On September 29 last year, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, I was received into the Ordinariate of the Catholic Church, which was established for Anglicans who desire full communion with the See of Peter, at Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory Church in London. Since then, I have often been asked why, after spending my entire adult life within the Anglican Communion—including thirty-seven years as an Anglican bishop—I took such a dramatic step.
For some who knew of my work in the ecumenical world, the decision may have seemed puzzling. For others, it may have seemed a logical progression. I spent many years as a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), which took its agenda from the determination of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey, expressed in their 1966 Common Declaration, to seek a restoration of full communion in faith and sacramental life between the two traditions. The obstacles were formidable, and yet ARCIC produced a series of remarkable agreements on matters that had been seen as Church-dividing: Eucharist, ministry, authority, salvation, moral teaching, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. I would not wish to downplay ARCIC’s achievement. And yet it was compromised again and again by unilateral and unprincipled action in various parts of the Anglican Communion. Over time, I came to observe weaknesses in the Anglican Communion; and as I reflected on these I began to realize, more and more, that what I was looking for was to be found in the Catholic Church.
One problem with the Anglican Communion was its lack of unity based in apostolic continuity. Each time an “agreement” was reached on important issues and accepted by the respective communions as consonant with what they believed, some part of the Anglican Communion would take unilateral action that cast doubt on the strength of the agreement. For instance, the 1973 ARCIC statement on ministry offered great hope of a shared understanding of priesthood; yet the Anglican Communion, and eventually the Church of England itself, gradually moved towards the ordination of women. They did this despite warnings—including from at least two popes—that such actions would jeopardize the future reconciliation of ministries that the agreement might make possible.
The scenario was repeated over the ordination of women to the episcopate. Invoking the Cyprianic maxim “episcopatus unus est,” Walter Cardinal Kasper implored the Church of England not to act unilaterally in this area. As Chair of the Rochester Commission, which was appointed to consider all the theological and ecclesiological questions surrounding the proposed ordination of women as bishops, I received numerous submissions on the subject. One was from the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, who asked how Anglicans could claim to share the apostolic ministry with the Catholic and Orthodox churches and yet make such a momentous change without an ecumenical consensus in its favor. I remember this striking home at the time.
These debates went to the heart of my understanding of Anglicanism. From the very beginning, Anglican Ordinals have claimed that it is their intention to continue the apostolic ministry, which the Church has inherited “from the Apostles’ times.” This continuity was being brought into question. In the absence of overwhelming ecumenical agreement, could the faithful be sure that the men ordained by female bishops were within the stream of apostolic succession?
I had often boasted that Anglicanism, although reformed, had by divine providence retained both the sacred deposit of faith and the sacred ministry. Now both claims seemed less certain. Some of our ecumenical partners were saying that Anglican action in this matter showed conclusively that the Anglican view of the ordained ministry was quite different from the views of the ancient churches, whether Catholic or Orthodox.
Such concerns cry out for an authoritative response. Yet where would one look for such an authority? Anglican representatives had developed a habit of saying different things to different partners in their ecumenical dialogues. Thus, the ARCIC agreements on the Eucharist, ministry, and authority uphold the importance of apostolic succession. Other agreements, however, such as those with Scandinavian and Baltic Lutheran churches, and with the French Protestant Church, downplay the importance of apostolic succession as traditionally understood. On the universal primacy, the agreements with the Catholic Church and with the Orthodox seem to say quite different things. What, exactly, is the Anglican view? The question seems impossible to answer.
The problem of authority arose in another, arguably more intense form with the increasingly common practice of ordaining to the priesthood those in active homosexual relationships. This matter came to a head in 2003, when the Episcopal Church ordained to the episcopate a divorced man who was also in an active homosexual relationship, which was later formalized and subsequently dissolved. The 1998 Lambeth Conference had already overwhelmingly ruled out ordaining those in same-sex unions; yet the U.S. church was eagerly followed by the Canadian Province, Brazil, Scotland, New Zealand, and now Wales—with other provinces, including England, seemingly poised to follow suit. In the 1995 ARCIC statement Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church, Anglicans and Catholics appeared to agree to the traditional teaching of the Church that homosexual acts fall short of the divine purpose in creation, even if they had different pastoral approaches to the issue. But these actions disregarded that agreement. I was present at the stormy ARCIC meeting that followed the ordination of a practicing homosexual bishop, and once again the question of authority came to the fore. How could Anglicans agree about one thing with their ecumenical partners and then go and do something quite different? The disagreement threatened the future of ARCIC, which has never fully recovered its original mission of clearing the ground for the restoration of communion between Anglicans and Catholics.
