priests who are married – those who have converted from the C of E, for example (of whom my ecumenical colleague in Beverley is one). But there will be loads more in the ordinariate, Andrew among them Have a look here at an amazingly powerful RC view of what this influx might do to the standing of the celibate priesthood they are joining.The ex anglicans in the ordinariate will be straining at the uniformity of the way priesthood is practised inthe RC church, won’t they?

And what about uniformity of worship? What can a faithful RC worshipper expect when they go to an ordinariate church? Here’s the relevant bit of Anglicanorum Coetibus, helpfully provided by the excellent St John’s Sevenoaks Blog:

II. Without excluding liturgical celebrations according to the Roman Rite, the Ordinariate has the faculty to celebrate the Holy Eucharist and the other Sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours and other liturgical celebrations according to the liturgical books proper to the Anglican tradition, which have been approved by the Holy See, so as to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.

In other words, Anglican liturgies (suitably tweaked and approved) will be OK. Won’t this mean that an RC, looking for their familiar product, will find it a bit changed? A Common Worship Eucharist with a priest whose wife and children may well be in tow doesn’t do much for the uniformity of the chain.

I’m sure that Bishop Andrew’s thinking is a lot more subtle than that: I have personal cause to be grateful for his fine mind and pastoral generosity. And I wish him nothing but good things. But I think that the diversity of the C of E is one of our strengths, and I’m not sure that the kind of uniformity Andrew seems to be arguing for is as good as it’s cracked up to be. If it is, then an influx of anglicans doing anglican stuff in the RC fold might be more complicated than he might wish.