S. Agatha’s- the Catalyst of Anglicanorum coetibus

An article by  Deborah Gyapong

Deboral covers religion and politics primarily for Catholic and Evangelical newspapers in Canada. American by birth, she came to Canada as part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s and homesteaded in Bear River, Nova Scotia until the romance of voluntary poverty wore off.

On Divine Mercy Sunday, in Ottawa’s lovely St.Patrick’s Basilica, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast welcomed a small group of Anglicans, including several clergy, into the Catholic Church. There were about 30 people, including me.

The numbers may seem tiny, but our group’s reception last spring was among the first fruits of Anglicanorum coetibus, Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 Apostolic Constitution that gives Anglicans a way of becoming Catholic while still retaining precious aspects of their patrimony “as a treasure to be shared” with the wider Church. The Anglicanorum coetibus allows for the establishment of Personal Ordinariates, similar to a militarydiocese.EachwillbeheadedbyanOrdinarywho could be a bishop, if he is celibate, or a married priest.

 

Our group will be part of the Deanery of St. John the Baptist, within the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, which was established on January 1, 2012, in the United States. Monsignor Jeffrey Steenson, a married Catholic priest and former Episcopalian bishop, is our Ordinary.

Hundreds of Catholics came to St. Patrick’s Basilica on April 15 to welcome us. Twice they spontaneously gave us a standing ovation to express their joy. I could scarcely contain mine.

Prendergast was the first archbishop outside of the United States to celebrate an Anglican Use liturgy according to the Book of Divine Worship. As is our custom, he celebrated ad orientem, or toward the liturgical east. Instead of his facing the people as he usually would at Mass, we all faced God together.

“Clearly, God blesses unity, and God is pleased today,” the archbishop said in his homily. “Today, the Body of Christ is a little more healed, a little more unified. Today, after half a millennium, separated brethren are separated no more! We are brethren rejoicing at the same banquet table! Hallelujah!”

I, too, was “a little more healed” for I felt as if I had been carrying the wounds of a divided Body of Christ not only in my personal faith journey, but also in my family history.

On April 15, I wore my mother’s and her father’s Russian Orthodox baptismal crosses. My own gold Byzantine baptismal cross had been lost or stolen during the years I rejected organized religion and wandered, often as a lonely pilgrim, in a search for truth that finally led me to the Catholic Church.

Though everyone in my immediate family had been baptized Russian Orthodox, my mother had no affection for the dour and authoritarian priests she recalled from her childhood in Paris as part of the White Russian community. She developed much greater affection for the Unitarian Church after the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee rescued her and her younger sister from France during the Second World War and brought them to America. Her father came to the United States a year later with my grandmother, who had been waiting in a refugee camp in the Pyrenees.

Though my grandfather had insisted on my Russian Orthodox baptism, he had an astrological chart done for his daughters that he consulted from time to time when lecturing them about character flaws, according to my mother.

Born in Kiev, though Russian, he had been an officer in the Czar’s cavalry and fought for the government of Alexander Kerensky before escaping the Communist regime in 1917. He ended up writing for a Russianlanguage newspaper in Paris.

My grandmother spoke perfect English with a thick Russian accent, having been born to an English Protestant family that had settled in Russia’s seaport Archangel several generations previously. There, they had owned a factory that made rope out of hemp for the shipping industry.

My mother’s parents lived next door to us, in a yellow Victorian house with a Mansard roof in Watertown, Mass.

I grew up with Russian frequently spoken around me, but understood only a word or two. We occasionally attended Orthodox services at a church on Boston’s Park Drive and I grew up with the music of the liturgy, but Old Church Slavonic made no sense to me. I knew the words for Lord have mercy and that’s about it. I loved the beeswax candles and the smell of incense, but the kissing of icons or the endless standing while a choir sang and mysterious doings took place behind the screen of icons separating the altar from the congregation were never explained to me. I remember my aunt’s wedding there and my grandfather’s funeral.

