Father Oddie and Me
From 1984 until 1990 I lived in Huntsville, Alabama, and my parish there was St. Mary of the Visitation, or, as it was generally called, simply Visitation. It was the oldest parish in town, and was therefore located near the original center of what had been a very small town until after World War II, when the Defense Department made its military base, Redstone Arsenal, a center for rocket development which eventually became the Marshall Space Flight Center.
Across the street that ran behind Visitation was an Anglican church, of which I can't remember the name. Anglican, not Episcopal: it was one of those groups which had broken away from the Episcopal Church because of the latter's departure from its traditional beliefs and indeed from traditional Christianity in general. That's an old story with which anyone who's been around for the past thirty or forty years is very familiar. Some of the groups that struck out from the Episcopal Church were low-church evangelicals--there is an Anglican church not far from where I live now which describes itself as Traditional Protestant Episcopal (my emphasis), and which appeared, on the one occasion when I peeked inside, to have no altar. Others were on the Catholic end of the Anglican spectrum, and the Huntsville group was one of those.
Suffering from occasional bouts of liturgical distemper which included both unhappiness with the Catholic liturgy and fond memories of the Anglican liturgy as I'd known it at Canterbury Chapel in Tuscaloosa before turning Catholic, I sometimes wondered about the little Anglican church behind Visitation. But I never made any attempt to get acquainted with the place and its congregation, partly because I was concerned that it might be too great a temptation.
So as far as I can remember I entered the building on one occasion only. That was sometime in the late 1980s, when I attended a talk by a Fr. William Oddie, a priest in the Church of England. I think I saw some sort of advertisement for the talk, and though I can't remember now what it said it was interesting enough that I decided to attend. Perhaps it was advertised as being specifically about Anglican-Catholic relations, the dialog and the future possibilities. At any rate, I went.
There are really only three things I remember about the event: first, that I was greeted at the door by a pleasant and somehow very Episcopalian gentlemen--by that, I suppose I mean that he was courteous and pleasant, though not exuberantly glad-handing, well-dressed, and had about him an air of tasteful affluence. The talk was to be held in the basement, and either I asked to see the church, or he offered to show it to me. The interior was simple and pleasing, handsome without any ostentation, and there was an altar. And when we entered it my host genuflected. I was pretty disconcerted by that and didn't know whether to follow suit or not. I think I finally did, figuring that if the body of Christ was there I was doing the correct thing, and if not God would understand that I intended no idolatry.
Second was, of course, Fr. Oddie himself, who was the sort of well-spoken Englishman who tends to impress and captivate Americans, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. He was a middle-aged man perhaps five or ten years older than I (I was forty at the time), stocky, bespectacled, and I believe he wore a clerical collar. Of his talk, which was, overall, very sympathetic to Rome, I remember only two specific things: an ironic reference to "the redoubtable Bishop Spong," who was then much in the news for his ability to deny almost every article of Christian belief while remaining a bishop, and the assertion that the best Anglican theology was currently being done in Rome. I believe he may have mentioned then-Cardinal Ratzinger as an example, though I'm not sure about that--he did mention some names, and that would have been a likely one.
Third was a brief exchange I had with him after the lecture, when he made himself available for chat with the attendees. I told him that I'd enjoyed the talk and was interested in the whole question because I had left the Episcopal Church for Rome less than ten years before. His response has stayed with me because it was not the sort of polite "oh really how interesting" sort of thing one might have expected. Instead he looked me in the eye, paused for a moment, and said "How do you find it?" It seemed to me that it was not simply a conventional response, but that he really wanted to know.
I don't have any memory of my reply, which was probably inarticulate. Perhaps I only said "Fine."
In the years following that talk I saw Fr. Oddie's name here and there, sometimes in Catholic publications, and supposed he must have come over to Rome, which was no surprise at all; I think I must have heard him fairly early in the process of considering the decision, though perhaps he was farther along and keeping it to himself. Lately, with the unlooked-for appearance of an Anglican Ordinariate mission here, I've thought about that exchange with him back in the 1980s, and it occurred to me the other day to search for him on the web.
I discovered that he's now a regular columnist for the UK's Catholic Herald, which he edited for a time, and, the Olympics being in progress in London, this admirable diatribe was near the top of the search results. He wrote a book in 1997 which seems to have foreseen the Anglican Ordinariate. Somehow I managed to escape hearing that he had written a biography of Chesterton. And, judging by this list of his Herald columns, he might be called "redoubtable" without irony. I look forward to reading a number of them. I think the Herald will become a regular stop for me.
A postscript: the Web is a wonderful thing. I couldn't remember the name of the Anglican church in Huntsville, but Google turned it up immediately: it's the Church of St. Charles King and Martyr (can't get much more Anglican than that), still there and still Anglican. And here is the web site of St. Francis at the Point, which is a few miles down the road from where I live. You'll note the descriptions of the two: "Traditional Episcopal" for the first, "Traditional Protestant Episcopal" for the second.