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Roman Fever.

2009 November 10
by Gordon Reid


The Anglo-Catholic equivalent of Swine Flu is Roman Fever, and very few of us escape it. But the particular strain of this fever changed totally after Vatican II, and now it seems to be mutating again. Maybe my readers will be interested (and amused?) to hear of my own brush with the malady.

After taking my degree in modern languages from Edinburgh University in 1963, I went to Coates Hall, the Scottish Episcopal Theological College in Edinburgh. I meant to be there for the three year course leading to ordination, but God (at least I hope it was He!) had other ideas.

Because of my three year’s residence at the University, I knew all the staff of the College, except the new Principal, Canon Kenneth Woolcombe, who had taken the place of Richard Wimbush, who had been elected Bishop of the romantic diocese of Argyll and the Isles. “Dickie”, as he was universally known, was a shy, friendly man who had been very helpful in furthering my vocation to the Priesthood. The new Principal, Kenneth Woolcombe, was an unknown quantity, and – to the disapproval of some – he came to us from the Church of England!

I am sure that Canon Woolcombe was told before taking up the post that the Scottish Episcopal Church was ultra-Conservative and stuck in the mud, needing a good shake up. Where better to start than with the new generation of priests training at its national college? Canon Woolcombe was just the man to do the shake-up. His method, as I now realize, was that of pulling down in order to build up again. But at the time, some of us found the pulling down a bit too much.

No doctrine or practice was allowed to pass unchallenged. For the first time for many of us, we were faced with the claims of liberal Biblical scholars that the Bible could not be relied on for historical accuracy, no, not even the Gospels. And our narrow assumptions about Church history, and the effortless superiority of the Episcopal Church and its “incomparable” Liturgy were also challenged by a much more skeptical view of how the Church had developed from its earliest days. This was all done with the laudable intention of getting us to think for ourselves and not simply accept everything on authority, but for some of us it went too far.

I came to know Kenneth Woolcombe much later when he had been Bishop of Oxford and then a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, and I loved his irreverent asides, and knew him to be a man of deep faith. But at the age of twenty, I found some of his asides difficult to forgive. For example, he claimed that the verse of the Office Hymn we sang every night at Compline:
“From all ill dreams defend our eyes,
From nightly fears and fantasies;
Tread underfoot our ghostly foe,
That no pollution we may know”
was simply a primitive appeal to God to stop the devil causing us to masturbate! There was no suggestion that the writer of the hymn might have been wise enough to know that there were worse forms of pollution, such as malice, pride, anger, etc, that might enter our minds that night. As I said, it was all done to shock, and it certainly succeeded. Of course some of us retaliated, and for the next week or two half the voices in chapel just stopped singing that verse. Knowing Kenneth as I do now, I am sure this rebellion delighted him, but he never said a word.

Like most Anglo-Catholic ordinands, I had had bouts of “Roman Fever”. a questioning whether it was right to persevere in the Anglican Communion, when so much of it was less than Catholic, at least as we understood “Catholic”. The Church of Rome seemed so much steadier, its Latin Mass beautiful and the same throughout the world. Coates Hall had a good relationship with the Roman Catholic seminary in the Scottish Borders, and when we had visited there, I was very impressed by their Spiritual Director, Fr Jock Dalrymple. His quiet manner hid a deep spirituality and a great gift of listening.

Because of the contrast between Fr Jock and Kenneth Woolcombe’s shock tactics, I was strongly drawn to “cross the Tiber”. I confided this to Fr Jock and we met several times to explore what I really believed and what I should do about it. There was no pressure put upon me at all; in fact, Fr Jock swiftly banished my naive assumptions that all was sweetness and light in the Roman Communion. He loved his own Church but was well aware that it too had its faults, and he insisted that I should have the whole picture before I made any decision.

Meanwhile, my unhappiness had come to the notice of the former Principal of Coates Hall, Bishop Wimbush, who summoned me to see him. He said I should wait and study the question much more before making any decision. Perhaps he also realized that Coates Hall was not the best place for me to do this. At any rate, he suggested that I should go and read a Theology degree at Oxford, and within a few weeks had packed me off to see his old friend, Dr Austin Farrer, Warden of Keble College, Oxford.

In Austin, as I have written in my post of May 2009, I met a genuine saint, and the fact that his sanctity was nurtured in the Church of England’s Catholic tradition did as much as anything to dispel my Roman fever.

At the time, I had little idea of how privileged I was to be treated like this and admitted to Oxford simply because I was having Roman fever. But the most important thing I learned from the experience was that the understanding and advice I received from both the Episcopal and Roman Catholic directors to whom I had taken my dilemma was the same. Neither side thought it was wrong to remain in my old Church, or to change to a new one. They were both more concerned that I knew what I was doing, and that I did it for the right reasons. Both were totally lacking in either bigotry or triumphalism.

I hope this spirit will inform those who are contemplating leaving either the Anglican or the Roman Catholic Church at the present time. Whether they are going to swim the Tiber or the Thames, I hope they will remember that the water of either river conveys Baptism to eternal life.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Fredrik (a Swedish ordinand) permalink
    November 11, 2009

    Thank you for this, father!

  2. November 21, 2009

    I join Fredrik in thanking you, father, for your words of deep and aware reciprocal friendship.

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