Sadly, my ancestors were not recognized as Catholic when they came to the United States, so they were among about 100,000 who converted to Orthodoxy in what is commonly known as the Toth Schism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, following Father Alexis Toth, who sought protection under a Russian Orthodox bishop in San Francisco.

Though also baptized Russian Orthodox, my father used to call himself a “mercenary Episcopalian” because he got paid to sing in some of the best church choirs in the Boston area. I would sometimes accompany him to choir practice at the high Anglo-Catholic Church of the Advent and wait while he sang during the service; but it was a long, boring wait for a little girl.

My mother sent me to Sunday school at an Episcopalian church nearby or to the Congregational church a few blocks further away, not to form me in a Christian faith so much as to educate me about Bible stories so that I would understand my culture and literary references. In high school, I attended Unitarian church services and joined the youth group, to which the minister brought a formaldehyde-drenched human brain for our inspection.

Cultural Christianity had a weak hold on me, as it had on my family. I eventually embraced the cultural revolution of the 1960s and developed the aversion to organized religion and authority typical of the baby-boom generation. So, in my life I have been Orthodox, most every type of Protestant—from mainline to evangelical—with a detour into New Age, the occult, and the craziness of the 1960s and the Vietnam War era.

My journey back to the Christian faith began while I was alone in a drug dealer’s apartment experiencing a nightmarish psychedelic drug trip that gave me a horrifying glimpse into the demonic realm. My life had hit bottom in 1973. The progressive message of the 1960s had not brought the liberation it promised, only slavery to self-destructive behaviours and self-hatred. In desperation, I said the evangelical Sinner’s Prayer, which I found in a book lying under a stack of newspapers in the dealer’s bedroom. I admitted I was a sinner, acknowledged Jesus as my Lord and Saviour and begged Him to come into my heart. My life did a 180-degree turn that day, and I believed I was, as Evangelicals say, born again as I accepted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But a 180-degree turn did not mean my problems ended overnight, just that my trajectory changed for the better and I had hope.

After my drugden experience, I became a lonely pilgrim, reading voraciously but attracted to gnostic ideas like those of Christian Science, Swedenborgianism and Christian mysticism without the bonds of organized religion.

In 1975, I moved to Canada as part of the back-to-the-land movement, settling in Nova Scotia and homesteading on a small farm. I became a journalist, began to work at the CBC and eventually moved to Ottawa in 1989 to work as a television producer for the CBC’s brand-new all-news cable network. My growth in a mainstream Christian faith, however, began in 1990 when I joined Kanata Baptist Church.

This marvellous seeker-friendly, loving community acted like a hyperbaric chamber that gently released me from my heresies so I did not suffer the spiritual bends. The love and exposure to good Christian teaching transformed me from the “just me and Jesus” cafeteria Christian who reserved the right to cherry-pick what I liked and discard the rest to someone who chose to believe the same faith that was handed down by the Apostles. But where could I find it intact?

In the late 1990s, I happened upon a little former Anglican parish, then the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a name that seemed too big for the small stucco building in a residential neighbourhood in Ottawa’s West End. Inside, the creaky wooden pews, the red indoor-outdoor carpet and the warping grey linoleum tile did not indicate anything special about this place. It certainly had none of the architectural beauty of the Episcopal churches in the Boston area, and none of the splendour of its paidchoirs.

Poor and scorned as schismatic by the wider Anglican Communion, the Annunciation was part of the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada (ACCC), a church that was formed in the late 1970s in response to decisions by some Anglican provinces to ordain women.

Many of our founding clergy were AngloCatholics ordained in the Canterbury Communion and committed to Christian unity. They knew women’s ordination made unity with Catholic and Orthodox churches impossible, not because they were anti-women but because women’s ordination played havoc with the theological understanding of Christ as bridegroom and the Church as bride, the nuptial mystery of the Mass.

When I joined the ACCC in the late 1990s, I was told, “You can’t change a revealed religion and a God-ordained sacrament like Holy Orders by democracy. What will be changed next, marriage?”

