Swimming the Tiber

“Swimming the Tiber.” That was a light-hearted phrase from our Anglican days — there were lots of light-hearted phrases and stories and memories from those days. If a Roman Catholic became an Anglican, he had “swum the Thames.” If an Anglican became a Roman Catholic, he was “swimming the Tiber.”

Why did we do it?

Cradle Roman Catholics might wonder why we put that question at all. We often find that devout Roman Catholics look at Episcopalians, especially Anglo-Catholics, and the customs and ceremonies and our devotion to the blessed Mary, and ask, “Why don’t they just ‘come in?'”

It is understandable, for their experience is not ours — but we come from a rich tradition that we loved. In the Anglican Communion, we first learned the Name of Jesus; we first heard of His Gospel, we studied His Life, we received the priceless Gift of Holy Baptism. Within the Anglican Church we “worshipped the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” There were seasons and feasts and fasts and celebrations; there were processions. Year in and year out we joined together in the worship set out in the Book of Common Prayer, joined in the singing of the glorious hymns of our tradition, sought to love His Mother.

We knew that there were many Catholics wondering why, if we really loved these things, we didn’t just “come in,” but we thought we already WERE In! — we believed that we were members of the Catholic Church, albeit parted for now from Rome. As we knelt Sunday by Sunday at the altar rails of our churches, praying “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His Body, and our souls washed through His most Precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us,” and had our Priests with the greatest reverence administer “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, Which was given for thee …,” we sincerely believed that we were Catholics. And although we genuinely hoped for reunion with the Holy See, we also believed that it would be selfish of us to convert individually. We had a work to do — to work within the Episcopal Church, within the Anglican Communion, for reunion.

So — What happened?

The first thing that happened was that our Anglican Church began to change before our eyes. Classically, Anglicanism had claimed to be nothing more, and nothing less, and certainly nothing other than the Church of the Fathers of the Church. Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple (1881 – 1944) put it best — we have no doctrines of our own, nor do we wish to; we are a servant of the future united Church, and until then we will put no obstacle in the way of that unity by defining our own doctrines.

Anglicanism abandoned that ideal beginning in the 1960’s. We have seen, all over the Anglican world, synods and elected assemblies sitting down to solemnly debate and vote on doctrine. Our own General Convention in the Episcopal Church voted to allow the marriage of persons who were previously married in the Church while their former spouses were still living; quickly the ordination of women as deacons, priests and bishops followed; the marriage discipline of the Church collapsed as fornication, premarital and extramarital cohabitation became topics that were never discussed; the blessing of homosexual unions was conducted quietly by some clergy of the Episcopal Church and openly debated in its councils.

It would be impossible to describe briefly the amazing change in the Church’s life. Suddenly, everything was up for discussion, vote, and resolution by majority — there was no need to think of the wider “Catholic Church,” no thought of Archbishop Temple’s dictum that no barrier should be put in the way of Christian unity by way of unique doctrinal assertions.

What were our reasons?

One good reason was that the Anglican churches were claiming an authority they had never before claimed. The Pope himself says that the Catholic Church has no authority to ordain women — the General Convention of our former Church labored under no such restriction, it seems, and that meant that Anglicanism itself had fundamentally changed in its self-understanding. As a matter of fact, the only restriction on the General Convention of the Episcopal Church was — literally — Robert’s Rules of Order. General Convention could vote to add a fourth Person to the Trinity if it chose to and followed the rules of parliamentary procedure. The Church that had previously said that it had no authority to set forth new doctrines at all, now decided that it had the authority to ordain women — and we were expected to accept this on that Church’s authority!

A second good reason was that the unity of the Church, which we had always been taught was a priority, was obviously no longer important to our former Church at all, as it was implementing these divisive changes that would separate us even further not only from Rome and the Eastern Churches, but from each other.

Ultimately, it comes down to a question of authority — “By what authority do you do these things?”

We already knew that the Anglican Communion does not have the authority to change the deposits of Faith — Anglicanism never claimed this authority.

We also knew that as a congregation we could affiliate with any number of bodies which have bishops and claim to be part of the Catholic Church. There are the venerable churches of the East, the Eastern Orthodox, there are “Old Catholic” bodies. There are “Continuing Churches”, small bodies of former Episcopalians who separated from the Episcopal Church and continue a corporate life with the Anglican liturgies. And we know that there are traditional Episcopalians who are looking to Bishops in other parts of the world for help.

But, our congregation lives in Boston, and it was not necessary for us to reach out to a Bishop in Rwanda or Matabeleland. There was a Catholic Bishop here in Boston. He welcomed us; he took us under his pastoral care — and today we are the Anglican Use Chaplaincy of the Archdiocese of Boston, worshipping each Sunday according to the Anglican Use. More important, we have a Bishop; through him we are in communion with every Catholic Bishop throughout the world, and with our Holy Father the Pope. Five hundred years after our spiritual ancestors were tragically torn from the communion of the Holy See, we’re home! And we were welcomed.

We are Catholics — no longer apologizing for an Episcopal diocesan convention refusing to acknowledge the saving Lordship of Jesus, no longer explaining how we are Catholics while being Episcopalians … we’re Catholics! No apologies. Just much gratitude. Would you like to know more:

Why not join us for Mass this Sunday?

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