On the December 22nd 2019 the former Anglican Bishop Gavin Ashenden and chaplain to Queen Elizabeth, was received into the Roman Catholic Church by the Bishop of Shrewsbury, Dr. Mark Davies.
Bishop Mark had invited Bishop Gavin some months before saying something along the lines: “I know that you will come over at some stage, why not make it sooner rather than later. We need you”. That invitation was something of a final push which resulted in his decision to join the apostolic Church of Rome.
Gavin Ashenden is no theological lightweight. For twenty-five years he worked in one of our more progressive English universities, as a chaplain and academic, lecturing in literature and the Psychology of Religion. He held several high ecclesiastical positions including being the Queen’s chaplain from 2008 to 2017, but had been ill at ease with the direction in which the Church of England was heading for about thirty years. As an Anglican he had believed for some time that he had the advantage of working out his faith in a broad Church, which gave him plenty of room for exploring and that under the Anglican umbrella there was sufficient space to embrace differing views and theological understandings.
That was more or less the case for Gavin Ashenden until Anglicanism began a steady capitulation to the increasingly intense and non-negotiable demands of a secular culture. Rev. Ashenden experienced a growing unease as he saw that behind the ‘progressive’ value system there emerged a determination to promote the twin and related evils of thought-crime and the effective ending of freedom of speech.
As he writes on his website, “In each generation Christianity has to either convert its surrounding culture or be converted by it. The history of the West is the history of this struggle” and he watched as Anglicanism suffered a collapse of inner integrity, capitulated and “swallowed wholesale secular society’s descent into a post-Christian culture”.
The motive for his stance was his love of truth and freedom. His was a pilgrimage not about comfort, but truth and integrity and in many ways his conversion mirrors that of John Henry Newman, now canonized.
Rev. Ashenden pin-pointed three things in particular which drew him home into Catholicism.
The first was an examination of the encounter between the children and Our Lady at Garabandal in 1963 (which has not been authenticated by the Holy See). Curious and sceptical, he was watching the film footage with a child psychologist friend who noted that “whatever was going on with the children it was essentially real, as ecstasy among children could never be faked.” From there he found the whole history of Our Lady’s apparitions beginning with Gregory Thaumaturges in the 3rd century through to Zeitoun in Cairo in 1968 and indeed to the present day, deeply compelling. Circumstances brought him to a friendship with Abbé René Laurentin, the Catholic Church’s foremost expert on Marian apparitions, and his theological perspective blossomed into a deep dependence on the rosary. Curiously, this was accompanied by an unwanted visitation of metaphysical evil which only the rosary seemed to overcome.
The second was the discovery of the phenomena of Eucharistic miracles. The fact that they were unknown among those who celebrated the Anglican version of the Eucharist carries as he says obvious implications. It was of the greatest relief to him to find an ecclesial community where the Mass is truly the Mass and where he could celebrate an unembarrassed relationship with Our Lady and the saints.
The third reason was the Magisterium. Faced with the increasingly lethal assault on the faith in our day and time, he found there was no theological means to draw orthodox Anglicans together in ecclesial unity. He could find a different Anglicanism for each day of the week and came to realise that only the Catholic Church, with the weight of the Magisterium, had the ecclesial integrity, theological maturity and spiritual potency to defend the faith, renew society and save souls in the fullness of faith.
Like Newman the reading of the Fathers shaped his thought as he saw more and more clearly the tenets of the true Church as revealed through Scripture and Tradition. Objective truth then is a given in the Judeo-Christian set of values.
It became increasingly clear to him that in modern culture there was a concerted effort to undo the entire Judeo-Christian system from the ground up by redefining the meaning of personhood, of marriage, the of family, and classifying people on the basis of their sexual preference, raising individual rights over those of the unborn, and denigrating the sacredness of human life.
He saw too a real effort toward the redefinition of “love”. He explains, “This involved a replacement of the values of self-sacrificial compassion with a culture of growing narcissism. It was associated with a narrowing concentration of view that restricted itself to seeing humanity through the lens of categories of power, the redistribution of power and so-called privilege. Faced with the complexities of a spectrum of cultural complexity, driven by a Marxist pursuit of equality of outcome, instead of offering a Christian critique, Anglicanism swallowed it wholesale, like so much of liberal Protestantism. Instead of confronting this demolition of Christian culture it sought to placate it.”
When the Church of England should have been the conscience of the nation, he says, it was simply rubber-stamping the new culture. Ashenden’s issue with Anglicanism was that it provided a Christian veneer for this cultural subversion using language borrowed from Christianity. No longer is the person of faith urged to start from Revelation but rather to look to social revolution. What was and is being offered by today’s culture is a brave new world, where people are invited to retire to their comfort zones and the illusion of progress; where we are tempted to believe that humanity can build whatever kind of world it wants without reference to God or natural law. The secular culture promises a new utopia based on equality and inclusion. While this seems just in theory, the practice is otherwise. In reality equality is not extended to all and some categories of people are clearly excluded.
Faced with this increasing secularism and armed with a keen intellect and commitment to truth Gavin Ashenden followed Newman again in trying to find a kind of via media, and formed with others a break-away group trying to preserve true Anglicanism and draw the different groups of ‘traditional’ Anglicans together. In early 2017, Ashenden resigned from his position as chaplain after speaking out against a service at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, at which a Muslim law student read a passage from the Koran that explicitly declared that Jesus is not the Son of God. In September 2017 he was consecrated as a missionary bishop for the Christian Episcopal Church.
But this was, as it were, an experiment which did not last long and two years after his wife’s conversion, he left the Christian Episcopal Church in December 2019 and was received into full communion with the apostolic Church of Rome. Gavin Ashenden has thrown himself on Divine Providence and will now work as a lay catechist in Shrewsbury diocese until Rome decides on his case and his possible future in holy orders.
This brave man forces us in the Roman Catholic Church to ask some very basic questions about our society. The issues facing the Church of England are facing all in the West. What Gavin Ashenden faced we are now confronting ourselves in ordinary life, and truth be told, there are many in the Church who have similarly bought into the prevailing culture. Like him we need to stand firm in our faith and reject what is opposed to it but he warns that the person who does not accept this new secular culture will be ostracised and is not only unwelcome but more and more side-lined or ruthlessly silenced.
We know that there are wonderful things happening in the world but must not be blind to the dead end and chaos into which we are being led. Many of the fundamentals of society are now gone from our laws and social norms – the traditional definition of marriage and the family, the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, the transcendental view of the person, etc. The way back to sanity will be long and difficult. Those who are reshaping society will not stop until those who oppose them are silenced for good. World history is against us, take the examples of National Socialism, Soviet Communism, Chinese Communism and the French Revolution.
However, as Catholic Christians we believe in the grace of God. ‘Where sin abounded grace abounded all the more,’ Rom. 5:20 We can be saved. Humanity can change direction. Each person has his or her gifts and opportunities which, with the grace of God, can transform the culture in which we live starting with ourselves individually and then reaching out to others one by one.