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Claiming our catholic inheritance

Address for the regional celebration of the founding of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, Christ Church, Castlemaine, 5 July 2009
by Dr John Davis, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

John Keble (1792-1862) was an English churchman, one of the founders of the Oxford Movement of the Catholic Revival in the early 19th century Church of England. His name is commemorated in Keble College Oxford. He was renowned as a poet and writer because of the overwhelming popularity of The Christian Year, first published in 1827. He held the chair of Poetry at Oxford from 1831-1841 as a result. By 1863 there had been 109 editions of this work. Perhaps one of the best known of these is 'Blest are the pure in heart' sung as a hymn. Keble exercised a vast spiritual influence upon his generation.

His other claim to fame (and the reason we are meeting at this time of the year to remember him) is the address he gave on July 14th 1833 — the Assize Sermon — which is generally held to be the starting point for the Catholic Revival in the Church of England. The sermon did not make a huge stir at the time, but it was a clear call for the Church to recover its own authority rather than being simply an arm of the State. This had implications across the board. Six generations later, the English Church and her successor churches around the world remain very different to what they otherwise might have been, had the Oxford Catholic Revival never happened. Most people in this church this evening would claim this inheritance. On July 14th 1833, John Keble took the opportunity offered to him to make a strong point.

Carpe diem is a Latin motto about taking the opportunity that is presenting itself — 'seize the day' it says. Behind it is a presupposition about assurance and hope, about leadership and confidence. And it is also a phrase that resonates with a degree of determination for difficult times.

I move now from the 19th century to the end of this first decade of the 21st century, and from the English countryside to these now green hills of the central Victorian goldfields. But before I arrive I want to take a detour by way of May 1983 — the 150th anniversary time of this Oxford Movement.

At that time, a movement called Anglican Catholic Renewal sponsored a major retreat conference at Monash University, Melbourne. At least two of us here tonight were there. Notable amongst the speakers was the later bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of Scotland, Richard Holloway, who has just now completed a speaking tour of Australia. The conference papers were published under the wistful title Renewing the Drifting Church. Those attending from all over Australia and New Zealand included four of the five Australian archbishops. Archbishop Rayner's presidential address described the gathering as 'historic': "Never before in the history of our Church has such a representative group come together to discern from a Catholic perspective the possibilities of the renewal of the life of our Church". I recall this now because that road went no further. That conference stands as a grim reminder of failure. By then, and certainly after then, the catholic movement was torn apart by internal division. We lost our way. We are written off. We have lost our heart. But we are still here.

At this particular time in the history and development of the Anglican Church of Australia we have another period when the issues that divide are being put before us. For some catholic Anglicans there remain challenges such as the questions of women's ordination — while others have moved to the acceptance of women in the episcopate. In Australia now there are two bishops who are women, including one very clearly in the catholic tradition.

The other area of visceral disagreement and conflict is that of same sex relationships. More strongly now than at any previous time of debate, it is being asserted that these are institution dividing matters: that it is not possible, for instance, to remain in the same Church with a bishop who is in a committed same sex relationship (such as the Bishop of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church). Even the most moderate of the Sydney diocesan leaders has recently strongly affirmed that this certainly also applies here in Australia. The issue is just waiting to go off. There is not a single mind amongst Catholic Anglicans in Australia on this one, though the liberal catholic position is strongly inclusive on this, as with the ordination of women.

Catholic Anglicans across the country need to be talking to each other again. In past generations there were organisations, newspapers, journals and regular conferences that had this as their clear intent. In this generation we have opportunities for instant communications beyond the wildest dreams of our forebears. The networks have to be rebuilt, the desire and will to do this has to be rekindled. As we speak, there are new attempts in place trying to achieve this. Is it so absolutely clear and determined that our strength and our resources are to remain divided? Are we to remain resolutely bickering on second level issues? Do we fight on as to the worthiness of the minister on the basis of gender or sexual preference while in the meantime the whole concept of priesthood itself goes out the window?

As Anglicans who would care to claim our catholic inheritance, we need to be working first to find as much reconciliation as is possible amongst ourselves. Then, and on the widest front possible, we need once again to offer clear positive expressions of this tradition in worship and in service: clearly articulated and challenging theology, engagement with the great political and social issues of our time, and a refreshed ecclesial governance and collegial leadership. Otherwise it will indeed be the well resourced and well led fundamentalist positions of the hard-line evangelicals that will carry all before them.

In times like these then, and in a Church like ours, I have to say that that means some very clear burdens and obligations falling on our own shoulders, whether or not we hold any high office, — indeed obligations on the shoulders of anyone who has eyes to see that there are actually pretty clear basic issues at stake here, in justice as well as theology. After more than a generation of division and general disheartedness, the catholic movement does not speak out of strength. Is this to be the fate of the Church and the community that is ours?

If we are silent now and offer nothing (except just to keep things for the time being safely ticking over locally), then we will be failing badly. There is leadership required, there is teaching, there is example; there are different models of faithfulness and discipleship that must be affirmed and lived out — however and wherever we find that to be possible.

A very clear understanding of what it is to be an Anglican Christian, and a clear perception of the nature of the God we worship, is at stake. From that flows how we live out our faith, how we approach the Scriptures, how we worship and pray, whom we stand in solidarity beside.

For various reasons it seems to be that the hardliners are the ones who are getting the press coverage: it is the fundamentalists who are determining the placement of the goal posts.

We are in the middle of what is developing into a major battle for the very soul of what it is to be an Anglican. It is happening at a world level as has been seen very recently in the purported setting up of an alternative Anglican province in North America, complete with an archbishop. It is happening within the Australian Church nationally, even though things have seemed to be pretty quiet lately. There is a General Synod coming up in Melbourne next year. It is happening too at the diocesan level wherever we are.

If the crisis in the wider Church continues to unfold, people are going to be forced into making very difficult choices. Some will choose in disgust or despair to give up the whole enterprise. Some might I suppose decide that the evangelical position is correct. Some though will be looking for parishes, groups and living traditions within catholic Anglicanism, that can speak strongly and clearly with a different voice and with a generous heart and spirit, despite all that is going on — looking to handing the torch of this fine vision to a later generation — to burn brightly again in better times.

This is going to have to be an expression of our inheritance of catholic Anglicanism that offers again generously renewed life and hope in the faith. The communities of faith that express this will be representative of all the generations alive today, not just those of us glimpsing something of the vision splendid from long ago. The nurture and the sustaining of vocations to all aspects of ministry is of course essential.

A new sense of purpose and direction is needed, just as it was in 1833. It is worth remembering that the children of the Hebrews at the Exodus took 40 years to get to the Promised Land, when if it were a simple matter of going from A to B it might only have taken a few weeks. It is also worth remembering that the leaders of the Oxford Movement were taking on a tired and listless institution that had forgotten what it was. "Will the last person alive please turn out the light?" was not an option for them.

This evening we rejoice to celebrate the former things of old and we honour the founding fathers of the Oxford Movement; Keble, Pusey and Newman. Even more so, we call on God's grace and inspiration to guide and sustain us, as with hope and faith and love we together in this generation strive to discern what is our renewed call as Catholic Anglicans in Australia today.

Dr John Davis
St Peter's Eastern Hill


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

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