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This article is taken from the Newsletter of the Friends of the Ordinariate (Summer 2020). You can view the article and support the work of the Friends by visiting the website: http://friendsoftheordinariate.org.uk 

Letter from America

Washington is a great city for walking. Arriving back in town at the end of a mild winter, I have spent the last few months taking advantage of the lighter evenings and warmer weekends to relearn my way around the downtown area and, more selfishly, to lose a couple of pounds in the process. Happily I’ve found that a good walk from my home at Saint Mary’s in Chinatown to the National Mall, and back again, takes about the same time as a podcast of Choral Evensong on Radio 3. The present restrictions on movement are not as strictly-enforced as seems to be the case in England, and the improving weather (to say nothing of a more flexible routine) means I am still able to take advantage of a daily stroll.

It doesn’t take long to figure out the layout of the city. It runs on intersecting streets marked by letters and numbers (much like New York), and with avenues named for major American cities or states running diagonally (for instance, the famous Pennsylvania Avenue). It also doesn’t take long to see how the architecture of the capital city is a conscious effort by its chief architect, Pierre L’Enfant, to set out the American stall to the world. It is designed to be a New Paris for a New Republic; its key buildings are placed to make clear points about the nature of American political life. The centrepiece is the U.S. Capitol, with the (later) Supreme Court, White House, and major monuments all consciously displayed for effect. 

That word, political, has an obvious resonance in a city like this. But it also has a more subtle meaning that risks being ignored. The polis is the city. Polity is the organizational means of its governance. We might say that polity is the way a group of people is identified. It concerns the laws, culture, and ethic of a defined community. Polity proceeds from the inner identity of the community. Polity is made visible in behaviour, habits, and activities.

Richard Hooker wrote of the ecclesiastical polity he identified in Anglicanism in his work of that title, published in various volumes from 1594 on. He described variously how worship, law, and a moral code demonstrate the nature of an ecclesial community, and specifically how this had become the case in the classical Anglicanism of the sixteenth century. Hooker’s is a direct response to the Puritans and their rejection of large parts of civil and ecclesiastical governance (at least as we understand them). For Hooker, then, and for Catholics too, the community or society of the Church does not automatically conform to the polity of civil society, because the Church exists prior to and independent of it. Even though we desire to live in a good relationship with civil society, we are nevertheless citizens of a greater City.

This principle has been played out in the current restrictions placed on public worship by the coronavirus pandemic. The civil authorities have, in most places, rightly sought to act in the public interest. Ecclesiastical authorities, independent of any human power, have the same duty and have in many cases decided in their own right to respond in common with civil rules. We have long-seen how this balance can be corrupted in places like China, when the state usurps the legitimate power of the Church. And we have also occasionally seen what happens when those in ecclesiastical authority waver to guard the autonomy of the Church’s life. 

Where ecclesiastical authorities have acted well, as I believe to be the case with the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales, they have respected the polity of the community of the Church whilst seeking to receive and respond responsibly to the advice given by medical and scientific experts, and indeed the civil authorities, to act in the common good. Where they have not, where they have followed unquestioningly the directions of the civil authority, they have absconded from their duties as custodians of the ecclesiastical polity, and become a kind of branch of the state; the church-like NGO that successive popes have warned us about. Ultimately this is the same issue that led John Keble to preach his Assize Sermon on national apostasy in 1833. The rest, as they say, is history.

Polity is not just an important consideration in respect of the relationship between the Church and the state, but also within the local church and in particular in the ordinariates. The ordinariates exist within the wider Latin Church with an ethos that is consonant with but in various ways distinct from our neighbours. Our approach to worship is a case in a point. We have the same understanding of what it is for—the glory of God and the sanctification of man—but we express that in a distinctive way. Commitment to that distinctiveness not only reinforces our identity; it can also help others to understand the nature of the difference: not something trivial, not something divisive for its own sake, not even something essential. Rather, such distinctiveness speaks of our identity as citizens of the particular part of the City we inhabit.

To date much discussion of the development of the ordinariates has focussed on Anglican patrimony as it is identified in easily definable elements. As the first decade of our new life concludes, might there be an opening for something more radical? Not just a consideration of the things of our heritage, but the fundamentals of our identity—our polity, the “architecture” that marks us out not in opposition to the rest of the Catholic Church, but within it. Such diversity has always been a part of the Catholic Church; the caricature of Catholicism as monolithic is absurd to anyone who has experienced it. Perhaps it is time for us to rediscover what really makes us who we are, the better to transmit it to others, and hand on to future generations.

Citation: Friends of the Ordinariate, Newsletter, n. 12 (Summer 2020) 11.