Anglicans have always claimed that they do not believe anything that the Church of the early councils did not believe. There are two observations to make about this claim. One was made, if I recall correctly, by Pope Benedict, who noted that it is not enough to confess the creedal formulae of the early Church; we must also cleave to the whole of the faith and sacramental life of the patristic Church. The other observation is that we cannot make claims to continuity with the patristic Church, then adopt a laissez-faire attitude to innovation that proceeds without regard to first principles.
It increasingly seemed to me that, in the Western provinces of the Anglican Communion, there was a deep crisis of disunity rooted in a sometimes-insouciant attitude toward apostolic continuity and the need for fellowship in truth and love. Yes, the identity of each church must be respected, and decisions should be made at the appropriate level in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. But in matters that affect the whole Church, different parts of the Church cannot be given the kind of radical autonomy that had taken hold.
I was troubled by more than controversies over ordination and biblical anthropology, however. There was a breakdown of marriage discipline in many parts of the communion, even among clergy and bishops, and there seemed to be no mechanism for checking this unfortunate trend. A lack of clarity arose concerning personhood and the protections due to it at the earliest and latest stages of life. This epitomized a tendency within Anglicanism to capitulate to the culture rather than sound a prophetic voice within it. These developments made me look for an adequate ecclesiology, one that could meet these challenges. The Church, I reasoned, ought to have a settled body of teaching down the ages and across the world, something held in common, available to guide the clergy and faithful in understanding and addressing the dilemmas they face in their day-to-day lives.
I reasoned also that the Church needed a way of reading the Bible that recognized its “once-and-for-all-ness” and its role as “the supreme rule of faith” while also acknowledging the need for reliable guidance in reading Scripture. This need is especially acute when we face the question of how Scripture and apostolic preaching relate to the claims of new knowledge. Here, the thinking of John Henry Newman is of utmost importance. Newman’s view of the development of doctrine depends on certain principles: A development must conserve the nature and vigor of the gospel itself, represent a continuity with what the Church has always believed, provide effective guidance for the faithful in the present, and anticipate the future, especially by avoiding the “slippery slope” on moral issues. In my reflection, the Vincentian Canon about what has been believed “semper, ubique, et ab omnibus” (always, everywhere, and by everyone) and Augustine’s “securus judicat orbis terrarum” (the secure judgment of the whole world) were key tests for discerning the catholicity of doctrine. But it is also necessary, from time to time, that an authentic teaching authority, at the proper level, and with due regard to the theological, moral, and philosophical contributions of scholars, declare the Church’s position to her own members and the world at large. I saw that this task cannot be fulfilled by anyone other than the pope and the bishops, together with him, each acting according to their competence and jurisdiction. It is their responsibility, in certain circumstances and in fidelity to Scripture and apostolic tradition, to define and declare the faith of the Church. Divine protection for the reliability of such teaching is promised when they do this (Matt. 16:18-19, Matt. 28:18-20, and John 20:22-23). A pope and the bishops in communion with him cannot, of course, change the teaching of the Scriptures or the faith of the Church down the ages and across the world. Their task is only to define it, clarify it, and declare it.
The apostolic tradition is received and re-received in different cultures, generations, and groups, which draw from it different riches. John Paul II noted the feminine genius while reading the Bible, and oppressed peoples, such as slaves in America, have identified with the Exodus story of liberation and empowerment. This enriches the Church. As John Paul II noted in Slavorum Apostoli, inculturation is a mutual process. Saints Cyril and Methodius not only incarnated the gospel in the language and culture of the Slavs; they brought the riches of that culture into the Church.
At the same time—as John Paul II also observed—inculturation takes place within certain limits. Ultimately, a reliable teaching authority must declare which inculturations of the gospel are genuine, and which go beyond what catholicity permits. First, whatever forms the Church takes in her engagement with different cultures, she cannot compromise or dilute the whole counsel of God: the divine love manifest in the story of Israel and then definitively revealed in the Incarnation of God the Word, in Jesus Christ; the objective nature of Christ’s atoning and reconciling work; and the new life made possible by his Resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Second, authentic inculturation will help Christians from other cultures to recognize the Church of Christ in any culture or context. These two principles are now more important than ever as the Church faces various temptations to syncretism and capitulations to culture, especially but not only in the West.
