Initial reactions to his conversion included shock, sorrow, doubt, scorn, satire, exhortations to pray and emails to Roman Catholic organizations. In Coren’s words, preserved on yet another blog: “Some right-wing Catholics finally realized I’d been an Anglican for a year and spent last 24 hrs telling everybody.”
Imagine being called “right-wing” by Michael Coren. But I digress.
“Everybody” included the editors at The Catholic Register, Catholic World Report and The Interim. None of them had been told by Coren that he had ceased to consider himself a Roman Catholic. They assumed, as they continued to publish his columns, that he was still a Roman Catholic. In these tolerant days, dissent on “the pelvic issues” is not considered a formal act of schism. Coren had continued to describe himself as “orthodox” and “a Catholic.”
This is where the hair-splitting begins. Although the vast majority of English-speakers instinctively understand the word “Catholic” to describe Roman (Ukrainian, etc.) Catholics, there has existed, especially since the 1840s, a faction of the Anglican Communion that emphasizes a claim to full Catholicity. This movement insists that Anglicans have the essential marks of the Church: valid orders, valid sacraments and apostolic authority. It believes they can have all this without being in communion with the Pope. Such Anglicans self-identify as “Anglo-Catholic,” and my husband Mark used to be one.
Since meeting Mark, I have learned a lot about Anglo-Catholicism. We have many friends who are also former Anglo-Catholics; we seem to collect them. Some are nostalgic for the good, old Anglo-Catholic days before women priests, let alone bishops. They enjoy reminiscing over Anglo-Catholic clergymen they have known, including one who sighed over clerics who married, “I’m afraid he’s gone off the rails.” As for homosexuality, a typical Anglo-Catholic attitude was, “Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t scare the old ladies.”
I am grateful to these Anglican clergy — most of whom have died or become Roman Catholics — for their ministry. Not only were they kind to Mark, the child of a broken home, they taught him the basics of the Christian faith, how to sing, how to pray, how to carve at table and how to speak intelligibly. Thanks to their encouragement, he was the first of his family to go to university. They even instilled in him a love for the papacy; they dearly wished the Pope would recognize them as Catholics.
Roman Catholics have never considered Anglicans to be Catholics, so it can be disorienting when Anglicans describe themselves as such. And this Anglican use of the word “Catholic” may explain why for an entire year Coren has presented himself to his audiences, including his paying Roman Catholic editors and hosts, as “a Catholic.” That said, we might well ask ourselves if Coren has been deliberately concealing his new religious identity.
For this is the real issue. Losing one’s faith, regaining it and losing it again is not in itself evidence of a lack of integrity. The brilliant Anglican novelist Rose Macaulay illustrates this in her 1923 novel Told By an Idiot. Her loveable clergyman character, Aubrey Garden, changes his religion, and therefore his job, whenever his conscience dictates. But I note that the fictional Mr. Garden is always up front about his conversions.
As sad as Roman Catholics may find the loss of a celebrated apologist — and I the goodwill of someone who has encouraged me in my work — it is even sadder to discover that he has been equivocating about his religious identity for an entire year. It is beyond the pale that he has mocked us for not suspecting.
For an affectionate look at Anglo-Catholic culture, at least as it flourished in the Church of England before 1963, I highly recommend Macaulay’s masterpiece The Towers of Trebizond. But in terms of any matter touching upon the Catholic faith, I cannot recommend anything Coren has written or said for the last year. As a Roman Catholic in communion with the Holy See, I do not believe that an Anglican — above all a secret one — can speak authoritatively about “the Catholic Church.”
(Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad and the author of two books, Ceremony of Innocence and Seraphic Singles.)