Making Straight the Way: An Anglican Homecoming
When Father John Fleming converted to Catholicism in 1987, he couldn’t foresee that he would play an instrumental role in the request of the Traditional Anglican Communion for reunion with Rome in 2007, which in turn had a major impact on Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus in 2009. An Australian, Fleming was ordained an Anglican priest in 1970. He married in 1975, and he and his wife were already raising their three daughters when they both converted. After living as a Catholic layman for eight years, Fleming was ordained a Catholic priest in 1995. In this case, the rest really is history.
The Traditional Anglican Communion, which consists of 38 bishops representing some 400,000 faithful throughout the world, was established in 1990 to salvage traditional Anglicanism (conceived of as Anglo-Catholicism). From the first, the TAC was also deeply interested in reunion with Rome. At first its leaders pursued this objective by seeking to set up ecumenical talks between themselves and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. But there were Catholic divisions over how best to handle ecumenical affairs, and the Council for Christian Unity was reluctant to enter into talks with the TAC lest such talks harm ecumenical prospects with the far larger Anglican Communion.
It was a tough position for a relatively small but very significant Anglican group which has come to appreciate more deeply the need for papal authority as a result of the doctrinal and disciplinary disintegration of this same mainstream Anglican Communion. Still facing such reluctance in 2005 after nearly fifteen years of effort, Archbishop John Hepworth, Primate of the TAC, sought advice from an old friend—a Catholic priest and convert with the closest possible ties to Anglicanism, a leading thinker and strategist, and a man whom Hepworth had served as an Anglican parochial assistant in the mid-1980's: Fr. John Fleming.
Fleming’s advice was clear and pointed: Forget ecumenical talks, he advised. Don’t give the theologians or the ecumenicists anything to discuss. Just tell the Vatican you accept the primacy of Peter, believe everything in the Catechism, and want to be brought corporately into full communion with the Catholic Church, with your legitimate traditions intact, as soon as possible. Hepworth, and ultimately all the other TAC bishops, endorsed the new strategy. Their petition for incorporation (called “The Portsmouth Petition”), adopted in 2007, had the effect of putting the matter before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where it was well received by Cardinal William Levada. The petition also became a critical motive for Pope Benedict’s commitment to make provision for exactly this circumstance on a broader scale. Within two years, the Church issued the Apostolic Constitution which made the TAC’s incorporation possible, hopefully as the first of many similar initiatives to come.
This story is told by both Fr. Fleming and Archbishop Hepworth in the last chapter of Fleming’s new book, Convinced by the Truth: Embracing the Fullness of Catholic Faith. But the book, though fairly brief at 130 pages, is really something very much more. It is, first, the story of Fr. Fleming’s own conversion, and that of his wife Alison and their daughters, set against the disintegration of the Anglican Communion, and the growing realization that the Anglicans had no authority principle with which to preserve the Christian Faith. Along the way, in the third chapter (“Anglican Chaos—Self-Inflicted Wounds”), Fleming provides the finest succinct exposition I have ever seen of the problem posed by the ordination of women, which was the primary flashpoint for the crisis of authority among Anglicans.
Second, the book is a moving commentary on Catholic teaching about the Eucharist, which is ultimately what drew Fleming home to the Church. Fleming explains the sense in which the Mass is a sacrifice, and demonstrates that a proper understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not contradict human reason. This chapter, directed at those still struggling with Catholic claims, is another of the book’s gems; it offers a remarkably lucid explanation of the Eucharist, and one sure to enrich any reader’s faith. Fleming’s prose is both warm and clear, and he handles theological and philosophical issues without either confusing the uninitiated or boring those who already know the answers.
These first two parts of the book more than justify the price of admission, but there is all that history as well—the moving story of the Traditional Anglican Communion’s quest for union with Rome. It is a history which gathers up all the prior personal and theological discussions as essential context, so that the reader understands not only the ecclesiastical strategies but also the intensely personal struggles which have now led so many Christian believers to thirst for Catholic unity.
Yet Fr. Fleming’s book is even something more than this. It is a sign of hope in an age in which both Catholicism and Christianity appear to be on the run, losing ground moment by moment, being swept onto the ash heap of history. The book reminds us that there is so much that we do not see, and that none of us can explain the explosive moments of grace which lead either to deeper conversion and renewal or to widespread Catholic growth. We must remember, for example, the limitations of our secular Western experience, for the Church is far more robust in the rising global south, especially in Africa (where, not incidentally, the TAC is also well-represented). But we also need to remember that the scandal of Christian disunity has been giving skepticism, agnosticism and atheism a leg up for nearly five hundred years, and that a resurgence of Christian unity would undoubtedly give them a corresponding leg down.
I recall Pope John Paul II’s optimism about a new springtime for the Church and about imminent reunion with the Orthodox. Some of us smiled then, but now we see on every side a dramatic improvement in Catholic-Orthodox relations. Even closer at hand, in the Anglican problem, we have something equally momentous. We have the very first religious body born of the Reformation to seek reunion with Rome. Is it not possible that what has begun as a trickle might end as a cataract? Clearly, the Holy Spirit is even now powerfully at work.
This review would be incomplete without my own personal note. If I were either a committed Australian Catholic or a student of the prospects for Anglican reunion (or, in fact, a bioethicist), I would undoubtedly have had many reasons to be aware of Fr. John Fleming’s work for quite some time. Among other achievements, he was the founding Director of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide and the founding President of Campion College Australia, the nation’s first Catholic liberal arts college. He has also been a Corresponding Member of the Pontifical Academy for Life since 1996. As it is, I first learned of him in 2009 when he joined (and provided a picture for) our Rogue’s Gallery—a group of people who highly value this web site, and are more than happy to say why!
I hasten to add that this does not guarantee a favorable book review, but it does place both reviewer and readers alike in extraordinarily good company. To learn why, read Fr. John I. Fleming’s informative, engrossing and inspiring book, Convinced by the Truth.
[John I. Fleming, Convinced by the Truth: Embracing the Fullness of Catholic Faith (Modotti Press, an imprint of Connor Court Publishing: Ballan, VIC, Australia, 2010) 130pp. Paper]
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Posted by: AgnesDay -
Sep. 11, 2010 11:55 AM ET USA
Perhaps, just perhaps, the sensation of being on the run is a ploy of the Evil One, in his usual vain effort to hamper the progress of God's Kingdom. In which case we know who will win.
Posted by: Lisa Nicholas, PhD -
Sep. 09, 2010 11:22 PM ET USA
Thanks for writing this and providing information about Fr. Fleming's book. I met Abp Hepworth several years ago when he visited our (Anglican Use) parish, and I'm grateful that the TAC's decision to follow Fr. Fleming's advice to approach Rome directly is now bearing fruit in the establishment of Catholic Anglican Ordinariates. This will be a real blessing to the Church.