Pivotal Moments

This sermon was preached at the opening Solemn Evensong at the recent Anglican Use Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

Acts 10:17-33

[17] Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men that were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon's house, stood before the gate
[18] and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there.
[19] And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are looking for you.
[20] Rise and go down, and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them."
[21] And Peter went down to the men and said, "I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?"
[22] And they said, "Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house, and to hear what you have to say."
[23] So he called them in to be his guests.
The next day he rose and went off with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him.
[24] And on the following day they entered Caesare'a. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his kinsmen and close friends.
[25] When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him.
[26] But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am a man."
[27] And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered;
[28] and he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
[29] So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me."
[30] And Cornelius said, "Four days ago, about this hour, I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house; and behold, a man stood before me in bright apparel,
[31] saying, `Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.
[32] Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the seaside.'
[33] So I sent to you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord."

It is one of my pleasant duties, as a pastor with a parish school, to teach a scripture course to our high school students. The centerpiece of the course is a chapter by chapter study of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. The drama of the early years in the Church’s history never fails to hold the attention of my students. As we work our way through Acts, we look for those “pivotal moments” – those individual and singular events which, from that moment, set the Church upon a particular path, and which frame our own experience as members of the Church. The Book of the Acts is filled with these exceptional moments, such as the account of which we heard in the First Lesson this evening.

Three men come to the house of Simon the tanner, where Peter was staying. They had been sent by the centurion, Cornelius. Now, God had been preparing Cornelius for a great destiny – Cornelius, the gentile, was being prepared to become part of the Church, which up until this point, was a preserve for Jews. In fact, not only was God preparing Cornelius, but He was also preparing Peter, who had lived as a Jew, but who at this point was beginning to understand that God’s plan was not going to include these rigid demarcations. God had given Peter the vision of a great sheet with animals on it being let down from heaven, and a voice told him to kill and eat, even though many of these animals would be considered unclean and therefore unfit for a Jew to eat. In his vision, Peter was shocked. He protested that he had never eaten anything that was unclean. The voice told him not to call what God had cleansed unclean.

There was a time when Peter would have called a Gentile unclean; but now God has prepared him for those visitors who were knocking on the door, sent by Cornelius, to beckon Peter to come to Caesarea, because Cornelius, too, had received a vision – to send for a man named Peter, and to listen to what he had to say. This was a pivotal moment – the Rock on which Christ was building His Church had come to understand that the Church would be tearing down those ancient boundaries between Jew and Gentile, in order to form the New Israel, a reconstituted Israel with a new understanding of what it is to be the Children of Abraham.

Cornelius called for Peter, and Peter responded. In so doing, God set the course for the Church. Barriers were broken down, and a new way of thinking began to unfold. At every pivotal moment in the Church’s history, Peter is there, the person of the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, who carries the mission forward, keeping the Church ever ancient and ever new, as he’s doing now, in our own day. It’s sobering to think that we are part of something that will be read about and studied in the future. Perhaps it’s not as ground-breaking as Peter bringing the gentile Cornelius into the Church, but what Pope Benedict XVI, speaking as Peter today, is enacting through the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus is providing one of those “pivotal moments” in the history of the Church. And even before this – to prepare for this moment – another successor of St. Peter, Pope John Paul II, had begun to incorporate our Patrimony into the Church through the Pastoral Provision and the Book of Divine Worship, and in so doing not only paved the way for the Ordinariates, but also allowed for a glimpse of what the future will be like in the Ordinariates. What do I mean?

It struck me one day, when I was offering one of the early weekday Masses. Of the forty-five or fifty people who were there, very few of them had grown up in an Episcopal or Anglican church. The majority of them had belonged to our parish for the greater part of their lives. For them, the Collect for Purity is simply a Catholic prayer said at the beginning of the Mass; the Comfortable Words are part of a Catholic penitential rite; the Prayer of Humble Access is what Catholics say before receiving Holy Communion. They don't think of their liturgy as coming from “someplace else.” It’s just a Catholic liturgy. Of course, they've attended other Catholic parishes. They know our liturgy is different, and that our parish has a particular “feel.” But they’ve embraced and experienced the Anglican patrimony exclusively as Catholics, and in that way these second-generation Anglican Use Catholics probably have a clearer understanding of the patrimony as being a living and developing patrimony, than those of us who are first-generation converts. They haven’t had to attempt to live as Catholics outside the communion of the Catholic Church, and they’ve never gone through the mental gymnastics we had to endure, trying to put a Catholic spin on things, when so much of the evidence around us was contrary to what we believed about ourselves.