How prophetic, because marriage and the issue of same-sex blessings further tore at the Canterbury Communion in recent decades as the latest social science data and feminist ideology began to trump the authority of Christian teaching going back millennia.

In the early 1990s, the ACCC and other so-called Continuing Anglican churches (i.e. continuing in the faith once delivered) had formed the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), a worldwide body with the express purpose of seeking Christian unity.

Informal talks with Rome began in the ’90s, and in 2007, the TAC made a formal petition to the Holy See “to seek as a body full and visible communion, particularly Eucharistic communion in Christ, with the Roman Catholic Church” and “to achieve such communion while maintaining those revered traditions of spirituality, liturgy, discipline and theology that constitute the cherished and centuries-old heritage of Anglican communities throughout the world.”

Though we were not the only Anglican body seeking unity, and we followed a long line of historical attempts, many observers consider the TAC’s Portsmouth Petition the catalyst for the Holy Father’s generous response in Anglicanorum coetibus two years later.

 

The TAC had not come to the Holy See to argue doctrine or to make demands. When then TAC primate Archbishop John Hepworth, former Canadian Bishop Robert Mercer, and his successor, ACCC Bishop Peter Wilkinson, brought the TAC’s petition to Rome in October 2007, they also brought copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its Compendium, which TAC bishops had signed on the altar of St. Agatha’s Church, in Portsmouth, England, where the College of Bishops met.

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When I first visited the Annunciation parish, I was told about the desire for unity. But that is not what made me stay. The parishioners were few and most seemed older than my baby-boom self. But it was experiencing then Bishop Robert Mercer pray the Mass that lifted that humble little house of worship to Heaven. Time stood still; eternity dropped down.

A tall, trim, white-haired monk of Irish extraction who was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mercer prayed the Mass with such reverence and recollection that I, prone to a wandering mind and short attention span, found it effortless to pay attention. Through the beauty of liturgy prayed with reverence. I encountered holy mysteries.

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When Mercer read from one of Paul’s Epistles, it was as if Saint Paul himself were standing there proclaiming the Good News. His homilies were the same. Simple but profound; alive with insight. A conversation with him, with his wry humour and surprising insights, would remain with me for years afterwards. Mercer left the Anglican Church over the ordination of women, and with utter humility, he came to Canada to minister to our tiny and farflung parishes, travelling by bus because he did not drive. He never got used to the cold.

I kept coming back to this eccentric little parish, hungry to have someone articulate for me what I was intuiting in the spirit. On Sundays, the sung Eucharist, with clouds of incense and a congregation that sang robustly in four-part harmony, was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I joked I might fall into a charismatic swoon and slide off the pew, “slain in the spirit.” Though unlikely to happen in our staid group, the clergy were not closed to teachings on the super-natural gifts of the Spirit.

On Saturday mornings, we would have a spoken Eucharist, spoken by the congregation in unison, like a choir, and then eat breakfast in the parish hall in the basement. I could sit with Bishop Mercer or Father Carl Reid or Father David Walsh or Father Kipling Cooper and ask all the questions I could think of. I learned a sacrament is an outward sign of an invisible grace. I learned about their hopes for Christian unity, something our clergy saw as an imperative, not an option.

At the time I had an extremely stressful job working for then leader of the Opposition, Stockwell Day, as his Canadian Alliance caucus divided. I could slide into a creaking pew, pull down the shaggy carpet-covered kneeler and the bells would ring. The priests and servers would process into the sanctuary, and their ballet of genuflection would begin. The pressures of the day would lift. When we knelt at the brass altar rail to receive the Precious Body and Blood, it was as if we were there at the Last Supper and Jesus was giving Himself for us.

Such beautiful and reverently prayed liturgy conveyed we were not merely symbolically remembering Christ’s death on the Cross in the Eucharist. We were, in a mystical way, entering into the once-and-for-all Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, the Supper of the Lamb in Heaven and celebrating that Jesus was truly present in the Blessed Sacrament and Precious Blood. Such reverence expressed in every genuflection, every bow, and every heartfelt prayer taught me far more than words could convey.

