In the Footsteps of John Henry Newman

May 1987By Dale Vree

Dale Vree is Editor of the NOR.

One Step Enough: The Story of a Journey.  By Peter Cornwell. Fount Paperbacks. 140 pages. L1.95.



On May 19, 1985, the Anglican priest Peter Cornwell, Vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, announced to his unsuspecting congregation that he was "poping." It was an extraordinary announcement, not least because it came from the same pulpit in which John Keble preached his famous Assize sermon "On National Apostasy" in 1833 (thereby launching the Oxford Movement) and the same pulpit from which John Henry Newman held forth as Vicar before he "poped" in 1845 (thereby marking a new phase in the Oxford Movement).

It was also extraordinary because it was not a singular move. In the same year another Oxford chaplain, Ralph Townsend, crossed the Tiber. Indeed, there has been a rash of conversions in England of late - and not limited to Oxford environs. In 1983 an entire Church of England (C of E) parish in Alsagers Bank bolted to Rome, an action unprecedented in the four-plus centuries since King Henry VIII broke with Rome. Indeed, "Roman fever" has even infected the higher echelons of the C of E: Canon John Tinsley, who served on the Crown Appointments Commission, which nominates the C of E's bishops, poped in 1985.

Normally unflappable, the C of E responded to all this with an unprecedentedly candid speech by the Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp. According to a Times of London report, he "likened the present situation to that shortly after news of the impending departure from the Church of England to the Roman Catholic Church of Dr (later Cardinal) John Henry Newman..." a situation which saw numerous leading Anglican writers and theologians follow Newman to Rome. The Times reported that "the growing number of conversions to the Roman Catholic Church is causing alarm among high churchmen in the Church of England." Kemp's advice to his fellow Anglo-Catholics was: "Stand fast...do not panic."

Whether or not his advice is followed, Roman Catholics would be well-advised not to gloat. Pope Paul VI referred to the Anglican Church as a "sister church," and one does not rejoice in a sister's agonies. Yet, something undeniably significant is taking place in England, and it must be discussed. Oddly, we have English Roman Catholics downplaying the whole thing, to wit, the mordant Christopher Derrick: "My guess is that some few will return to the Petrine unity, perhaps more than a few.... But I don't expect to see any major split [in the C of E].... For such a split, there would need to be a tremendous outbreak of clear thinking; given the psychology of Anglicanism in its foggy homeland, that's an unlikely thing." And yet, Anglicans themselves are offering barbs to rival old-fashioned "Roman propaganda," to wit, Edward Norman, Dean of Peterhouse at Cambridge University: "The truth about the Church of England is that it is not really a 'Church.' Its apparent deposit of Catholic formularies and ecclesiastical authority in fact expired at the Reformation: the domination of the State over the Church - the very intimate nature of English erastianism - has since then frozen the cadaver and kept its features, seemingly still fresh, within its solid confines. [But] during the past 60 years, the degree of State control over the Church has diminished by stages.... There has been, for the Catholic wing of the Church, an horrendous consequence. For the block of preservative ice has now been entirely chipped away and the tissue of Anglicanism revealed for what it has really always been. The dead Catholic flesh, unfrozen, is now decaying away.... The eye of the Vatican is well-trained at spotting just such evidences of what the Holy Office had asserted so lucidly in 1896: here was not a 'branch' or 'via media' of Catholic truth at all, but an amputated limb which, through historical accidents, had survived in an unnatural form - like the living dead of Haiti." It is both significant and shocking that such words would come from an Anglican as prominent as the historian Edward Norman.

But then, Norman is one of those grand English "controversialists." Yet, it was recently noted in the very sober Journal of Ecumenical Studies that both Roman Catholics and Anglicans are beginning to interpret the current Roman wind in the land that defeated the Spanish Armada as "the start of a new Oxford Movement." Whether or not this is to be, The Tablet of London was correct in pointing out that the current Anglican crisis is different from that which erupted in 1845, for now "the question" is no longer "why Anglicans should go [to Rome], but why they should stay [with Canterbury]." Indeed, this is exactly the central theme sounded by Peter Cornwell in his May 19 farewell statement to the congregation of St. Mary's, Oxford (reprinted in One Step Enough): "the Christian enterprise is not a book or a club for religious do-it-yourself enthusiasts but a movement, a stream of life passing through different ages and cultures. In mid-stream are those Christians in communion with the Bishop of Rome.... I can no longer see any reason of substance and principle to hold apart from the main-stream Life is too short, the Gospel too precious, the human issues too serious to waste time thinking up reasons for preserving division."

