© Diarmaid MacCulloch 2010. A shorter version of this article appeared earlier in The Times.
In 1994 a set of new bishops appeared ready-minted to cater for those unhappy with the way that most of the Church of England wanted to shape its future. They were given a newly-contrived title, ‘Provincial Episcopal Visitor’, but friend and foe alike christened them ‘Flying Bishops’, since they fluttered athletically over existing diocesan boundaries to minister to certain Anglican parish churches mostly characterised by incense, statuary and a multitude of candles. What to call these novelties? The need was to make up some titles which would sound impressively historic, and some antiquarian-minded ecclesiastical bureaucrats in Lambeth Palace must have had a high old time doing this. Their finest satirical production was ‘the Bishop of Ebbsfleet’. Historically, it commemorated a place where Augustine of Canterbury might possibly have landed, bringing a Roman form of Christianity to the as-yet-unnamed England, but today, it was a windswept Kentish hamlet in the middle of nowhere, soon to become a windswept railway platform on the High Speed Rail Link to mainland Europe. You couldn’t make it up. But they did.
And now three past and present Flying Bishops (Ebbsfleet included), a quasi-Flying Bishop (Fulham) and a bishop retired from a stridently ‘High’ Australian diocese, are clutching tickets for the Rome Express. Already some journalists are trumpeting this as heralding a mighty flood from the C of E – it’s a good headline, ‘Five Anglican bishops quit for Rome’. Hmmm….. These evanescent bishops were created to service a new and absurd idea: a special jurisdiction for self-selected Anglicans intent on throwing their toys out of the pram. Now the bishops themselves seem to have realised what an absurd idea it was. It is unlikely that many will follow, beyond a coterie of clergy trained in the same High-Church Anglican theological colleges that fostered their viewpoint. This is no great Anglican crisis. It does not even represent the departure of Anglo-Catholics from the Church of England; Anglo-Catholicism prospers regardless of the Flying Bishops. They represent one faction, which those of us who enjoy grubbing in historical byways term ‘Papalist Catholics’. For about 150 years this group among High Church Anglicans have performed athletic intellectual gymnastics about what the Church of England actually is. They ignored the fact that it had a Reformation in the sixteenth century, and turned their churches into meticulous replicas of whatever ecclesiastical fashions the Roman Church decided to adopt, while equally ignoring the fact that successive popes considered their clerical status ‘absolutely null and utterly void’. Now they are thrilled to find that the Pope was wrong all along, so they can after all be received on special terms into the ample bosom of the Western Church of the Latin Rite (which is in the habit of arrogating to itself the more general title of the Catholic Church).
This papal cake both to be eaten and to be had is called an ‘Ordinariate’, a title almost as novel as that 1994 coinage of ‘Provincial Episcopal Visitor’. It certainly came as a shock to the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales when Pope Benedict XVI announced it out of the blue last autumn, but naturally the Catholic episcopate has put a brave face on the surprise. The Flying Bishops are going to be allowed to exercise their pastoral gifts within a special Anglican paddock, to which apparently they will bring all the riches of Anglicanism’s heritage. It’s not exactly clear what these riches will be: when asked, Roman Catholic bishops usually vaguely refer to Anglican scholarship on the Early Church. Well, call me old-fashioned, but I thought that Roman Catholics already knew quite a bit about the Early Church. Perhaps it’s Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer? Not a book for which the Flying Bishops and their clerical mates have shown much enthusiasm in the past. Maybe married clergy? Well, Rome only likes that if the clergy concerned are ex-Anglicans – very annoying for mainstream Roman Catholic clergy to whom such marital bliss is forbidden.
Notable among those waving goodbye to the Flyers at Ebbsfleet International will be the equal and opposite coterie of extreme Evangelicals, who were in temporary alliance with them over matters conservative, but want nothing to do with Rome, even an ultra-traditionalist Vatican like Benedict’s. And I predict that members of the Ordinariate will not find Rome what they expected. In their Anglican careers, they have flourished in the status of perpetual malcontents: Rome is not disposed to indulge stroppiness, as Anglicans habitually do. When there was a fuss about the priesting of women, some priests and laity went over to Rome, then some came back to Canterbury. Unlike some Churches, the C of E never makes a song and dance about those (including ex-Roman Catholics) who find a happy home in its many mansions. Maybe just worth buying a return ticket, Flyers?
Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church in the University of Oxford.