The little experiment that is the Anglican Use, local though it is, gives a glimpse of the future, because the Ordinariates will be doing all this on a grand scale – oh, probably not grand at the beginning, but when second-generation Ordinariate Catholics become the majority of our members, there will be a much deeper understanding of our Anglican patrimony, because it will have been experienced in the context of full communion with the Holy See.

Most of those heading toward an Ordinariate think in terms of what they'll be able to bring with them, and that's important. Our Lord said, “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost,” and that applies to the various elements from our past. But the Lord also said, “Behold, I make all things new,” and that, too, applies to our patrimony. Within the Ordinariates, all the familiar things we love will be made new, for a new generation of Catholics. Our past is building the future.

When St. Peter opened the Church to Cornelius and his family, it was an occasion of historic importance, clarifying and incarnating Christ’s High Priestly prayer “that they all might be one.” Our Lord wasn’t expressing a vague hope when he prayed “Ut unum sint.” It was a divine command, and it appears that the Holy Father is taking it as a direct and personal order from Christ himself.

Author: Fr. Christopher Phillips

Fr. Christopher G. Phillips is the pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served for the past twenty-eight years. He is the founding pastor of the first Anglican Use parish, erected in 1983 under the terms of the Pastoral Provision. Fr. Phillips was ordained as an Anglican for the Diocese of Bristol, England, in 1975. After serving as Curate for three years at St. Stephen Southmead, he returned to the United States and served in two Episcopal parishes in the Diocese of Rhode Island. In 1981 he left the Episcopal Church and moved with his family to Texas, where he was subsequently ordained as a Catholic priest in 1983. Fr. Phillips and his wife, JoAnn, have been married for forty years. They have five children, all grown and married, and three grandchildren.

18 thoughts on “Pivotal Moments”

  1. God Bless You!
    I'm obviously a cradle catholic (in Italy!)… But your path to join the Church is touching me.
    It 's obvious that you have found a home in the arms of the church… That will flourish your experience beyond any imagination
    So, brothers, we will wait and see that "Opus Dei"…

  2. There but for the Grace of God……..We who now are Ordinariate bound, have much to give thanks for, to those who pioneered the journey many years a go, and blazed the trail for us to follow. The Pastoral Provision set forth under Pope John Paul II, and now the Ordinariate, under Pope Benedict XVI have a common heritage, they come from the Chair of Peter and they both share a common aim, union with the Catholic Church. It has been a privilege to share in your Conference through the medium of the Internet.

    Thank you to all who made this possible.

  3. A century from now, Fr. Christopher Phillips will be regarded as the Daniel Boone, the Lewis and Clark — even the Neil Armstrong — of an Anglican Catholic rite. (note the lower case "r"). I thank him.

  4. Based upon Cardinal Wuerl's comments, I think that a positive future for the Ordinariate is questionable. The cardinal stated that, in time, the Anglican identity will be less. In fact, when asked what Anglican traditions are to be retained, he could not answer that. Moreover, the various offices in the BCP will never be accepted. The only vestige of the BCP to remain will be that which is contained in the BDW. My feeling is that this is total absorption. Unfortunately, Rome never negotiates; it only dictates. What is the left of Anglicanism when the BCP is discarded? Also, the next generation of Ordinariate priests will all be celibate. That is another part of our tradition that will be discarded. I don't believe that this was Pope Benedict's intention, but he has had to appease the diocesan bishops who have never been happy with the Pastoral Provision and are therefore not overjoyed about the new Ordinariate.

    1. I am sorry to see that you took away such a negative impression from Cardinal Wuerl's comments at the US Bishops' Conference. I have to say that I winced a bit too when I watched on-line. It seemed plain to me that he had not been too well briefed. It was in marked contrast to the positive reactions from the UK hierarchy.