At the little ACCC cathedral, I still had the best of the Bible-believing, Jesus-centred faith I’d embraced as an Evangelical. But now I could add all the beauty of the liturgy and the daily offices of Morning Prayer and Evensong that kept my faith growing and deepening throughout the week. I learned to sing the Psalms in Anglican plainsong. We observed the traditional liturgical year, which kept me living inside the Christian story during all seasons. What we did not have, however, was the ministry of Peter. In order to be truly Catholic, and to put to rest any doubt about the sacraments, we needed full, visible communion with the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, the Pope, who is a sign of unity for the whole Church.

I used to think my spiritual conversion took place in the drug dealer’s apartment and that I was, in evangelical parlance, born again. But as my understanding of the sacraments grew, I realized my journey began when I was five months old during my three-fold initiation into the Orthodox Church.

A Russian Orthodox priest came to my parents’ apartment, a large red brick building in Cambridge, Mass., near Harvard Law School. He immersed me in the waters of baptism, Christmated me with holy oil, sealing me with the Holy Spirit, and gave me my first holy communion.

It was then I was born again into the family of God and sealed with the Holy Spirit. Even though I tried hard to run away from this new identity for much of my young adult life, I was marked inwardly and indelibly. I belonged to the Body of Christ. I had always felt like an outsider to the world, a misfit, an ugly duckling of sorts. Now I know why.

Pope Benedict XVI has been called the Pope of Christian Unity, and Anglicanorum coetibus is only one aspect of his strategy. Benedict has advocated the so-called “reform the reform” brought by the Second Vatican Council that he and others believe went further than the Council fathers intended. Benedict is carefully guiding the Church away from the post-Vatican II excesses in modernization and liberalization, advising that the Council be interpreted in a “hermeneutic of continuity” with the preConciliar Church rather than rupture with the past.

The Ordinariates have had small beginnings and the Holy Father has exhorted Roman Catholic bishops to be generous with the fledgling groups. Our experience has so far been one of welcome, generosity and kindness.

The course to unity has not been without its trials and tribulations, though. The TAC began to disintegrate soon after the Apostolic Constitution was announced. A number of bishops, starting with two in the United States, backed away either from their signatures on the Catechism and the Portsmouth letter or subsequent vows during ordination. Many distrusted the Catholic Church and believe the endgame is absorption into the Church.

Though the Ordinariates are small in number and exist only in three countries, I hope they will grow and more will be added. I hope they act as a bridge not only for Anglicans who seek to be fully Catholic but also for Evangelicals.

Many Evangelicals, especially the young, are attracted to the beauty of liturgy and tradition as long as they do not have to water down their personal relationship with Jesus and their reverence for Holy Scripture. Many of the old prejudices against the Catholic Church remain among older generations only.

The Catholic Church’s emphasis on the new evangelization seeks to revive the Catholic faith in parts of the world that have already been Christianized. It is focusing on a personal relationship with Jesus—a yes! to Jesus and a yes! to the Good News. But as my journey has shown, a yes! to Jesus is not enough for most people. We need the Church and the sacraments to ensure we have the true apostolic faith in all its fullness and the grace flowing through the sacraments to enable us to obey Him and to be transformed into His likeness.

May we all be gathered in and know the joy of the oneness in Christ that our Lord prayed for in the Garden before His Crucifixion—and may that oneness be visible to the world and a testimony.

Pope Benedict XVI, through Anglicanorum coetibus, provided a way for us to find that unity while keeping what we held dear. I hope that one day Orthodox and Catholic churches will again be united—One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, East and West. Until then, I will cross myself the way my mother taught me, Orthodox style, to remind myself to continually pray that this unity might come to pass.

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Mgr Newton at St Agatha’s, Portsmouth- the home of Anglicanorum coetibus.

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