The Anglican Communion has wavered in its adherence to both these principles, and it has capitulated to contemporary Western culture in ways that compromise divine revelation itself. Some provinces of the Communion now fail to see their own faith in what other provinces have done. The situation worsens because the Anglican Communion seems to have no mechanism for resolving these theological disputes. At present, the only way forward is to continue to live with disagreement about fundamental matters. Surely, what is needed is an adequate teaching authority, which after consultation and reflection, and in the light of Scripture and apostolic tradition, can declare the Church’s position on disputed matters.
By entering the Catholic Church, I have affirmed that she possesses such an authority. This is not merely a formal acknowledgement, for the Church’s magisterial teachings have helped me resolve theological questions that had previously troubled me. I had long been uncomfortable with the Anglican (and general Reformation) teaching that there are only two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist. The other sacraments are believed to be misreadings of the apostles’ teaching or, at best, states of life allowed by the Scriptures. It is argued that they are not to be held as “proper” sacraments, for they have no visible sign directly instituted by Christ. But what of marriage? In the order of creation, the union of the couple is both the sign and the conjugal reality that answers the divine mandates to be fruitful and multiply and to live in union with the other. In the order of redemption, the union of man and woman is the mysterion, or sacrament, of the relation between Christ and his bride, the Church (Eph. 5:32).
Ordination is another rite that I could not help but regard as a sacrament. At the first Easter, the risen Lord meets with the disciples and breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22–23). If this is not the institution of a sacrament, what is? It is no accident that Anglican Ordinals use this formula at the laying on of hands for the ordination of priests. Apostolic practice also lies at the foundation of the way in which we ordain deacons and bishops (Acts 6:6, 2 Tim. 1:6). As Pope Paul VI tells us in Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum, the sacrament of anointing the sick is based on the sending out of the Twelve by Jesus to preach the gospel and to anoint and heal the sick (Mark 6:13). In the Letter of James, we are told clearly that the presbyters of the Church are to pray for and anoint the sick for healing and the forgiveness of sins. This has been the constant practice of the Church down the ages and across the world. It is true, of course, that baptism and the Eucharist have a special place among the sacraments. But how can we deny the name “sacrament” to the rest of the seven traditionally called that?
I have, of course, been asked whether I continue to hold to certain central truths that have been dear to me in the past—on Scripture, justification, the Eucharist, the communion of saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and praying for the dead. Each of these subjects could be treated at article length, but I can say a little about each.
I affirm with Dei Verbum and John Paul II that Scripture is the unique, immutable, and supreme rule of faith, and that the entire practice of our faith should be ruled and nourished by Scripture. I have seen the damage caused by the private interpretation of Scripture, against which Scripture itself warns us (2 Pet. 1:20). As Dei Verbum teaches, attention must be given to the historical and cultural background of the books of Scripture, as to their literary form. But when all is said and done, any one part of Scripture must be read in light of the whole, because, although written by human beings, Scripture is also God-breathed and divinely authored. The role of biblical scholars and of theologians is important and helps the Church to come to an informed judgement about the meaning of Scripture in this or that situation. In the end, however, the teaching authority of the Church, informed by tradition as well as scholarship, interprets and confirms what Scripture teaches.
According to Luther, justification by faith alone is the articulus stantis et cadentis Ecclesiae, the article of faith by which the Church stands or falls. Some friends have asked publicly what I now think of this doctrine. In my view, what the Church teaches about justification accords with the best aspects of the Reformation’s sola gratia teaching about justification. The Council of Trent declared that “it is necessary to believe that sins are not forgiven, nor have they ever been forgiven, save freely by the divine mercy on account of Christ.” The recent Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification commits itself to the following: “Justification takes place by grace alone through faith alone, the person is justified apart from works.” Moreover, justification is the “measure or touchstone for the Christian faith. No teaching may contradict this criterion,” which “constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of the Church to Christ.” In his book Saint Paul, Pope Benedict XVI tells us that Luther’s translation of Romans 3:28—“We hold that a man is justified by faith alone and not by works of the Law”—is theologically correct, even though no variants of the word μόνος (“alone”) are in the text, as long as faith is not separated from the necessity of working through love (Gal. 5:6). Even William Tyndale might have found Benedict’s interpretation acceptable!
There remain differences of understanding and expression: As we are accounted righteous before God because of the work and merits of Christ, does such an imputation then lead to the impartation or infusion of righteousness by grace that cleanses us from all sin? Or, is the impartation of righteousness such that in via we remain simul justus et peccator (both justified and sinners at the same time)? The former Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, C. FitzSimons Allison, following Hans Küng, has pointed out that the eucharistic liturgy of the Catholic Church assumes throughout that both priest and people are in a mixed state of grace and sin, thus appearing to safeguard simul justus et peccator.