      There are any number of reasons why the UK hierarchy is perhaps better informed. Firstly, of course, there is the fact that the CofE is the "church by law established" and therefore people in the UK generally are aware of the CofE – and of its many problems – one of which is its increasing irrelevance. Then from the Oxford movement onwards there have been Anglican clergymen and laity "swimming theTiber" and welcomed into the Catholic Church.

      In that regard I would point to the inspired choice of Bishop Alan Hopes as the UK Catholic Bishops' episcopal delegate for the implementation of the Ordinariate. Bishop Hopes was a priest of the Church of England from 1968 to 1994. He was ordained in the Catholic Church in 1995, became Vicar-General of the Archdiocese of Westminster in 2001 and an Auxiliary Bishop in Westminster in 2003.

      I agree that the BCP offices will need revision in places – but there is no reason why as Mgr Burnham plans, an appropriately dignified Eucharistic liturgy cannot be achieved by writing out the heterodox innovations of Master Cramner drawing, for example, on the Sarum Use. We have after all a thousand years of pre-reformation Catholic use to draw upon as needed.

      What's going to be left of UK Anglicanism after the UK Diocesan synods have voted on women bishops? If the results thus far are anything to go by, not a lot – the clergy votes thus far are: Birmingham 39-1, Canterbury 42-8, Chelmsford 44-11, StE. & Ipswich 41-3, Gloucester 55-5, Sodor & Man 14-2 (not counting Thomas the Tank Engine), Guildford 31-10, Salisbury 37-2 and Southwell & Nottingham 31-6.

      Anglicanism in the USA may well survive in some form for longer tha in England, in much the same way as the procedure in US Federal Courts is very much a museum of how we in England did things a couple of hundred years ago.

      As for the requirement for celibacy for the diocesan priesthood. The shortage of vocations to replace the post-war priests who are due to retire, may well lead Rome to revisit the idea of a celibate diocesan clergy. Who knows?

      1. Excellent comments! If the English bishops have been more accommodating, one reason may be that the Ordinariate members there are enthusiastic about playing a full part in the life of the dioceses – what's not to welcome! There is little desire to hang on to distinctively Anglican practices, and most of those will die out. Whether the ethos of the Ordinariate will change with the admission of successive waves of new members remains to be seen.

    2. It is worth considering that the U.S. hierarchy has historically not understood the many ways of practicing the faith which are fully Catholic, but not typically Latin-rite, and particularly, typical of Irish and German practices. Often, the U.S. hierarchy persecuted or at least, strove mightily to force conformity with a particular way of devotion and practice which was not essential to Catholicism, but was their own cultural and habitual practice.

      This was a problem for Polish and other Slavic Catholics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (from which was born the Polish National Catholic Church) and also Eastern-rite Catholics (from which was born the Carpatho-Ruthenian Orthodox Diocese).

      His Holiness, Benedict XVI, is well aware of this history, which is why, although he is employing agents such as Cardinal Wuerl to help begin the Ordinariates in the various nations, the governance will be by ordinaries directly answerable to the Pope. The Apostolic Constitution has already determined that there should be houses of formation for candidates for Holy Orders, so that the patrimony of the incoming Anglicans not be lost.

      1. It has just been confirmed – the tone being one of reassurance, just in case we had been afraid it might not be so – that ordinariate clergy in England will receive their "formation" in the existing seminaries alongside their diocesan brethren.

        1. However they will differ from their Roman brothers in Seminary, in that they will study that which is Anglican Patrimony.

    3. Dear Sir,

      I have to say that it would appear that it is unlikely that what will occur is total absorption. The setting up of an Ordinariate with an independent Ordinary serves as a bulwark against that. Cardianl Wuerl is not the expert in this matter, although I think some members of the Anglican Church in America would love to claim he is. I have a question for you – what was the purpose of your being part of a Communion seeking union with the See of Rome, if you hold such disparaging views of it?
      (note, I refer not to the person of Pope Benedict XVI, of whom you have spoken more kindly). When the Ordinariates are set up, see how they are working and, maybe then, you may feel more comfortable about things.

