ABSOLUTELY NULL AND UTTERLY VOID: Courtesy, Charity, and Truth


Peterborough Cathedral

On September 24th, 1961, I was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in Peterborough Cathedral. It would have been strange, I think, notwithstanding my subsequent ordination as a Catholic priest, to have regarded that day fifty years later as anything other than a day of golden jubilation. Indeed, I reflected, with joy and thanksgiving, on the blessings I had received in my priestly ministry over those fifty years. Of course, in doing so I was aware that some might question the reality or meaning of those years spent in the Anglican ministry, before receiving Catholic ordination to the priesthood in 1994.

My purpose, in writing about this at the time in Salve!, our parish newsletter, was first, and quite simply, to give thanks; certainly, for me, the golden jubilee could not pass without it. But there were two additional purposes: to encourage others who, contemplating the same pilgrimage, might fear that they would be required to disavow the spiritual and grace-giving reality of devoted Anglican ministry; and also to show to those who might well not be at all familiar with Anglo-Catholic thought and life that there is a serious depth and reality to it which should be respected and welcomed.

This, then, being my purpose, I decided not to deal in my article with complicated and sensitive technical questions about the “validity” or otherwise of Anglican Orders, which considerations, while not unimportant, were not relevant to what I was seeking to achieve at that time.

However, a question, not wholly unrelated to all this, has recently arisen: what courtesy, title, respect should be extended to Anglican clergy? The specific occasion of the question was the recent omission of any such dignity being accorded, on the anniversary of his death to the name of a much-loved Anglican pastor — a predecessor of mine in the mid-1970s — who had died suddenly and tragically and for whom his parish community had long grieved. I believe that the term “priest” should – as a matter of courtesy at the very least —  have been appended to his name in that list. On inquiry I learned that this omission was a matter of deliberate policy. I was told that the decision to delete reference to departed, non-Roman clergymen (but I imagine that this would not be extended as far as to the priests of the Eastern Churches!) “was made after conversations with both Monsignor Steenson and Bishop Olson”.

If I discount what Bishop Olson thinks about this issue I intend absolutely no disrespect for him: indeed, I hold him in the very highest regard. Simply, I doubt that he has ever had occasion or opportunity to give more than the most cursory thought to the matter; and I think it most unlikely that he will be aware of the complexities and the implications thereof. I am constantly surprised, however, by the evidence that the leadership of the Ordinariate has only a tenuous foothold in Anglo-Catholic history and its heritage.

I shall turn in a moment to certain historical, ecclesiological aspects of the matter. But, before I do so I must honor the witness of that great company of Anglican clergy – of whom the world was not worthy (cf. Hebrews 11:38) . Consider, for example, the witness of such studies of heroism as are recorded in Michael Yelton’s book Anglican Papalism (Canterbury Press, London, 2005).

One consequence of the success of the Oxford Movement and the work of the Tractarians, especially as this, moving out in the second half of the 19th century, from academia into parish life, laid the foundations for the incarnational ministries in the Anglo-Catholic, sacramentally-oriented parishes of the burgeoning industrial cities (both in the UK and in the USA). The labors of heroic clergy, battling poverty, crime, cholera — doing so, incidentally, with the support and help of the newly-founded Anglican religious orders (the All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor, for example): all this — focused as it was, and however some may judge the reality of these things, in the daily Mass and Office — inevitably raised the question of what was truly the nature of Anglican priesthood. So the question was asked, both by Roman Catholics and by Anglicans (there being some among the latter who felt that a positive response could promote the hope for corporate reunion – for they noted that the Preface to the Prayer Book Ordinal explicitly stated that the apostolic Orders of Bishops, Priests and Deacons were to be “continued, and reverently used and esteemed, in the Church of England”; and that the formula that accompanied the laying of hands was “Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God …”). [Vide infra: Sacramentum Ordinis.]

