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VIRTUEONLINE Interviews Former Anglican Bishop Gavin Ashenden

VIRTUEONLINE Interviews Former Anglican Bishop Gavin Ashenden

A Virtueonline Exclusive

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
December 24, 2019

Former Anglican Bishop Gavin Ashenden graciously consented to an interview with VirtueOnline as he prepares to enter into the Roman Catholic Church on the Fourth Sunday of Advent -- three days before Christmas.

VOL: When did the first thought about becoming Roman Catholic come? What was your first reaction?

ASHENDEN: My first thoughts about becoming a Roman Catholic came on the day of my conversion, which was an Evangelical conversion in Bristol Cathedral on the First of March in 1975 when I gave my life to Jesus and asked Him what kind of Christian He wanted me to be. I asked Him, "Did He want me to be Catholic, Anglican or Pentecostal?" It appeared to me He was asking me to become an Anglican.

But from that point I have always looked at, and understood, Catholicism to be the home from which Anglicanism derived. Anglicanism is only justified if it continues to be a movement of prophetic reform that the Catholic Church hasn't achieved.

One of the things I have realized in the last 20 years is that Anglicanism fails to be that movement of spiritual reform. The Catholic Church has been busy reforming itself, both, of course, with the Counter Reformation (Council of Trent -- 1545-1563) but also with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). So, for some time now I have wondered if there was any justification in being an Anglican. Where were the unique insights that it had that Rome had not seen? Rome now has the liturgy in the vernacular. It celebrates the Living Word. What did Anglicanism have that Rome had not already accepted? I have been thinking and praying about it carefully.

VOL: Will Rome accept your confirmation on Advent IV?

ASHENDEN: No, I will have to be reconfirmed. Rome doesn't accept the orders of churches that have broken apostolic continuity. Clement's (Pope Clement I -- reigned 88-99 AD) letter to the Corinthians showed that he had learned from the Apostle Peter that tactile Apostolic succession was a vital component in the safety and integrity for the Church. and it is the means by which one enters the Church. Yes, I will be confirmed.

VOL: How do you square what you were taught -- and taught -- as an Anglican with becoming Roman Catholic as written down in the Articles of Religion which are hammered into every one of us. The Anglican mindset has not changed in 500 years. It's set in stone.

ASHENDEN: [Chuckling] The difficulties I have had with the Articles of Religion is -- I remembered as I trained -- there was this very ambiguous attitude by the church. So here we have the Thirty-Nine Articles -- basically, some people believe in them and some don't -- but all you have to do is to affirm them and no one takes them very seriously.

There were five sets of articles. I have never understood why the fifth one claimed to be sacrosanct. As far as I could see it was simply because that theological party had won the theological fight of that century.

The first attempt was the Ten Articles in 1536, which were only slightly Protestant, reflecting an English desire for a political alliance with the German Lutheran princes. The second revision was the Six Articles in 1539 which were, in fact, Catholic. The third was called the King's Book in 1543, which went further and re-established most of the earlier Roman Catholic doctrines. The fourth version was written under Edward VI (1537-1553), during a Protestant period in 1552. Finally, upon the coronation of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and the re-establishment of the Church of England as separate from the Roman Catholic Church, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion were initiated in 1553. There could have been a sixth or seventh set.

It is an accident of history that the fifth set off propositions were ultimately definitive. But this must be a political phenomenon and not a theological or spiritual one. So, accepting the 39 Articles of 1553 is a political position and has no theological rational except 'realpolitik' which is why, I imagine, that no one except historic Protestants set much store by them. They represent the political character of the Church of England rather than its soul. Which is why Newman set out to reclaim them so imaginatively, and annoyed so many people when he offered a different theological interpretation and narrative with them.

I am quite pleased to leave the 39 Articles behind because I think they are a theological and political confusion which the Church of England deals with rather dishonestly.

VOL: You are coming into the Church of Rome at the time of Pope Francis. He has, and is, causing great derision and confusion from the "Who am I to judge" comment to the latest Pachemama debacle ... and the bishops of Germany are clamoring for priestesses. Then in the American church there is wholesale sex-abuse failure of priests and bishops. I just had to write about the inhibition by the American Ordinariate of the founding priest of Anglican Use over the possible failure to report the misbehavior of a now-deceased deacon. That was written through prayers and tears. Are you not jumping from the frying pan into the fire?

ASHENDEN: Yes, I certainly am. [Laughs] But I am jumping from the frying pan into the fire because God has asked me to. I am quite certain the Lord is behind this vocation to the Catholic Church that was initially expressed by my Catholic bishop (the Most Rev. Mark Davies -- XI Shrewsbury), but met a ready and waiting heart.

This is no great surprise to me, because my understanding of what is happening now in end of the 20th and 21st centuries. The Church is facing an anti-Christian spirit, an anti-Christian culture, and that progressive utopianism is a profound danger.