      1. It is one thing to seek union with the See of Rome which is something I do pray for. However, it is quite another to be absorbed by Rome. It is that issue that caused Constantinople to reject the agreements reached at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439. The East had to capitulate in all areas set forth by Rome. This, the East could not do. Unfortunately, in spite of many ecumenical advances since Vatican II, especially with ARCIC I and II, Rome has not changed its modus operandi since 1439. This is disappointing to me.

        1. I don't know where you get the idea that the Ordinariates will be absorbed. If the Anglican Use has been able to exist for more than a generation without being absorbed — even while being part of the local diocese — the protection afforded by the separate jurisdiction of an Ordinariate makes it very unlikely indeed.

          After nearly thirty years, our parish shines in all its uniqueness, and with a new Ordinariate liturgy and separate jurisdiction, it can only get stronger.

          With respect, you really don't know what you're talking about.

          1. Fr. Phillips, I most certainly know what I am talking about, having been a student of church history (Ph.D. Fordham Univ.) and the ecumenical movement for almost 40 years. Yes, your parish is most certainly a success story, but the fact is that there are only about seven Anglican-use parishes and the Pastoral Provision has been around since 1980. I respect your view since you have committed a whole lifetime in this movement. However, the fact still remains that the only real vestige of Anglicanism in the Anglican-use is the BDW. The other offices of the BCP are not approved. As far as I am concerned, if there is no BCP there is no Anglican tradition. Moreover, Cardinal Wuerl clearly stated that celibacy would remain the rule in the next generation of the Ordinariate. You may not admit it, but I think you must be a bit disappointed in Cardinal's Wuerl's comments. The attitude expressed was that what makes Anglicanism unique would dissipate over time in the Ordinariate. I don't believe that was the pope's intention.

            1. I do apologize for the terse tone of my earlier response; however, I believe your assessment is mistaken. I am fortunate in having some "behind the scenes" knowledge of the Ordinariate liturgical developments, and have great confidence that our liturgical patrimony will be far more complete than what we have in the BDW.

              As far as Cardinal Wuerl's remarks are concerned, it is important to remember to whom he was speaking. Time will tell, obviously; however, I think even His Eminence would acknowledge that there might be developments he would not necessarily foresee.

            2. I have heard this comparison of the BDW and the BCP before, and am somewhat confused as to why the BDW is considered to be but a vestige. The BDW contains not only the Eucharistic rites, but the Daily Offices, Baptism, Marriage and Funeral rites, all based on the US BCP. True, some of the pastoral offices are not present, although I know that in my parish they are used, usually from the Anglican Service Book (Churching of Women, etc.). Only the Episcopal offices are not present, which, given the lack of an episcopate for the Pastoral Provision structure, made perfect sense. With the new books for Anglican Use liturgy (whatever that might be called) there will almost certainly eventually be such episcopal/pontifical offices since even priestly ordinaries are able to pontificate (in the liturgical, not common sense of the term 😉
              As Fr. Phillips and others have noted before, the BDW is not a perfect book. But calling it a "vestige" seems inaccurate, as the most commonly used pastoral offices and liturgies are all present.

  5. "At every pivotal moment in the Church’s history, Peter is there, the person of the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, who carries the mission forward, keeping the Church ever ancient and ever new, as he’s doing now, in our own day."

    This is so true. In fact, I have often wondered what a catechism might be like that taught the faith through the relationship between Peter and Jesus. The snapshots we have of Peter's life from Scripture and Tradition, taken together, seem to cover in some way every doctrine of faith, morals, worship, and prayer.

  6. Fr. Christopher, I love the images of gathering all the fragments and then the Lord saying "behold I make all things new". That really spoke to me. The Lord is molding us into something that is new and yet very ancient at the same time. My tiny congregation is excited about the upcoming ordinariate and is looking forward to the time when all they've studied will come to fruition. Even those with a more Protestant background, as we studied the Catechism and the Ancient Church Fathers, found their fears and the anti-Catholic teaching they had heard to be unfounded.

    Thank you for your many posts sharing your experiences with us.

    God bless,
    Fr. Dennis Hewitt, Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mt. Airy, MD

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