There are many Catholic-minded Anglicans like me who have wondered, more than once whether we should become Roman Catholics. Rome is clearly the senior church of the Western tradition and I find so much to admire about it.
I rejoice in its internationalism, its capacity to produce saints in even the most unpropitious times and its ability to inspire poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, novelists such as Evelyn Waugh, and a number of distinguished modern composers.
I am deeply moved by the ministry of priests working in the shantytowns of Latin America and elsewhere. Then, of course, for those with an orderly mind, there is the ability of the Vatican to present a clear message for the outside world.
So why remain an Anglican? And why would it not be good for the country to become Roman Catholic again? For me the answer is summed up in a remark that a well-known Anglo-Catholic priest made to the mother superior of an Anglican religious order shortly before he died: “Mother, you know, the Church of England is now the only part of the Catholic Church which is open to the future.” And if the Church is to rekindle the imagination of the people of England for the Christian faith, it has to be open to the future, as the Church, at its best, has always been in the past.
In the early centuries of its existence it had to come to terms with Greek thought, and in the 12th century with the rediscovery of Aristotle. In both cases it had to discern what it was important to assimilate and what to reject.
When the Church is faced with new developments, it is inevitable that there will be disagreements about how far these are compatible with the Christian faith. Nor is there anything to be ashamed about having these disagreements in public. This is the way the processes of sifting and discernment proceed. In the 19th century the Church of England faced the new methods of studying the Bible coming over from Germany. After a huge row they were largely accepted.
In 1861, two years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, preached a sermon in Oxford saying that God creates the world by secondary causes over a very long period of time. In the 1920s and 1930s Lambeth Conferences came to terms with artificial means of contraception and affirmed their use for married couples.
In our own time one crucial development has been IVF. Thousands of women have been able to have children as a result of assisted reproduction. Great hopes are held out for the cure of many serious diseases as a result of the associated embryo research. The Church of England blessed these developments. The Roman Catholic Church still holds the view put forward in 1869 by Pope Pius IX that the embryo must be treated from conception as a person. This means that Roman Catholic women are officially precluded from IVF and associated techniques.
Then, of course, there is the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the blessing of committed, life-long, same-sex partnerships. These apparently third-order issues raise the whole question of how the Bible is to be interpreted and as a result have become defining issues for what the Church should teach in our time.
Arguments against the ordination of women to the episcopate and priesthood have always seemed to me unpersuasive, as they were to the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain (though he could not say this publicly). The benefits brought by women in ministry in the Church of England are manifest.
The case for blessing same-sex relationships, as put so cogently by Dr Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, in his book, Permanent, Faithful, Stable is an honest recognition of one of the other significant developments of our time; the existence of many people who did not choose or ask to be gay, but who find themselves that way. Such blessings are, I believe, congruous with the Anglican understanding of marriage. In and through the present turmoil this truth will emerge.
John Henry Newman, whose cause will prosper when the Pope visits the country this year, believed that a concept of development was fundamental to the life of the Church. Doctrines that were only a stream in the New Testament became a river when their full implications were developed. Such developments do not just take place in the closed world of the Church. They take place as part of and in response to what is happening in the wider culture.
As an Anglican I am proud to say every Sunday in the creed: “I believe in one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” It is a Church that is open to the future, to the continuing developments in our society. There is always a risk that it could be wrong. But I believe its record stands for itself, and, in all humility, it is right to continue to offer itself and its insights to the wider culture of our country.
Richard Harries, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford and the author of the forthcoming Faith in Politics?