Did you hear about the evangelical Bishop of Willesden’s attack on Anglo-Catholics?

The Bishop of Willesden, Pete Broadbent
© Diocese of London

It is a rule of journalism that the answer to any question asked in a headline is usually “No!” But I’m going to start using them in blog posts to challenge some of the ridiculous reporting we see on religious matters.

I was taken aback this morning to hear presenter William Crawley ask the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North, to respond to a Facebook post by the Acting Bishop of London, Pete Broadbent. Bishop Pete, who is also the Bishop of Willesden, was said to have “described the High Church tradition within Anglicanism of ‘faffy ceremonial without teaching the Catholic faith.’”

The reason I was taken aback is because I had seen Bishop Pete’s Facebook comment – and the discussion that followed – and it was very clear that he was doing no such thing. He was, instead, saying that the phrase “high church”, which has become synonymous in many people’s minds – mine included – with Anglo-Catholicism, shouldn’t be used to describe Anglo-Catholics because it was now being used by Anglo-Catholics to describe a particular style of church.

The comment was made in a thread about a vacancy for a priest to serve as Team Rector of Uxbridge and Vicar of St Andrew’s in Uxbridge, which is described as “a missional Catholic parish in a town centre in NW London.”

In the context of a vacancy being promoted by a Bishop of London (even an acting one) or a Bishop of Willesden, for a vicar or team rector, the reference to Catholic can clearly be understood to be “Anglo-Catholic” – ie, the catholic wing of the Church of England. The C of E tends not to recruit priests on behalf of the Archbishop of Westminster.

In a discussion about the churchmanship of the parish, an Anglican priest, possibly mischievously, asked: “Do any of you UNDERSTAND what Catholic means???” Further discussion followed, after which the priest said: “Ahhh you mean ‘high church’ ! a very different thing”.

Bishop Pete responded by saying: “No, I don’t mean high church. High church is faffy ceremonial without teaching the catholic faith. St Andrew Uxbridge is properly catholic, in that they teach the faith there and inhabit the liturgy…”

He went on to say: “High Church in London catholic circles tends to mean just the ceremonial without the deep faith and taught and lived experience that catholic Anglicans understand and live. Ceremony is just an empty shell unless it points people to the incarnate and risen Christ. Beauty of holiness is entirely good but it needs to be rooted.”

So, it was clear: Bishop Pete was not attacking Anglo Catholics; but instead was defending them and explaining that Anglo-Catholics – at least in the diocese in which he serves – no longer use the phrase “high church” as synonymous with their churchmanship.

That didn’t stop today’s story in The Sunday Telegraph, and other papers, which led to the question on the Sunday Programme to the Bishop of Burnley – a leading Anglo-Catholic who was on the programme to talk about exciting new C of E mission initiatives.

The Telegraph article begins: “The acting Bishop of London has been criticised by senior clergy for describing the High Church tradition as ‘faffy ceremonial’ and suggesting it lacks ‘deep faith’.”

It goes on to say: “London is the largest Church of England diocese in terms of absolute attendance and paid clergy, and is home to many parishes that identify as High Church or Anglo-Catholic.”

In other words, the entire article, and the criticism of Bishop Pete’s comments, is predicated on the basis that “High Church” and “Anglo-Catholic” are the same thing. When the whole point of his comments are that they are not.

No doubt Bishop Pete will get some stick in the coming days. But if people are going to criticise him, let them do so for what he quite clearly and unambiguously said, rather than an invented criticism of an invented quote.