Francis Phillips visited a surprisingly Catholic-looking Anglican church

On holiday last week in west Wales, we chanced on an Anglican church in Milford Haven. I say “Anglican” because although it didn’t call itself a Catholic church on the notice board outside I was surprised to see a large statue of the Sacred Heart just inside the entrance. This highly Catholic devotion, as I further discovered during our visit, was followed by Stations of the Cross, a side altar with a tabernacle, a prominent statue of Our Lady and notices about times of Mass.

I picked up an explanatory leaflet at the back of the church which solved my puzzlement at all these traditionally Catholic features. It stated, “We are a voice for traditional believers within the Church in Wales” and went on to list, in clear but careful language, several points in which the parish clearly differs from many members of the wider Anglican community, such as “We are committed to the sacredness of life, the holiness of marriage, and to an approach to human sexuality consistent with the teaching of the Lord and his apostles” and “We believe that men and women are equal in Christ but have different roles and responsibilities…and are unable to accept the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate.”

I realised we had stumbled into what Catholics would describe as a “High Church” parish, or as they might call it, an Anglo-Catholic one. It gave me pause for thought. I reflected on Pope Benedict’s dramatic, generous and imaginative gesture of an “Ordinariate”, whereby parishes unhappy with the direction of the Church of England (and Wales) following their acceptance of the ordination of women, could join the Church together rather than just as individuals.

As far as I could see, the only theological obstacle preventing this isolated, faithful little parish from joining the Church is the primacy of Peter i.e. the authority of Rome. I read more of the leaflet: “We work and pray for the reunion of all Christians on the basis of the Catholic faith of the undivided Church as received from Christ through the apostles…” This had been the position of the famous former Anglican, Blessed John Henry Newman – until his realisation that the “branch theory” of the Church, reflected in its Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox wings, was untenable and that, to be truly Catholic, he had to come over to Rome.

I was pondering what to write in the visitors’ book when my daughter joined me. “Why don’t you invite them to join the Ordinariate?” she asked. So after explaining that I was a Catholic visitor and how moved I was to find features in the church so familiar to Catholics, I did just that.