The Abbé Fernand Portal (a disciple of Newman) whose researches led the Holy See to establish a commission to examine the matter, and the distinguished historian Fr Louis Duchesne who was a member of it, both believed that Anglican Orders were valid. But there can be little doubt that pressure from Cardinal Vaughan (who had succeeded the convert Cardinal Manning as Archbishop of Westminster) and Cardinal Merry de Val finally, in 1896, resulted in Pope Leo XIII’s declaration, in Apostolicae Curae, that Anglican Orders are “absolutely null and utterly void”. So it would seem that the ultimate verdict was clear – at least within the context of its own terms and its own time.


Pope Leo XIII

That might be the end of the story. But, in fact, it is not: for there have been a number of significant and relevant developments since then. Of these developments, only a few need to be mentioned in this context.

The dignified responsio of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to Pope Leo XIII came, in 1898, in their encyclical Sæpius Officio. In the dénouement, their arguments were ultimately vindicated  by Pope Pius XII in Sacramentum Ordinis – in which he made no reference to the stipulations of Apostolicae Curae; and as Fr Mark Woodruff (a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster, and Director of the Catholic League) has pointed out, “we are left in the curious position of a long-standing magisterial document, still held to be binding on Catholics, that has been flatly contradicted by a subsequent pope in a superseding document that also forms part of the ordinary magisterium, that stands as part of the basis for the Vatican II reforms …. Thus, moreover, it is now the principle as to matter, form and intention advanced by the Anglican archbishops in Sepius Officio – the laying on of hands, a designated prayer specific to the order conferred, and the intention to do what the Church does – that is the Catholic teaching established by Pope Pius XII to be held definitively.”

In the early Fall of 1966 I was privileged to serve as Anglican chaplain to an Anglo-French pilgrimage, sponsored by an ecumenical prayer group based in Dinard in Brittany, which spent two weeks visiting French shrines and holy places, of which there are very many. Among these was Aix-les-Bains (close to Lac Bourget, reminding me that, as a schoolboy, I was required to memorize in French Lamartine’s poem about it!), in order to visit there the tomb of Fernand Portal, one of the key figures in the historic Malines Conversations which took place from 1921 to 1927.


The Abbé Fernand Portal

With the tacit and, no doubt, reluctant permission of the Vatican and the Anglican authorities these talks sought to find a way to end the Anglican schism. The participants varied but included on the Anglican side the distinguished Anglo-Catholic layman Lord Halifax, Bishops Frere and Gore, (founder of the Community of the Resurrection) and Dr Armitage Robinson(Dean of Wells) who was personally known to my father.


Archbishop Michael Ramsey

The Catholic participants included Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines-Brussels (whose episcopal ring was, long after, solemnly given by Pope Paul VI to Archbishop Michael Ramsey in Rome), the Abbé Fernand Portal (previously mentioned in connection with Apostolicae Curae), and Dom Lambert Beauduin.


Dom Lambert Beauduin

The latter, in 1925 (the same year that he founded Chevetogne Abbey), contributed to the Malines Conversations an immensely important essay entitled L’Eglise Anglicane unie, non absorbée, which has continuing resonance through Anglicanorum Cœtibus. For a full account of this and of related ecumenical matters, see Unity: A History and Some Reflections, by Maurice Villain (Harvill Press, London, 1961).


Paul Couturier, the Apostle of Unity

My Anglo-French ecumenical pilgrimage included a visit to Lyon, to visit sites associated there with “The Apostle of Unity”, Fr Paul Couturier who died in 1953 and to pray at his tomb. Fr Couturier  had first become interested in ecumenism through Chevetogne Abbey and its concern for relationship with the Eastern Churches. Subsequently he became familiar with the large post-1917 emigré White Russian Orthodox community in Lyon. (He taught physics there, at the Institution des Chartreux, where he began every lecture with the recitation of the Veni, Creator in Latin.) Founder of the Groupe des Dombes, he devoted his life to spiritual ecumenism. Fr Couturier worked very closely with an Anglican priest, a monk of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, Fr Geoffrey Curtis whom I knew very slightly and who wrote Couturier’s biography. (See Fr Curtis’ contribution, on Baptism and Unity, to the Mirfield Essays in Christian Belief, published by Faith Press, London, 1962.)

