Thursday, 1 August 2002

Geoffrey John Wright, RIP - General Secretary of the League 1974-2002

Geoff Wright belonged to the small, unswerving and venerable Anglican tradition which looks beyond Canterbury to Rome, and the chief pastor of Christendom's role in the life, worship, and mission of all the Churches.

The late Geoffrey Curtis CR, in his life of the Abbé Paul Couturier, observed that prior to Vatican II few Roman Catholics in England had given credit to the continuity and extent of Catholic belief and practice in the Anglican Church after the sixteenth century. By the same token most Anglican Catholics had been keen to assert the Church of England's position as 'the Catholic Church of this land', to the exclusion of Roman Catholics who are equally bearers of an authentic English Christianity. Thus for the consciousness of Geoffrey Wright and other 'Anglo-Papalists', the Church of England is not merely a part of the greater Catholic Church, neither is it the local branch: the whole Church is one in its very essence and 'the walls of separation do not rise so far as heaven'. He devoted his energies towards realising that unity, raising the ecumenical profile of the Church of England's Catholic tradition, and promoting the reconciliation of all Christians around the successor of Peter.

His encyclopaedic knowledge of shrines, abbeys, liturgical and musical oddities, railways and restaurants began as a delightful way of going on holiday by way of going to church. He stood in an honoured tradition of English travellers who were taken with 'Quaint Sights in Continental Places', to quote an old Faith Press title. When this love of pilgrimage matured in later years, he realised these unique links by enabling new networks of Christian, ecumenical friends from different countries and spiritual cultures to find each other, love each other's prayer and church lives, and to grow in a desire to persevere out of urgent personal experience in the cause of Christian unity. Thus his retirement became increasingly devoted to supporting regular visits by groups to the Béguinage and the English Convent in Brugge; to the convents of the Monmartre nuns all over France; to Lisieux and Tours and monasteries all over Europe. At the time of his death he had been planning with me a new visit to Lyon and Ars in 2003 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Paul Couturier, priest of Lyon, apostle of Christian Unity, devoté of St John Vianney and founder of the Week of Prayer. Geoff had a deep understanding of the Religious Life as at the heart of the Church's vitality and faithfulness. Although his own Benedictine oblation did not work out, he forged deep links of ecumenical friendship, quietly building up understanding and affection for Anglicans among European Catholic communities, often through music. In return, they trained him to play the liturgical zither, so he could take back for St Matthew's, Ponders End in Enfield (where he was for many years churchwarden) the same peace and attentiveness he discovered abroad. After retirement, almost as a solitary, he prayed the office by singing along to the monks and nuns' tapes and CDs: 'Who sings, prays twice'.

But his service in the Catholic Societies for over forty years, increasingly ensuring that European, ecumenical dimensions were not forgotten by others, will be his legacy. A gifted facilitator, Geoff devoted all his liturgical, musical, administrative and teaching skills to ensure the involvement and enjoyment of others in the things of God, rather than his own self-fulfilment. His deep sense of vocation to making an active lay, rather than priestly, contribution through his ministry and discipleship, both gave him a reason to live, and taxed that life in the end to the full.

As only the second secretary of the Catholic League (a society to promote the corporate reunion of the Anglican Church with the See of Peter) since the 1930s, from 1974 he played a leading role in introducing the Anglo-Catholic world to the liturgical, doctrinal and pastoral renewal transforming the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II. Geoff loved the people of God in their liturgical action. It is often a matter of curiosity to Roman Catholics and to most Anglicans that a section of Anglican parishes use the Roman rite. To some it is disloyal to the canons of the Church of England; to others it only makes sense if you follow through to logical conclusions by actually becoming Roman Catholic. One understands, however, that for Geoff and many who shared the philosophy this was not about imitating Rome. It was a way of witnessing against the idea that there was a distinctive, separate, qualified Catholicism for the Church of England. The logical conclusion was that therefore, beside the individuals who were taking this path, it is the whole of the Church of England that has to own and recover its Catholicity through visible unity with the See of Peter. The symbol and witness of this is the adoption of Catholic liturgy, just as before Anglicans had adopted Catholic hymns, retreats, spirituality, arts and made their own to enrich their own church life, even if in separation for the time being. Not in the end satisfactory, or completely licit, it has nevertheless been a sign of contradiction - a reminder to Anglicans that, as Dr John Habgood said when archbishop of York, the future of the Church of England is Catholicism - a reminder to Catholics that 'sacred actions of the Christian religion as carried out in communities separated from them can truly engender a life of grace and can rightly be described as providing access to the community of salvation', and that their 'fruitfulness for salvation has been derived from the very fulness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church' (quotations from the prayer prior to Catholic ordinations of former Anglican clergy).

With the same thinking in the late 1980s, Geoffrey was one of three who set up 'the Congregation of the English Mission' to explore practical ways of implementing ARCIC through corporate reunion with the See of Peter. Though this came to nothing, during the 1990s he enabled the Catholic League to transform itself into a genuinely ecumenical society of Roman Catholics, Anglicans and other Christians praying and working for visible unity. This somewhat counters the suspicion that those believing in authentic unity with the Holy See are actually either merely an extreme party among Anglicans, or Roman Catholics who do not have proper respect for the individuality and distinctiveness of 'beloved sister' churches. It was just not like that, I think, for Geoff, at the heart of whose Catholicism were Mary, Benedictine religious life, and living, organic membership in the One Body which he longed for but never lived to see revealed.

Geoffrey was troubled when the Church of England decided to admit women to the priesthood and a number of his priest and lay friends left. His decision to remain seemed at odds with his zeal for reunion with Rome. He sacrificed something dear to his heart in order to continue with his share in the painstaking work that one day will lead to corporate reconciliation. And out of respect for the testing times some of his friends faced to become Roman Catholics, he thereafter declined the usual generous invitations to receive Holy Communion at mass on the continent. This was a profound offering for the sake of the unity of the Church. So too was his Anglican life for, as a leading light in the Church Union and Forward in Faith, to many in the Church of England he and others have been portrayed as partisan, even preferring separation. But for Geoff this at times painful tension was intrinsic to being loyal both to the Church of England and to Catholicism in the same moment. It was a paradox he lived in, embodied, but strove to reconcile and resolve.

One day, when the miracle to make the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church visibly one is revealed, it will be thanks not only to theologians and negotiators. Many like Geoffrey have lovingly cemented the bonds of spiritual kinship over decades of prayer, service and ecumenical constancy.