The Joint Declaration on Justification proposes a harmonizing reading of these two views, the one regarding justification as initiating a life of real sanctity and the other emphasizing justification in a forensic sense, which is to say salvation despite our sinfulness. It begins by pointing out that Trent itself teaches that “in the process of justification, together with the forgiveness of sins, a person receives, through Jesus Christ into whom he is grafted, all these infused at the same time: faith, hope and charity.” The Joint Declaration then declares that God’s justifying grace frees us from sin’s enslaving power. By this grace we are made righteous, receiving new life in Christ. Through the cross, we have the peace of God and are made his children. In this sense, the justified do not remain merely sinners (1 John 3:9–10). Yet the Joint Declaration also points out that it would be wrong to say that the justified are without sin (1 John 1:8–2:2). Those redeemed by the Cross need to pray continually to be cleansed from sin. The upshot is an agreement between Lutherans and Catholics. Both affirm simul justus et peccator, even if they have somewhat different understandings of it.
My eucharistic faith is well-expressed in the Book of Common Prayer’s “Prayer of Humble Access,” now incorporated in the Ordinariate’s eucharistic rite and much loved by cradle Catholics who are exposed to it. ARCIC documents Elucidation (1979) and Clarifications (1993) state the shared Anglican and Catholic view of the Eucharist:
What is here affirmed is a sacramental presence in which God uses realities of this world to convey the realities of the new creation: bread for this life becomes the bread of eternal life. Before the eucharistic prayer, to the question “What is that?” the believer answers: “It is bread.” After the eucharistic prayer, to the same question, he answers: “It is truly the body of Christ, the Bread of Life.”
In a note on transubstantiation, one of the ARCIC documents explains that God effects a real change in the inner reality of the elements. Thus, Anglicans and Catholics share an affirmation of Christ’s real presence. This shared affirmation does not necessarily entail agreement about how best to express the way Christ’s real presence is brought about, which is the concern of the doctrine of transubstantiation. But according to Pope Paul VI’s Mysterium Fidei, the reality of the real presence can be explained in fresh ways provided the faith of the Church is not impugned or undermined.
I have always believed that through the anamnesis of the eucharistic prayer, Christ’s one and unrepeatable sacrifice is made present to the believers so that they may feed on him and obtain all the benefits he has won for us by the Cross. Just as every Passover celebration is a recalling of and participation in the original Passover, so also does the eucharistic celebration recall and participate in Christ our Passover, who has been sacrificed for us and whose sacrifice is effective here and now (1 Cor. 5:7–8, 1 Cor. 10:14–22, 1 Cor. 11:23–32). As the famous Anglican hymn by William Bright puts it:
One offering, single and complete,
With lips and heart we say;
But what he never can repeat
He shows forth day by day.
The Apostles’ Creed affirms the biblical belief in the “communion of the saints.” This affirmation recalls Hebrews 11 and 12, which tell us that we are not alone in this world of trial and tribulation, but are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have endured persecution and hardship (Heb. 12:1). Hebrews says that in faith we have come to the heavenly Jerusalem, “to the Church of the first born and to the spirits of the just made perfect” (12:23). This suggests a close fellowship with the saints in glory. The Bible speaks of believers as those who are called to be saints (1 Cor. 1:2), and the New Testament often calls all God’s people “saints” or “holy ones” (Acts 9:13, 26:10, Rom. 8:27, 2 Cor. 9:1). There are, however, also saints in a special sense. The Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). The coming of the Lord Jesus is described as a “coming with all his saints” (1 Thess. 3:13), and 2 Thessalonians also distinguishes between “the Lord to be glorified in his saints” and the Lord “marvelled at” by all believers (1:10). Revelation 11:17–18 distinguishes between the “prophets and saints” and other believers.
From the Book of Revelation, we know that the martyr-saints are praying to God, asking him to end the persecution they suffered at the hands of cruel and wicked people (Rev. 6:9–11). The saints are praising God in heaven (7:9–17), and their prayers are mingled with incense and rise to the divine presence (8:3–5). In our own lives, in the fellowship of the Church, we ask others to pray for us, and we pray for them. Why should we not ask the Church in glory, those in the nearer presence of God, to pray for us, provided it is understood that we and they pray through Christ, the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5)?