A footnote here: The pilgrimage ended back where it began, in Dinard on the Emerald Coast of Brittany – which, for many years, was the home of Lady Curtis, Fr Curtis’ mother.

Now I turn to the decisive event of July 2, 1931, the Bonn Agreement, establishing full communion between the Church of England and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, including the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands. This full communion was then extended to all members of the Anglican Communion through the synods. The Old Catholic Churches had valid orders that were universally acknowledged; and, from 1932 onwards, Old Catholic bishops took part in the laying-on of hands in all Anglican consecrations to the episcopate, until the time was reached — probably around 1969 — when every Anglican bishop in the world could trace his apostolic succession through both the Anglican and the Old Catholic lines.

At the first of these consecrations, in 1932, the Old Catholic participants signed the following protocol (the purpose of which was to clarify their intention to convey Catholic Order):

Porro ne futuris temporibus quaestiones vel controversiae circa modum externum consociationis Nostrae cum praedicto Domino Archiepiscopo Cantuariensis et cum Reverendissimis confratribus eius Episcopalis Anglicanus in dicto consecrationis epis-copalis actu oriantur, testamur Nos ambas manus, utpote consecratorum aeque principlem, in capita praedictorum Reverendorum Georgii Francisci Graham Brown et Bertrami Fitzgerald Simpson simul cum Domino Archiepiscopo Cantuarensi et assistentibus eius episcopis imposuisse, atque verba consecrationis episcopalis quae in Pontificali Ecclesiae Vetero-catholicae Batavensis praescripta sunt, scilicet ACCIPE SPIRITUM SANCTUM, non arbitrio nostro privato sed Ecclesiae Vetero-catholicae legibus obtemporantes, clara voce, ita ut a circumstantibus audiri possent, et Latina lingua protulisse, uno atque tempore quo praedictus Dominus Archiepiscopus verba consecrationis in Ordinale Anglicana praescripta pronuntiaret.

Thus the intention to convey Catholic Order is explicit and clear. Handsomely inscribed and bound in leather, copies were placed in the Lambeth Palace Library (MS 3414) and in the Registries of the Province of Canterbury and of the Archbishop of Utrecht. For a more detailed account of the 1932 Consecrations, see Accipe Spiritum Sanctum: Historical Essays on the Agreements of Bonn and Meissen, by Brian Taylor (Guildford: St Thomas’s Trust, 1995).

On the ecumenical pilgrimage, to which I referred above, my French counterpart, the Catholic chaplain, was Abbé Emmanuel Gaudin – a school chaplain from Rennes. He and I became close friends during the days of our travels together. Then, and in subsequent correspondence, he always addressed me as “Father”. While we were in Lyon we visited the cathedral there. I had told him about the Bonn Accord and all that had come from it. He took me by the hand, led me to a seat before the altar and said: “You are very priest”.

At this point it could be argued that Apostolicae Curae had, for the time being (but see below) become a dead-letter, since it had, in effect, been overtaken by events. Writing in May 1982 in The Tablet, an English Catholic weekly magazine, Timothy Dufort argued that a way was open for the recognition of the Orders then held in the Church of England without the necessity of contradicting Pope Leo XIII‖. He advanced several reasons for this argument. But the bottom line was that Old Catholic bishops, recognized as valid by Rome, having acted as co-consecrators in these episcopal consecrations, all Anglican bishops were now also in the Old Catholic succession. He argued that Apostolicae Curae had been overtaken by events.


Father John Jay Hughes

Then there is the case of Father John Jay Hughes — a friend who has visited us at St Mary the Virgin, Arlington, on more than one occasion. Father John Jay Hughes, among a few other Roman Catholic writers, had concluded that there were enough flaws in, and ambiguity surrounding, the Pope‘s apostolic letter that the question of the invalidity of Anglican Orders merited re-examination at least. The son and grandson of Episcopal priests, Father Hughes himself had previously been an Anglican priest and was, precisely because of these considerations, subsequently conditionally (sub conditione) ordained in 1968 in the Roman Catholic Church (in Germany, by the Bishop of Münster).


