Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University in London, Ont.

On Oct. 7 Dr. Edward Norman was received into the Roman Catholic Church at Our Lady of Walsingham in England. In itself, this might not seem remarkable, only another former Anglican to take advantage of the door so generously opened by Pope Benedict XVI in his November 2009 invitation Angicanorum Coetibus. But when you learn who Norman is, his late conversion is remarkable indeed.

Born in London in 1938, Norman was educated at Selwyn College, Cambridge. His specialty was church history, which he went on to teach for two decades, much of that time as Dean of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. In 1978 he was chosen to deliver the BBC’s Reith lectures on the theme: “Christianity and the World.” In addition to academic appointments and honours, Norman served as a priest, dean and chancellor of York Minster. It was not uncommon to hear his name discussed as a potential Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the author of more than 20 theological books.

As the title suggests, Norman’s 2004 book Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors was a scathing indictment of modern Anglicanism. It provided clear evidence of how uncomfortable Norman had become in the Church of England. When it was published, he told an interviewer: “There is a big hole at the centre of Anglicanism — authority. I don’t think it’s a Church; it’s more of a religious society.”

As an insider, Norman knew how the Church of England functioned and he pulled no punches. Of General Synod, he wrote: “Every disagreement, in seemingly every board and committee, proceeds by avoidance of principled debate.

Ordinary moral cowardice is represented as wise judgment, equivocation in the construction of compromise formulae is second nature to our leaders.”

Is the situation different or better in the Anglican Church of Canada? Based on my three-plus Anglican decades, I would say no — although my view is that of a parishioner since I never aspired to any ecclesiastical office. This is not to say that there are not fine people and committed Christians within the Anglican Church. There are. But they tend to be in the pews and they are repeatedly let down, in my experience, by the ostensible leadership. In any case, the primary occupation of a Canadian Anglican bishop today is arranging the closing of churches. The rate of decline is such that the lights should go off in the last standing Anglican church in just a few decades.

Despite his criticism of the Church of England, Norman remained in the Church for eight years after the publication of Anglican Difficulties. It can hardly be imagined or overstated how difficult a decision it must be for a minister or priest to abandon the denomination in which he was ordained and to which he has dedicated his life.

What was the final catalyst for Norman? From the outside, who can know? Even the convert often finds it difficult to express all the subtleties, the twists and turns, of his pilgrimage. What he told the Catholic Herald at the time of his conversion was this:

“The Church of England provides a masterclass in equivocation; it also, however, is the residence of very many good and faithful Christian people who deserve respect — for their perseverance in so many incoherent spiritual adventures. To leave their company is a wrench; to adhere to the Catholic faith is to join the encompassing presence of a universal body of believers in whose guardianship are the materials of authentic spiritual understanding . . . I have immense gratitude.”

Norman is the latest in a long, distinguished line of converts: men like G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge. His conversion is further proof that even amidst the dark seas of postmodernism, St. Peter’s barque still searches out and rescues the drowning.

That doughty old warrior, Hilaire Belloc, wrote to a friend that the Catholic Church was like a landfall, at first glimpsed hazily and only through the mist:

“…but the nearer it is seen, the more it is real … The metaphor is not that men fall in love with it: the metaphor is that they discover home.”

Welcome home, Edward Norman.

More than a decade ago a Catholic friend gave me a copy of the then recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church. I read it and was impressed by the depth and eloquence of its proclamation of the Catholic faith. This was the faith I affirmed, but which I considered that my own Anglican Church no longer did.    

In 2004, I moved with my wife Norah from London to St. Thomas, Ont. In the spring of 2005, as Pope John Paul II lay dying, I first came to Holy Angels Church to pray for him. He died on Saturday, April 2, 2005, and there was an afternoon Mass that day so I came. The grief among the congregation was palpable. But to my astonishment, the priest carried on as though nothing had happened. Only when he came to the prayers of the faithful did he mention the Holy Father had just died, therefore we would skip the usual intercession for the Pope.

Not a word to assuage the shared grief of the congregation. We were dismissed, orphaned and bereaved out into the night.

I was not then a Catholic. But I considered John Paul ll the brightest light in the dark times through which I had lived, and on that day I expected more. “Never again will I enter this church,” I muttered on my way out the door. But, as often happens, God had other plans.

This brings me to November 2005. I had not been attending any church when suddenly the conviction overwhelmed me that I could not celebrate Christmas if I did not worship somewhere during Advent. So, on the first Sunday of Advent, I trudged along to Holy Angels, rather expecting to be disillusioned again, to be perfectly frank.

