Three Wise Men

On New Year’s Day, three Church of England bishops were received into the Catholic Church. John Broadhurst, Keith Newton, and Andrew Burnham were joined by two retired bishops, David Silk and Edwin Barnes. All five had been ministering to those Anglican clergy and people who had stood apart from the liberal innovations in the Anglican Church. Broadhurst, Newton, and Burnham were termed “provincial episcopal visitors,” or “flying bishops,” because their jurisdiction was wider than a normal geographical diocese.

Under a provision established in the mid-1990s, when women were first ordained to the Anglican priesthood, clergy and congregations could decline the ministry of their diocesan bishop in favor of one of the flying bishops. While this provision was in place, the Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England felt they still had an honored place. In fact, they were a church within a church — and, since women’s ordination in the mid-1990s, they were becoming increasingly marginalized and excluded. Last year, as legislation allowing women to become bishops moved through the synod of the Church of England, it became clear that the provision for provincial episcopal visitors would be withdrawn.

At the same time, the Vatican was responding to requests from the Traditional Anglican Communion for some sort of structure to allow Anglicans to come into full communion with the Catholic Church while retaining some of their traditions. The Traditional Anglican Communion is a global federation of autonomous denominations within the larger Anglican family. Sometimes called “continuing churches,” they are some of more than 100 little breakaway Anglican groups. Not-so-secret visits were paid to the Vatican by the three Church of England flying bishops, and sources believe that it was the request of the flying bishops (in addition to the already existing requests from the Traditional Anglican Communion) that convinced Pope Benedict XVI to take action and set in motion the now famous document Anglicanorum Coetibus, which allows for the erection of Anglican ordinariates worldwide.

That the ordinariate will be set up by the end of this month in England is astounding. Most of us who have been watching the ordinariate develop imagined that it would first be erected in the United States. However, it is right that the Anglican ordinariate be established in England first, since the entire Anglican Communion looks to England for its inspiration and origin. Still, the move is astounding, as the grey-shirted liberal bishops of England and Wales are so notoriously nonchalant in their attitude to Rome, and so “ecumenical” — code for “embarrassed by mass defections from Anglicanism to Catholicism.”


When I left the Church of England ministry to come into full communion with the Catholic Church in the 1990s, there were nearly 750 of us clergy plus hundreds of laypeople. The news was suppressed as much as possible by the Catholic hierarchy in order not to offend Anglicans, and by the Anglican hierarchy in order not to embarrass the Catholics. This time around, the bishops and their families were received in a fully public ceremony in the Mother church of England — Westminster Cathedral. Clearly the Vatican is happy to have as much publicity as possible, and the establishment of the ordinariate in England should be seen as the cornerstone of the ordinariate worldwide.

It is whispered that one of the flying bishops, Keith Newton, will become the first ordinary — a priest with the office of oversight like a bishop — for the ordinariate. Others have named Bishop Alan Hopes, an auxiliary of Westminster who is himself a former Anglican priest who swam the Tiber in the large 1990s tide of converts. There are plenty of other worthy and able men from that same vintage — men who have been Catholics now for 15 years and who are celibate and could be made bishop ordinary; for that matter, under the rules of the ordinariate, a married man may also serve as ordinary (although he will not be consecrated as a bishop).

Whoever the leader is, he will need a huge amount of backbone, tact, and courage. There are plenty in the Catholic Church in England who have no love at all of converts to the faith. The conservatives don’t like them because they think married priests are the thin edge of the liberal wedge. The liberals don’t like them because the converts are conservative and loyal to the Magisterium. In addition to suspicion and opposition within Catholicism, the converts will have to cope with the opprobrium, dismay, and hatred of their fellow Anglicans. The converts should not be under any illusions: The Anglican hierarchy is livid about the ordinariate, and they don’t plan to give one brick of their buildings, one shovelful of land, or one penny of their wealth to help them.

When the archbishop of Canterbury said in his usual woolly manner, “The sharing of buildings between the Anglicans and members of the ordinariate will present many challenges,” what he really meant was, “There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that they’ll get any buildings from us.” This despite the fact that the Church of England has far more churches than it needs. Vast Victorian inner-city churches lie empty or nearly empty. Huge numbers of ancient village churches have dwindling congregations. It would be the easiest thing in the world for the Church of England to loan or lease them to the new ordinariate congregations, but I doubt it will happen.

The leadership of the new ordinariate will therefore need to be blessed with a new missionary spirit. They will have to help the clergy who leave with no means of support. They will have to help the struggling new congregations through the grief process of leaving behind their beautiful old churches to worship perhaps in a brutal 1970s edifice shared with the Roman Catholics. They will have to endure defections of those who turn back to Anglicanism and those friends and former colleagues who accuse them of disloyalty and ambition.

The three wise men who are leading the flock will be like Moses, Aaron, and Joshua — leading the people of Israel out of bondage to the Promised Land. They and their flock should be aware, however, that before they enter the land of milk and honey, they will almost certainly have to spend some time in the wilderness.


Father Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His upcoming book, Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, will be published by Sophia Institute Press in the Spring. Read more at

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