Basil, Cardinal Hume O.S.B.

The late Cardinal Basil Hume (who, as Benedictine Abbot of Ampleforth had been a neighbor and friend of my father and our family), the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, suggested that the conclusions of Apostolicae Curae could only relate to the situation in 1896 and that the involvement of Old Catholic bishops in Anglican ordinations since the Bonn Agreement in the 20th century, along with changes of the Anglican consecratory prefaces, have re-established apostolic succession within Anglicanism. Archbishop Hume said in 1978: “I could not in practice dismiss all Anglican Orders as ‘null and void’ because I know that a number of Anglican Bishops have in fact had the presence at their ordination of an Old Catholic or an Orthodox bishop, that is, somebody who, in the traditional theology of our Church, has been ordained according to a valid rite. As far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, I think it needs to look carefully again at Apostolicae Curae and its status. We need to discover whether the historical background upon which it was working and the argumentation upon which it was based is consonant with historical and theological truth as theologians and historians see it today.”

As the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism put it: “not a few of the liturgical actions [of brethren divided from the Catholic Church] can truly engender a life of grace … and must be regarded as capable of providing access to the community of salvation.”


Monsignor Graham Leonard, former Anglican Bishop of London

I was privileged to know, quite well, Graham Leonard, the former Anglican Bishop of London. He became a Roman Catholic after retirement and, in 1994, he was ordained a priest by Cardinal Hume. This ordination — per saltum, by the way — was conditional due to “prudent doubt” about the invalidity of his ordination in the Church of England. Rome agreed with Cardinal Hume’s assessment that there was uncertainty in, at least, some cases. At the ordination in Westminster Cathedral, prior to the Litany of the Saints, Cardinal Hume inserted the following words which he himself had devised:

“The Holy Catholic Church recognizes that not a few of the sacred actions of the Christian religion as carried out in the communities separated from her can truly engender a life of grace and can rightly be described as providing access to the community of salvation. And so we now pray –

“Almighty Father, we give you thanks for the years of faithful ministry of your servant in the Anglican Communion, whose fruitfulness for salvation has been derived from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church. As your servant has been received into full communion and now seeks to be ordained to the presbyterate in the Catholic Church, we beseech you to being to fruition that for which we now pray….”


Bishop Joseph P. Delaney

Very soon afterwards, Bishop Joseph Delaney used precisely these words of Cardinal Hume, in St Patrick’s Cathedral, at my own ordination to the Catholic priesthood on June 29, 1994. My ordination to the Anglican priesthood had taken place in England at the hands of the Lord Bishop of Peterborough — Robert Stopford who had been consecrated for the suffragan see of Fulham in 1955, one of whose co-consecrators had been the Old Catholic Archbishop Rinkel of Utrecht.


Bishop Robert Stopford

Interestingly, I had to provide the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with full information about this. Nevertheless, my ordination, unlike that of Graham Leonard, was not conditional — largely because it was made clear that the process would be complex, and that verification could take some time. So, with my parish awaiting erection, a request to be ordained absolutely was the right course.

And now — as many may think, tragically — water has again flowed under the bridge. The Bonn Agreement might well have cut the Gordian knot of Apostolicae Curae; and reconsideration in the light of it was promised. But — and in spite of appeals such as Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis — Cardinal Kasper revealed to the 2008 Lambeth Conference that  “While our dialogue has led to significant agreement on the understanding of ministry, the ordination of women to the episcopate effectively and definitively blocks a possible recognition of Anglican Orders by the Catholic Church”.

So the witness and the verdict of Pope Leo XIII remain.