It was this same theme that was sounded by the American writer and critic Thomas Howard, when he wrote in 1981, as an Episcopalian, "I have the colossal securus judicat orbis terrarum looking passionlessly at me. 'The calm judgement of the whole world' is against me. The Roman Church has, as it were, nothing to prove. Everyone else has to do the sleeve-plucking and arm-pawing" to validate his case. Howard continued to hold out as an Episcopalian, but in 1985, the year Cornwell crossed the Tiber, Howard did so too. Curiously, nowadays among high Anglicans, the "question of Rome" is more often "Why not?" than "Why?"

The "Why not?" is rooted in factors of apparently historic and irreversible proportions. As Anglican Roger T. Beckwith, Warden of Latimer House, Oxford, has pointed out, of the three parties in the C of E (Anglo-Catholic, broad-church, and evangelical), it is the Anglo-Catholic which has been losing ground - and in a Church which is itself shrinking. Indeed, that the C of E is now on the brink of ordaining women to the priesthood has caused Anglo-Catholics to agonize as to whether it will be possible for them to remain both Catholic (as they understand the word) and Anglican. None other than the Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, has just recently stated that he and other Anglo-Catholic bishops "will be taking informal soundings" with Rome, with an eye toward a return to Petrine unity for disheartened Anglo-Catholics.

Then, there is a startling demographic factor: The C of E, with its vast endowments and with the privileges and advantages of being the established Church connected with the Crown, is scandalously weak among churchgoers. As Beckwith reports, 33 percent of English churchgoers attend Nonconformist (or "free") churches, 33 percent attend C of E parishes, and 34 percent attend Roman Catholic parishes. Beckwith comments: "What makes the Roman Catholic number more significant is that this is in a nation with some 36,000...Protestant congregations (Anglican and free church), and only 3,000 Roman Catholic ones. Yet those 3,000 draw in a larger percentage of the population." Not too surprisingly, the Rev. Michael Richards of the British Roman Catholic theological journal The Clergy Review has stated that England today is a Roman Catholic country by "sheer force of numbers and energy."

Peter Cornwell's book offers us further insights into what is happening in England. This alone makes the book valuable. But the book has some unusually interesting aspects: First, the refutation it gives to those who would dismiss the popery of erstwhile Anglicans as but a retreat into the past. Nineteenth-century Anglican theologian F.D. Maurice warned of the danger of opposing the Spirit of the Age by embracing the Spirit of a Former Age. If the C of E is in the crushing embrace of the Zeitgeist, it is clear that Cornwell is neither a medieval nostalgic nor a malignant Thatcherite.

Secondly, a careful reading of this book reveals that Cornwell was no back-bench country parson; no, he was the kind of Anglican divine who might well have ended up a bishop. He was baptized by his godfather, the Bishop of Bristol; he was ordained a priest by then Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey; he became Vice Principal of Cuddesdon College at the invitation of its Principal, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie; Cornwell's wife-to-be, Hilary, has been a good friend of the Runcie family, and indeed, it was through the Runcies that Peter first met Hilary; and when Cornwell became Vicar of St. Mary's, Oxford, at the age of 41, he replaced Ronald Gordon, who was moving on to become Bishop of Portsmouth.

Was Cornwell destined for the episcopal purple? Perhaps. But then, perhaps not. There was a distinct strain of social radicalism and vintage English Nonconformity in Cornwell which may have one day impeded his career advancement, and which, curiously, opened up the question of Rome for him. You see, like celebrated Nonconformists of yesteryear, Cornwell is a socialist and a pacifist, but he found this internationalist political stance predisposing him to an internationalist religious stance - viz., Roman Catholicism.

Lest one think that Cornwell is one of those precious parlor pinks deservingly derided by George Orwell, it should be noted that Cornwell's pacifism was gritty enough to lead him into alternative national service as an ambulance orderly, and with his fellow orderlies, into the no-nonsense Transport and General Workers' Union. He was later Vicar of Silksworth, a parish in a depressed mining area where the militant National Union of Miners holds forth and a rough-hewn section of the Labour Party is a dominant force. There he encountered in the flesh Labour's vision of society, "not as a ladder up which individuals climb to get away from the less successful, but as a community of mutual responsibility." The Labour ethic, "with its roots deeper in the Christian tradition of the chapels than in Marxist theory,...was light years away from those middle class discussions in a Hull pub, where we argued whether Trotsky was a heretic or not."