The Angel Gabriel tells Mary at the Annunciation that she is “κεχαριτωμένη,” one who has been endowed with grace (Luke 1:28). It is fruitless to ask how far back in her life such “gracing” extends. The Bible contains several examples of God’s preparing people for their ministry from their very conception. It is thus not unbiblical to say of Mary that she was preserved from the stain of sin. It was not in virtue of her own nature, but by the grace of God and the merit of Christ, her Savior and ours (Luke 1:47), that she was ordained by God to be an unpolluted temple of the Eternal Word. This is not merely Catholic belief. Anglican Reformers, as well as Luther, upheld Mary’s sinlessness because of Christ, to whom she gave birth, and who was her Savior in her preservation from sin. For this reason, the Book of Common Prayer can speak of her as “a pure virgin.” Such a view seems to be the teaching of Lumen Gentium and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
When Mary arrives at the house of her relative Elizabeth, the latter, filled with the Holy Spirit, greets her: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why is it granted me, that the mother of the Lord of me (τοῦκυρίουμου) should come to me?” (Luke 1:42–43). In her song of response, Mary exclaims that “all generations will call me blessed!” (1:48). The Evangelist tells us twice that Mary “kept all these things in her heart and pondered over them” (2:19, 51), as if to suggest that she is the source of his account. (It seems this passage led Calvin to affirm Mary as “treasurer of grace” for others.) Elizabeth’s response to “the mother of the Lord of me” was to reverberate down the centuries and culminate in the Council of Ephesus, which confirmed in a.d. 431 that Mary is θεοτόκος, God-bearer (Latin Deipara), or, as more commonly translated, Mother of God. This declaration emphasized the hypostatic union of our Lord’s two natures. It established the principle behind all the titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary: They point to her Son.
Much has been written about the woman in the Apocalypse, clothed with the sun and with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head (Rev. 12:1–17). Whatever might be said of the symbolism here, whether it refers to Israel or to the Church as the People of God who will triumph over evil, surely the primary reference must be to Mary, the mother of the Messiah, who also symbolizes the whole People of God.
Vatican II teaches us to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, but it also warns us not to exaggerate such honors in ways that make them a stumbling block to other Christians. We are reminded that the duties and privileges of the Blessed Virgin refer always to Christ, the source of all truth, sanctity, and devotion.
Many wonder about praying for the repose of those who have died in the Lord. There are two points to be made. First, if it is true that the faithful departed are purified of the imperfections and vestiges of sin by the nearer presence of God (1 Cor. 3:12–15) so that what survives is worthy of that presence, then surely it must be permissible to pray that the faithful departed will soon be delivered from such testing, just as we pray that we and the other faithful on earth will be delivered from the test. Second, though the salvation of the faithful dead is assured, as Norman Anderson has noted, they still lack the final resurrection, and we can, at least, pray for that: May they rest in peace and rise in glory! To the objection that this too is certain, just as the purification of those saved is certain, Anderson answered: So is the parousia certain, but we still pray, “Maranatha” (1 Cor. 16:22), “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). The Anglican tradition commends the faithful departed to the mercy of God at the time of death and at the commendation and committal during the funeral. It is odd to insist that we may not continue to do so afterwards.
Friends and adversaries have asked why, if I had to plunge into the Tiber, I should have swum in the direction of the Ordinariate. The answer is that I could not turn my back on the whole of Anglican spirituality and tradition. I have pointed out the serious deficiencies in its ecclesiology that have driven me to where I am now. But there are also many gifts that this tradition can bring to the rest of the Church. During and after the Reformation, Anglicanism pioneered Bible translation and liturgical worship in English. In later centuries, Bible translation and worship in other vernacular languages were undertaken with great depth and beauty—a significant process of inculturation. Anglicanism has also encouraged an approach to the Bible that is both reverent and critical, using biblical scholarship to inform faithful understanding, preaching, and writing, while at the same time bringing theological seriousness to modern biblical study. The Anglican tradition has promoted models of ministry for the wider community as well as the congregation, a desire to witness to the Christian story in the public square, and moral reflection that arises from wide social involvement rather than just the needs of the confessional or the pastor’s study. It is my hope that as those of the Anglican tradition benefit from belonging to a Church that is truly catholic, so also may they bring gifts to the Catholic Church that have been nurtured in that tradition, even in separation.
Finally, I have not turned my back on those who remain in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. I remain with you in spiritual fellowship and make it my earnest prayer that all those of Anglican heritage will recover the faith brought to England by St. Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow missionaries, as well as the faith of those northern and western saints who evangelized the British Isles as a whole. Authentic renewal in the life of the churches and of the faithful will come only from such a recovery, for which we all must pray.
Michael Nazir-Ali is president of the charity Oxtrad.