But … as a priest-friend has so eloquently put it: “It is petty-minded pedantry to decline to use the word ‘priest’ of our fathers and brethren. I am always punctilious in referring to Anglican friends as ‘brother priests’. And to my ordaining bishop as bishop. And I intend, if God preserves me, to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of my Priesthood in 2018!!” [My emphasis.]

I have recently received a copy of an article (dated February 16, 2008) from Southern Cross, a publication of the Catholic Diocese of Savannah. The article recounts the life of Father W. T. St. John Brown who died ten years ago and who was one of the instrumental and foundational pioneers of the Pastoral Provision, the precursor of Anglicanorum Cœtibus; and it recounts his ordination as a Catholic priest in June 1992 – a wonderful event at which I was privileged to be present – by Bishop Gracida in Corpus Christi. This Catholic publication referred throughout the article to “W.T.”, as he was affectionately known, as Father Brown – both before and after his reception —  and refers to his Episcopal priesthood.

The incomparable Fr John Hunwicke wrote recently in his blog:

“My view (is that) we of the Ordinariate are Anglicans in full communion with the See of Peter …. My instinct is based on a lifetime of longing for the realization of the vision set before us by Dom Lambert Beauduin and taken up by Cardinal Mercier in the Malines Conversations, of an Anglicanism united but not absorbed.”

Fr. Hunwicke continues:

“It seems to me that the whole grammar of what Benedict XVI set up, with its culture of rapid admission to the priestly life of the Catholic Church upon the presentation of one’s Letters or Orders from one’s Anglican Ordination [my emphasis], points to the duty of consolidating a strong group identity … (the synchronic side of things).

“Moreover, being in the Ordinariate carries with it the duty of a strong sense of identity with, and continuity from, our past (the diachronic). That is why I keep hammering on about our great ‘Patrimony’ teachers; not only Blessed John Henry Newman but also [Edward Bouverie] Pusey and [John] Keble and [John Mason] Neale, [Dom Gregory] Dix [who formed two generations of militant Anglo-Catholics] and [Austin] Farrer and [Eric] Mascall … [C.S.] Lewis and Dorothy Sayers [whom I remember as a visitor to our home when I was very young] … separated Doctors of Catholic Truth. Not to mention [the Royal Martyr King] Charles Stuart and [Archbishop] William Laud. Oh, and let’s not forget Thomas Ken and the Non-Jurors.”

There are, then, no conceivable grounds for regarding our Anglican heritage and the heroic achievements and sufferings of so many as a story to be regretted or hidden, or to deny to those who took part in it the honors, titles and respect which is their due.

Albert Branshaw, Priest: may you rest in peace.

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2 Responses to ABSOLUTELY NULL AND UTTERLY VOID: Courtesy, Charity, and Truth

  1. George says:

    Firstly, may I say how much I enjoy reading your writings, especially when you relate so warmly to the Anglican Church.
    Referring to the “lobbying” of Rome by Cardinals Manning and Vaughan I remember reading (perhaps in the same Tablet article to which you refer) that their motivation was not doctrinal but a fear that recognition of Anglican Orders would cause the conversions to Rome to dry-up leaving the British RC Church with mainly poorly educated immigration Irish. This would be both an economic and intellectual impoverishment.
    Your article could also include the great respect with which Anglican writers are also held in ur Church. You mention Chadwick elsewhere. A favourite of mine as is C H Dodd but both, I was delighted to see, were also admired by Pope Benedict (among others).
    My Anglican other has left me with a great respect for Anglican life. However, it has always seemed that greater than doctrine is the difference, psychologically, of attitude to authority. In this matter I am ambivalent. As an RC I see the Anglican church as too liberal but at the same time I admire the respect it awards to intellectual integrity. I am thinking not only people like Telihard de Chardin but of the conscientious informed ordinary parishioner too. I would love to read your perceptions on this aspect.


  2. Antonia says:

    Anglicanorum Cœtibus refers to ‘Those who ministered as Anglican deacons, priests, or bishops…’ I don’t think Pope Benedict is one to use words lightly.


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