Another indicator of Cornwell's Nonconformity - as well, ironically, of his being groomed for higher office - was his membership in the important Archbishops' Commission on Church and State. There he broke ranks with the conservative majority by joining with Labour M.P. Dennis Coe in arguing for the disestablishment of the C of E. Cornwell found it "unsatisfactory that the final court of appeal in some of the great issues which confronted the Church of England, such as the ordination of women and reunion with the Church of Rome, would inevitably be Parliament." As Derrick has remarked, the Anglican Church, "so free with regard to belief, is still under Caesar's thumb in the last analysis." But Cornwell would discover that establishment is, as he put it, "the one part of the Church of England's heritage which could not seriously be questioned," seemingly more sacred than even the Apostles' Creed. As Malcolm Muggeridge noted in 1966, well before he too threw in with Rome, "were the Anglican Church to be disestablished, it would infallibly fall flat on its face, revealing the inward decrepitude which the emoluments and trappings...derived from its nominal participation in the pageant of government serve to disguise."

It was at this point that Cornwell first began to feel what he calls "a niggle" about Roman Catholicism: "I had to look again at the English Reformation and I found increased difficulty in siding with Henry VIII in his rupture of the papal tie which held the Church of England to the universal Church.... I found myself dissatisfied with any form of merely national Christianity. Indeed the very title Church OF England seemed to blunt the truth that the Church is essentially universal and can only be the church IN this nation or that."

Disestablishmentarian, socialist, and pacifist, Cornwell was nevertheless ready and willing to part company with "my liberal friends" - and he did so right where he should have, in the area of theology. For him the book The God I Want epitomized in its very title what is wrong with liberal theology - viz., it is but a projection of human wishes, rather than a revelation from God on high. Here was another key issue which ultimately propelled Cornwell Romeward. As he says, "once you insist on revelation, then you inevitably have to talk about authority and the need for our little ideas to bow the knee to ultimate truth." And then he found that when he asked, "What is the faith of the Church of England?" there was no agreed-upon authority that could answer.

Meanwhile, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who as a bishop is supposed to be a defender of the faith, was busy denying key sections of the Apostles' Creed and the reality of the supernatural - in particular, the Virgin Birth and the physical Resurrection. Cornwell responded in a way which intriguingly knits together his theological supernaturalism and his social radicalism: "What sort of world do we live in? Is it an enclosed world for which there are no possibilities beyond the regularities of nature and the operations of the laws of the [capitalistic] market? Such closed worlds will allow, and even value, belief in God, but God held at a distance. He cannot be the one who touches this earth. Spirituality and politics are thus sealed into separate containers.... [But] faith in the incarnation faces the facts, whether of the regularities of nature, the arms race or market forces, but it also faces events which blow a hole in these vicious circles. The Virginal Conception, the Empty Tomb challenge the closed world, affirm a world open to the infinite possibilities of God, yes even through death.... The Christian goes on struggling for justice and the equal value of persons, not because he is an obstinate visionary who ignores hard facts, but because in Jesus he has perceived that a more real reality has savingly impinged upon this world."

For Cornwell, the defense of the supernatural is not only a defense of what revelation teaches, but also of a social vision in which new and good things are genuinely possible. And it was the C of E's inability to affirm corporately and unambiguously the supernatural doctrines of the faith that pushed him even closer to Rome.

Authentic authority, universality, and a firm theological grounding for social action - taken together these were the overarching factors which finally did lead Peter Cornwell to Rome. And yet, he calls himself "an Anglican Roman Catholic," adding that, "for there to be Christian unity, all must become Roman Catholics. Yet to my Roman Catholics friends I must equally frankly say that, for there to be Christian unity, it must be possible for us to become Anglican, Methodist, Quaker and Presbyterian Roman Catholics. It has to be made evident that in journeying forward no riches have been lost. That constitutes for the Roman Catholic Church a continuing challenge to become yet more catholic.... "

This is not a triumphalistic conversion story. Yet it is unassumingly eloquent and deceptively powerful. Genuinely irenic, Peter Cornwell, who obviously put aside a promising ecclesiastical career (though he does not make a point of this), says of himself that he has simply "journeyed into a wider unity." It's hard to argue with that, and I doubt that any ecumenically minded Christian of whatever affiliation would, upon considering the pain of our division, want to deny him that journey and that witness.



DOSSIER: Anglican Communion



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