The 1230 Mass today at London's Westminster Cathedral looked like any other. But for the hint in the booklet for the feast of Mary, Mother of God, that after the homily would be a "Rite of reception and confirmation", there was nothing at all to indicate the significance of what was to happen. The celebrant, an auxiliary bishop of Westminster, Alan Hopes, said nothing at the start of Mass, and it wasn't until the end of a lengthy homily on Mary as Theotokos, or God-bearer, and the controversies of the fourth-century Council of Nicea which led to this Feast, that Bishop Hopes mentioned that they would be receiving some former members of the Church of England into full communion.
They included, he said, three former bishops and their relatives, as well as three Anglican nuns.
It would have been hard, if you had just dropped into the Cathedral for Mass, to understand the significance of what was happening.There was nobody around to explain that these are the founding members of the world's first Ordinariate, the scheme created by Pope Benedict to allow for the corporate reception of Anglicans (see my previous post).
The Ordinariate will be created in the next week or so, with Rome's legislative act expected to be announced on 11 January. The jurisdiction will be headed by an Ordinary -- inevitably one of the ex-bishops received into the Church today. The ordination to the diaconate and priesthood of the three ex-bishops will take place in a couple of weeks. They will be followed at Easter, according to Ruth Gledhill of The Times -- who seemed to be the only one who knew that today's Mass was happening -- by about 20 parish groups, perhaps 40-50 clergy, and a further three former bishops.
Among the three ex-bishops received today was John Broadhurst, 68, until last night the Bishop of Fulham with pastoral care of 55 parishes across the country opposed to the ordination of women as bishops. He remains the He is the former leader of the Anglo-Catholic group of about 1,000 clergy known as Forward in Faith.
The three nuns received today are the youngest members of the popular Anglo-Catholic shrine of Walsingham, and include its former superior. Their departure leaves only four elderly religious.
I counted nine lay people also being received today; among them are two wives of the defecting ex-bishops.
The celebrant, Bishop Hopes, himself a former Anglican, spoke of their "long and challenging journey" on the road to the Catholic Church, and this, their "decisive step on the road of your discipleship". He prayed for the "perfect unity" one day between Catholics and Anglicans. Then he spoke to those being received -- but without a microphone, so the congregation could barely hear. When the microphone was restored, he told them they were now full members of the Catholic Church, and we clapped. Then it was Mass as normal.
The beginning of a historic realignment of Western Christianity thus began with an event about as unpublic and understated as it was possible to have designed. Not even members of Forward in Faith knew about it.
It is not hard to guess why. Too much fanfare and publicity now could make the Ordinariate look triumphalist, and cause ill-feeling among both Anglicans and Catholics. Much better to begin discreetly, and let it grow away from the spotlight. But perhaps just as important are the delicate sensibilities of those left behind, many of whom are wrestling with the decision of whether to follow.
So there was no press conference, no photographers -- and barely a journalist in sight. The Ordinariate, one might say, began today with a very English whimper.
[NB THIS STORY IS UPDATED HERE].