The Church faced two very serious dangers in the 20th century -- one from Fascism and one from Communism. And we are facing another version of that in the 21st century. This is mainly from the Left today. There is no surprise that many in the Catholic Church have been corrupted by the spirit of the age.

One of the things you find in church history is that the Lord sends people to engage in the renewal of the Church, whether it is St. Benedict (died 547) or St. Francis (Francis of Assisi -- died 1226) or St. Dominic (died 1221) or St. Ignatius (Ignatius of Loyola -- died 1556). So, I see myself as being called to help in the renewal of the Catholic Church in the face of this very serious threat to the Church's integrity.

VOL: What will be your greatest suffering swimming the Tiber?

ASHENDEN: To tell you the truth I can't tell yet. I'll only know looking back, I think. [Pauses for reflection] I think my greatest suffering is the failure of the Anglican project.

There was a point in the 1970s when Anglicanism was in a movement of convergence to Rome, and people talked about the possibility of reconciliation. Particularly Michael Ramsey (100th Archbishop of Canterbury -- 1961-1974).

My greatest suffering, I think, will be leaving Anglicans behind me -- leaving the Church of England behind me. That the reconciliation between the Anglican tradition and Rome could not happen more widely and institutionally, but can only happen personally and individually for me.

So, my greatest suffering is the failure of Anglicanism to be reconciled to Rome and that I have to do it, initially, by myself. But of course, in fact, in the company of a very great many people. I think at the moment ten percent of Catholic clergy in the UK, serving in parishes are ex-Anglicans, so I'll be in very good company.

VOL: What will be your greatest joy?

ASHENDEN: [Reflective silence] It will be a series of joys. A series of components will comprise the joy. They will consist of an unashamed relationship and celebration with Mary, the Mother of God, whose apparitions have had the greatest impact on me. There will be the greatest joy in being part of a Eucharist where there is no doubt at all what is happening. It is the Mass and Jesus is present in it as He promised. The Orders will be valid, the Mass will be effective. The reconciliation through my bishop (+Mark Davies) with the whole Western Tradition, with my heroes I've loved over the years. [Joyful giggle] Anselm (died 1109); the Augustines (Augustine of Hippo -- died 430; Augustine of Canterbury died 604); Martin of Tours (died 396); Julian of Norwich (died circa 1416); Benedict of Nursia (died 547); Francis of Assisi (died 1226); Dominic (died 1221); Jean Vianney (died 1859); and heroines of mine like Helena Faustyna (died 1938); Catherine of Siena (died 1380); Bridget of Sweden (died 1373).

To be back part of and reconciled in the One Church. Those component factors will be what brings me the greatest joy.

VOL: How can you help the Roman Catholic Church in England?

ASHENDEN:That's a very good question. I'm waiting to find out. First of all, by being part of it.

VOL: What are you bringing to her that only you can bring to her?

ASHENDEN: I honestly can't answer that. I think that is for other people to say. But some of the skills I've developed in trying to explain what the Gospel is. So, I hope to bring some evangelistic skills and some skills in apologetics.

I spent 25 years defending the faith in a highly secularized, high octane university (University of Sussex) and I am hoping that those skills will help. I hope to some small level of discernment. I have always prayed for the gift of discernment from the Holy Spirit. I hope some element of that can be offered.

VOL: What is the Roman bishop expecting of you since you have received a 'personal invitation.'

ASHENDEN: Well, he has some real plans for developing his diocesan (Catholic Diocese of Shrewsbury) mission. I'm hoping to join him in evangelism in any way I can.

I think, probably I'll have to prove myself first of all. Then I hope, if I can prove myself, I will be trusted with some responsibility.

VOL: Will becoming Catholic make you a better person? Make you a better Christian?

ASHENDEN: It will make me a happier person. [Chuckling] A person more at ease with myself.

VOL: Will becoming Catholic make you a better Christian?

ASHENDEN:Yes, it will make me a better Christian. I think the spiritual disciplines -- particularly the Confession and access to the depth of Christian wisdom within the Catholic tradition -- will all help in the process of purification.

I'm a great fan of the (mystical) model of purification, illumination, and union. So, yes, indeed, the Catholic tradition is very good at helping people in the journey of purification, illumination, and ultimately union. All of which we a little of on the Earth and will experience fully after Judgement.

VOL: What does your wife Helen say?

ASHENDEN: Well ... [laughing] My wife became a Roman Catholic a few years ago.

She said to me: "You have been taking me around to a number of Anglican churches, and my sense is that God is not present. Whenever I go into a Catholic church, I discover He is present. The time has come to stop going to churches where God is not present. And I am going to do that. Please come with me."

And I said: "No."

But I asked her to delay doing it. Which she did for a year. And then she did with my blessing.

The she said: "You better come with me and hurry up. You know what you are doing at the moment won't work. And you need to follow me."

So, what will my wife say? She'll say: "I told you so."

VOL: Thank you

ASHENDEN: Bless you.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline www.virtueonline.org

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