Last month Anglican Bishop Gavin Ashenden was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Ashenden was well-known in the Anglican world, including in the world of public television and media. His years as Chaplain to the Queen (2008–2017) added to his fame. I am happy for him, truly. I know what it is like to come home to God through the church. It takes courage and spiritual honesty to follow the Lord’s direction, especially when it involves twists and turns that we are unprepared for. But when we arrive in a good place, a deep peace, clarity and joy flood our heart, mind and spirit.
I hope and pray that former Bishop Gavin’s euphoria as a new Roman Catholic lasts. I hope and pray that his decision is solidly grounded in feeling called towards Rome for the right reasons. Some of his publicly stated reasons for crossing the Tiber make me wonder just a bit. He seems convinced that the Roman Catholic Church is the one, true Church that can withstand today’s forces of secularism, of identity politics and of political correctness. He claims that all these forces are currently undermining the Anglican Church’s Gospel-witness in the world. In this analysis, he claims Saint John Henry Newman as his support and example.
He might be right, and he might not. I hope for his sake that his religious certainty is going to hold up. While the Holy Father has not changed core doctrines, all of which the Anglican tradition holds in common, Pope Francis is in the process of changing pretty much everything else. If allowed full implementation, the Roman church will look and sound radically different. Last month, on the eve of Ashenden’s reception into the RC Church, in his annual Christmas message, Pope Francis addressed the Curia as follows: What we are experiencing is not simply an epoch of changes, but an epochal change. We find ourselves living at a time when change is no longer linear, but epochal. It entails decisions that rapidly transform our ways of living, of relating to one another, of communicating and thinking, of how different generations relate to one another and how we understand and experience faith and science. Often we approach change as if were a matter of simply putting on new clothes, but remaining exactly as we were before.
Like Gavin Ashenden, I know well the movement of the heart and its role in discerning the spiritual path that leads to fullness of life. It is a deeply personal and intimate discernment, but in the household of God it is never private. We need to be extra careful how we move and speak in the Christian family, especially as a public figure, lest we contribute to the Church’s failure to witness to Christ. Ashenden claims that the Anglican Church has profoundly compromised its ability to stand firmly on the Gospel of Jesus when it comes to condemning certain cultural and social trends in today’s world. In one of several interviews Gavin Ashenden has given about his move to Rome, he cites as one of the reason the RC ban on women clergy. He considers this ban in keeping with the biblical and apostolic revelation. He also claims that many in the Catholic Church have been corrupted by the spirit of the age.
It is one thing to feel called to change rooms in God’s holy household (John 14:2) for reasons of love and service; it is quite another to trust one’s own criticism of the religious room we leave behind and to voice this publicly. Faced with this temptation, humility and prudence deserve front seats. Who said that we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak? It doesn’t mean that we remain silent in the face of injustice, sin and error. But it does demand of us a gentle spirit, an aching for God’s truth and a rigorous self-examination steeped in God’s love.
I have been around the ecumenical block long enough to know that every Christian family has its skeletons in the closet and its shadows, its shortcomings and failures. In the past several decades Rome has been suffering a beating of its own making, showing off its share of institutional failures in shocking ways, much of it forced by secular media and legal powers. So is Gavin Ashenden jumping from the frying pan into the fire, or have I by moving in the other direction? Not necessarily. Every Christian church family in every age falls short of the Lord’s command. I see plenty of things wrong with the Anglican tradition. However, just as God called me into this church for his greater glory and for the full flourishing of my priestly vocation, God has equally called me to bear this church’s shame, confusion and errors. When carried in and with Christ, the cross of suffering can become light.
While sin abounds wherever humans run the show, every Christian family is equally graced with the presence and guidance of God through Jesus Christ. To change denominational allegiance because the grass might stay greener on the other side is an illusion and a recipe for disappointment. In reality, we merely exchange one set of sins for another, while we might even be surprised at their similarity.
In a previous post, I claimed Saint John Henry Newman as my guide and example, just as Ashenden is doing now. I could make this claim based on Newman’s teaching on the primacy and freedom of conscience, a teaching wholeheartedly embraced by Vatican II. The Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions are akin to identical twins — so similar that the differences are hardly noticeable to outsiders. I have written about the differences in another blog post.
As my own bishop has stated, even in this season of church decline, there’s still a fair bit of traffic between our two traditions, and the traffic flows both ways. In our Anglican diocese there are a fair number of clergy who have their spiritual roots in the Roman tradition, and they are not all women. And if my own pastoral experience in my prairie community is any indication, our ministry still brings God to the people and the people to God through Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. It is a privilege to exercise this priestly charge; not a day goes by that I am not overwhelmed with awe and wonder, with humility and deep gratitude.
I pray for each person who experiences the call to change ecclesial households; I pray for the grace to surrender such spiritual/religious decisions to God’s will, that such moves may be steeped in our desire to increase our discipleship for the greater glory of God in Christ Jesus. I pray for Gavin Ashenden’s continued faithfulness to the Lord’s call to him. And while we each make our journey with God in the universal church, let us together keep in mind some important words from Pope Francis:
“We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.” (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 244)
God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways. He renews us: he constantly makes us “new.” A Christian who lives the Gospel is “God’s newness” in the Church and in the world. How much God loves this “newness”! (Pope Francis, homily, October 19, 2014)