Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Second Annual Anglican Use Conference, Scranton, June 2006: A View from the Floor

Part I, In Which the Author Sizes Up the Scene

It was then when I saw the Anglican priest with the Father Knows Best pipe, playfully teaching his little boy the names of the stained-glass colors in German, Grün grün grün, that I knew I was going to fit in just fine around here.

It felt like I’d crammed three lifetimes into the last three weeks. I’d graduated from Notre Dame less than a month earlier, yet there was something hazily archival about my memories of campus. My friends were very still much on my mind as I clicked through the digital photos of Senior Week, and I was certain those ties, as if of an invisible college, still bound us; yet, I knew my student days had firmly passed into history. And I was fine with that, much to my surprise.

I’d gotten into Scranton only a few hours ago, and had pulled alongside St. Clare’s to see the hunched figure of Cardinal Dulles, the keynote speaker, slowly moving down the ramp to the basement social hall. A large banner out front of the boxy brick utility-Romanesque structure welcomed us to the conference. The answer to the Anglican Use had come to roost in this quiet corner of an old suburban neighborhood lay in the Episcopalian church we’d passed on the way up here, the pleasantly provincial neo-Gothic Good Shepherd. Eric Berman was now the executive director of the conference’s co-sponsor, the St. Thomas More Society. He had once been its pastor, and if the Bishop of Scranton had his way, might someday be the priest of a fully-fledged Anglican Use parish. For the moment, though, as I found out when I met him, he was in suit and tie, and quietly carrying around his sleepy daughter Julia, her baby head against his shoulder. The paperwork to ordain a married man, which had to go through Rome herself, had yet to come through.

After a social lunch, we moved upstairs to the main church to begin the afternoon’s slate of speakers. The conference’s theme was Conversion to Catholicism, and the Anglican Use Society’s president, Joseph G. Blake, set the tone and broke the ice with his opening remarks. What was this thing Anglicanism? Was it, as he had thought as a child, the son of a tailor, merely an Anglophilic, royalist sense of panache? He moved through a series of family anecdotes, his grandmother who, convinced the world had ended with the death of Edward VII, died herself well into the electric age in a house lit by oil lamps and under the watch of an enormous framed portrait of Queen Alexandra. Was Anglicanism this frivolous? Jokes about Episcopalians, lightbulbs and martinis are legion.

But that was not the point of it all.

What the Anglican Use preserved, he said, and what it brought to Catholicism’s table of contemplation was the spirituality of the Prayer Book. There was the its monumental poetic spirit, its stark canonical sense of right and wrong, that had formed men of integrity such as Churchill and FDR. They had sat through service after required service at Groton and Harrow, and it seemed to have rubbed off on them. Like the Society’s patron Thomas More, when pressed to the wall, they clamored like champions.

Eric Bergman then introduced himself, and gave us a few statistics. There were 20 Anglican or Episcopalian clergy in the pews that afternoon, 17 Catholic priests, including Our Lady of the Atonement pastor Christopher Philips, participants from over 17 U.S. states, a fellow from D.C. and a lone Canadian. I’d noticed down in the hall what a varied, and for that matter, rather singular group we were. There were the Catholics in uniform clerical blacks, and a whole kaleidoscope of Anglicans, both Canterbury and not. A few had quietly opted for jacket and tie rather than collar, the “Father” on their nameplates the only clue to their identity, while among the others there were Roman collars, Anglican collars, bishops in violet shirtfronts and pectoral crosses, earnest young fellows in round spectacles, a troop of Anglican Franciscans and a brown-habited nun with the extraordinary name of Sister Paraclete. I couldn’t help wondering what they made of all this—did the Tiber’s waters look spiritually inviting to them?

I was about to find out.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: