Crossing the Line - Part 5
I was three months old when my parents left their home, job and ministry, taking their baby with them into an uncertain future. They left without telling anyone in the parish, leading to a headline in the local paper, “Vicar disappears with wife and baby!”
What prompted this rash action will seem almost incomprehensible to most people today but in 1963, for conservative Anglo-Catholics, it was an issue on a par with women priests and bishops more recently.
What was the issue? Methodists!
In 1963 the Church of England and the Methodist Church appeared to be nearing agreement to come together and be united as one church. While for many this was a cause for joy, the idea struck horror and fear into the hearts of those whose identity lay in seeing the Church of England as the true ‘Catholic’ Church of England. For them it was not politics or the Reformation which defined the Church of England. Rather, it was its Catholic heritage with orders of ministry handed down by Apostolic Succession. After all, Henry VIII’s faith was thoroughly Catholic. His treatise “Defence of the Seven Sacraments” in 1521 against Martin Luther, earned Henry the title Defender of the Faith, bestowed on him by Pope Leo X. Whatever his political and marital motives, Henry was no Protestant!
Unity with the Methodists would put the Catholicity of the Church of England in jeopardy. In England, Methodists had no Bishops and their theology was methodically reformed in its nature. There was no Apostolic Succession and they had ministers, not priests.
For my parents, this would be the end of the Church of England as they knew it.
My father wrote to his Bishop to announce his resignation and intention to convert to Roman Catholicism. The Bishop’s reply was polite but to the point – if you are going, go quickly. I have the letter, and it almost reads like Jesus’ words to Judas at the last supper (John 13:27).
So that is exactly what he did. Together they left without a word. They took nothing with them except a baby and a couple of suitcases. They stepped out into the unknown.
There were others at Top Meadow too, beginning a new life having ‘gone to Rome’. It was a kind of safe-house for defecting Anglican clergy. While there, we were all baptised again (at the time The Roman Catholic church didn’t accept any other church’s baptism as valid) and my parents were confirmed. In more mischievous moments, I have teased my Baptist and Pentecostal friends by telling them I have been baptised twice. They would invariably nod with approval, assuming that I mean once as a baby and again as an adult when I was old enough to do it properly. I usually wait a moment before spoiling it by saying that both were as a baby and one was as a Roman Catholic!
After a few months there, the Converts Aid Society found David a job as a Maths teacher in a Roman Catholic school in Kirkby, Liverpool. David could not be a RC priest, of course, with wife and baby in tow. We moved into Kirkby and settled into our new life.
In any case after a year in Kirkby, David decided to find his own job as a teacher. He was offered a job in a local authority school in Rochdale. We moved to Hollingworth Lake on the edge of the Pennines and David started work at his new school, only to find that the Head Teacher and the Deputy Head were both Methodist lay preachers!
Whoever said that God doesn’t have a sense of humour?
Over the next two years, they had a profound effect on David’s life and attitudes. Having ‘jumped ship’ and left his church, his vocation, and his ministry on account of Methodists, he could have simply jumped ship again and found another school to teach in. Maths teachers were in demand, but something made him stay.
During his time at that school David came to the conclusion that they were two of the finest Christians he had ever met. Their pastoral care and dedication to all the children in that school, from the most able to the most troubled, made a deep and lasting impression on him. He began to see that there were more important issues than Apostolic Succession or Church labels.
For Irene, it had not been an easy transition either. She went from vicar’s wife in the CofE to an oddity in the Roman Catholic Church and no-one knew how to treat her. A former nun, married to an ex-Anglican priest with a baby!
By 1966, David knew what he had to do. He went back to the Bishop who ordained him and said, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Can I come back?” Graciously, the answer was yes, albeit with a challenging first appointment to test his resolve.
From that moment onwards, David and Irene were committed to a very different form of Christianity. Their theology had not changed. They were still Anglo-Catholics, steeped in sacramental faith. They still went to Walsingham each year. They continued as Oblates at the convent in Wantage but from then on, they refused to be sectarian Christians and were always open to expressions of Christian faith different to their own. The most important thing was recognising Christ in others, whatever our disagreements might be.
That is the Christian home where I grew up from the age of 3½ and these values have become a deep and intrinsic part of who I am. At times they have been tested by the intransigence and prejudice of other Christians, but the roots run deep and were forged in the fire of those difficult years in my parent’s lives.
I admire them for their courage to act on principle, even if they later regretted it. Faced with similar dilemmas, many people just stay and grumble. This usually results in their impotent moaning sapping life from those around them and provides no opportunity to be challenged or changed.
I admire them even more for being willing to change when they realised they had been wrong - for being willing to admit it and say sorry.
Crossing the line doesn’t always lead us in the right direction, but when we do it in good faith it gives God the opportunity to do something in our lives and bring us to where he wants us to be.
Perhaps we may all need to be more like that sometimes?