To my surprise, there was a new priest. He was Polish and it soon became evident that he had been shaped by John Paul the Great. To my even greater surprise, the new priest’s homily was directed straight at me.

Fr. Adam Gabriel’s topic was “Come out of the wilderness.” I recall that he said something like this: “People experience many kinds of wilderness. There may be someone here who is in a church wilderness, someone who cannot find a church to belong to, or perhaps who has found the church but it is the church to which he cannot belong. To that person Jesus says this morning: ‘Come out of the wilderness.’ ”

The next day, without calling in advance and without an appointment, and never having met the priest, I knocked on the rectory door and told Fr. Gabriel that I was that person in the wilderness. He listened to my story and told me about the RCIA program. I told him we had tried the RCIA program in a London parish and it had been a disillusioning experience. He said that he regretted that he could not give private instruction, because Holy Angels is a large and busy parish and he was the only priest and there was simply no time.

Then, noticing I had brought my copy of the catechism, he asked if I had read it. I said that I had. Then he said: “Okay. If you are serious enough to have read the catechism, I’ll make the time to give you instruction.” And so, over the next year, he did. On July 2, 2006, at the altar of Holy Angels, I was received into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church. Norah was received at Easter one year later.

I told that story at a recent farewell party not to draw attention to myself, but to illustrate my own immense debt to a priest who later became my friend. For seven years Holy Angels was the recipient of prevenient grace. Fr. Gabriel was our priest, our shepherd, our pastor, our confessor and our friend. He did everything with energy, infectious enthusiasm and dedication.Words do not adequately convey the sense of gratitude, commingled with loss, we felt when he moved to St. Teresa’s in Etobicoke, Ont.

“Not to be served but to serve.” How often we heard him say that. But he didn’t just say it — he lived it!

He brought me out of the wilderness and for that I will be forever grateful.

What makes Premier Dalton McGuinty’s treatment of Toronto Archbishop (and Cardinal) Thomas Collins over the gay-straight alliances particularly distressing is that the Church asked for so little and wound up with nothing. To go down fighting in defence of core teachings of the Church would be one thing, but to get a dismissive backhand from the premier when the Church had already accommodated almost every item of Bill-13 and when all that was left is nomenclature, well, that is truly humiliating.

Of course, Cardinal Collins was betrayed by many of his putative allies. OECTA, the Catholic teachers’ union, made it clear that they sided with McGuinty and not with the Church from which they derive their raison d’etre. Quislings too, publicly or privately, were many Catholic school trustees. With allies like these, how could anyone confidently go into battle?

For 500 years the Anglican Church has made an indelible contribution to Christianity. Particularly in liturgy and music, Anglicans have offered up the best that human inspiration and expression could achieve. So it is sad to watch the worldwide Anglican Communion drift further into schism.

Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has announced his retirement at the end of 2012. The position of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Anglican tradition is not comparable to the Pope in the Catholic Church; nevertheless the Archbishop remains primus inter pares, first among equals, in the Anglican hierarchy. 

In springtime, wrote Alfred Tennyson, “…a young man’s thoughts lightly turn to love.” But this spring the thoughts of young Quebecois have turned not to love but to revolution. And for what cause? Sit down before I tell you — tuition fees.

Never mind that tuition fees are already lower in Quebec than anywhere else in North America. Never mind that if Premier Jean Charest gets his way and bumps them up a bit, they will still remain the lowest in North America. Such considerations have not deterred the wannabe Trotskyites, the occupiers and their anarchist friends, who at night have taken over some downtown Montreal blocks — smashing windows, upturning cars and hurling rocks at police. On May 1 the police made more than 95 arrests. On May 4 the protesters tried for them a “new” tactic that actually comes from the Canadian Doukhabor playbook back in the 1960s — nudity.

“I wish to register a complaint.”  This famous opening line of the Dead Parrot skit by Monty Python, I hereby appropriate to register a blanket complaint concerning cyberlouts.

Cyberlouts come in a variety of guises, including those who persist in using cellphones when I am trying to speak with them. Faced with such rudeness in private conversation, I can (and do) walk away. No big deal.

When it comes to apologizing, Canadians need not be modest. Of course, we have competition because we live in a global village of apologies.

Australians have apologized to aboriginal peoples for having taken their land. Brits have apologized to half the world for colonialization. Canada has not only apologized for the experiment known as residential schools, but (at a cost of billions) has created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is currently parading around the country hearing tales of abuse from both those who suffered and from those who recognize the sound of a bandwagon passing by.

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