Dr Gavin Ashenden was a member of the Church of England for 20 years and a chaplain to the Queen, but after becoming increasingly disillusioned with its direction, he left in 2017 before being formally received into the Catholic Church.
He talks to Christian Today about why he felt he could no longer remain within the Church of England and why he’s made the step of converting to Catholicism.
CT: How are you feeling about your confirmation service? Nervous or excited?
Dr Ashenden: It’s both, it’s a bit like a trapeze artist letting go of one trapeze and flying towards the other when it hasn’t quite yet come. It’s exhilarating and a bit nervy as well.
CT: Is it a little bittersweet too – you must feel a little sad to have left the Church of England? Or is it more a sense of happiness in joining the Catholic Church?
Dr Ashenden: It’s quite complex because it’s a bit like the breakdown of a relationship. I’ve been a member of the Church of England since I was baptised. I was confirmed in Canterbury Cathedral and ordained in Southwark. I’ve loved it and worked for Jesus within it for the whole of my life.
But over the last 10 to 15 years the Church has changed itself, and it’s been this change in the Church of England that is difficult. I’ve heard other people say this but it’s also true of me: it’s not that I have left the Church of England but the Church of England has left me.
And there was a period when one could believe the same things as other Christians, such as Catholic, and still be within the Church of England, but as the Church of England has moved, so it’s left those of us who have taken our inspiration from the Catholic Church bereft and ultimately forced to choose, either to change directions ourselves and go with the Church of England in its more secular direction or as I’ve done – and many others have done too – and formally ask to be reconciled to the Catholic Church.
CT: When you cast your mind back to when you were a young man training for ordination, could you ever have imagined a day like this? Has it come as a shock to you how the Church of England has progressed?
Dr Ashenden: That’s a very difficult question. When I was training, I spent some time at a Greek Orthodox monastery and I was enthralled to see how rich the Christian tradition was. I think what I really liked about the Church of England and welcomed in those days was that it really was inclusive in a very real sense and part of my difficulty is that the secular culture that has developed very fast in the last 30 or 40 years has used words like ‘inclusive’ when actually it means exclusive.
So part of the problem is that the Church of England genuinely was inclusive in those days and it now calls itself inclusive but it’s become exclusive. And this change has been really quite disorientating and distressing.
It would have been very difficult in the 1970s and 1980s to believe that a Church that was really quite so expansive and so genuinely welcome to the breadth of Christian tradition could have narrowed itself down under the influence of secularism.
There isn’t any need for it! One of the great things about 2,000 years of Christian history is that we’re able to see a great panorama of philosophies and perspectives, and you would think after such a period of time that the Church would have some greater wisdom and sense of perspective. But it’s that wisdom and perspective that I feel the Church of England has abandoned in order to placate a kind of secular progressive spirit, and I think that is such a category error.
CT: Did you not think that perhaps you could have stayed in the Church of England and continued to be part of the reforming movement trying to change it?
Dr Ashenden:There’s a political and a theological answer to this question. The political answer is that I worked very hard on that. I was a member of General Synod for 20 years and that gave me an opportunity to be thoroughly realistic about what the nature of the struggle for the Church’s soul was. And I was part of a group of people who negotiated attempts at real inclusivity.
When this failed and I realised that the liberal progressives were very uncomfortable with traditional Christianity and would slowly, in a determined way, marginalise those with a more traditional belief, I realised that the battle couldn’t be won. And sadly I watched it being lost as time went by.
My attempts to work within Anglicanism meant that I accepted the episcopal office from some traditional Anglicans in America and what I had hoped to do was draw together Anglicans in orthodox unity. At this point, one mixes two things: a hope that God will intervene and change people’s hearts, with the need to be realistic and sensible. Jesus is really clear about discipleship containing both those elements, both faith and common sense, and I realised that wasn’t going to happen.
There is, if you like, an ecclesiasal deficit in Anglicanism. There isn’t a particular authority one can appeal to to say: look, on this issue, let’s draw ourselves together around agreed principles. This is partly because the Church of England is a mixture of different churches essentially, all of whom are looking to different epistemological sources and it was after trying to work within it in the form of Anglicanism that I realised that what I was trying to do wasn’t possible.
And since I believed Catholic things, the time had come to join the Church with which I truly identified and which, to me, offered some hope of engaging in the spiritual struggle that defines our particular civilisation and culture at the beginning of the 21st century.
CT: Do you think that more ministers will leave the Church of England? Do you sense that we are seeing the start of a hemorrhaging of traditional evangelical ministers from the CofE?
Dr Ashenden: Yes, I’m afraid I do, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. It’s very difficult for Anglican clergy because once you give yourself to the Church, it becomes your family. It houses you, it feeds you, it defines who your friends are. So to give that up is enormously difficult.
But certainly in this last year we’ve seen a number of people leave as they find that the bishops in particular who are supposed to set a moral and ethical example, and hold to traditional Christian values, are abandoning them.
So yes, I have no idea how many, but there will certainly be a hemorrhage. It may be small, it may be large, I can’t tell. In some ways, it has been going on since 1990 and I guess it will continue.
To be frank, the Church of England is in real trouble because there is a gap between the progressive utopian values of those who administer it and those who say their prayers. It’s running out of people and it’s running out of money
really rather fast.
CT: The timing of your joining the Catholic Church is interesting, coming in the same week as the announcement of Stephen Cottrell as the Archbishop of York, which has left some evangelicals feeling dismayed. If you were still in the Church of England, how would you have felt about his appointment?
Dr Ashenden: It’s an interesting occurrence. I was watching the drama unfold in his diocese. When it comes to Church schools and the transgender issue, the gap in approach is enormously difficult for clergy. You could hardly have a clearer moral issue than the transgender issue. The whole Bible is predicated on God making people male and female in His image.
Undoubtedly we all suffer from levels of psychological, sexual and personality disorder, but there is a God-given framework that we allow people to be mended within. When you find bishops adopting what is essentially an insane secular value, it is incredibly difficult.
Stephen Cottrell was asked to defend one of his clergy who came into conflict with [transgender lobby group] Mermaids and he abandoned one of his clergy completely and indeed took the other side. [Editor’s note: Stephen Cottrell has denied the allegations against him. See here for his statement.]
It’s quite astonishing that after that dispute broke surface publicly, he would then be appointed to the second most senior position of the Church of England. It sends a signal and that signal is that the Church of England is signed
up completely to a progressive, anti-Christian understanding of the human person.
The fact that his appointment was announced in the same week my move was announced is one of those stark ironies that sometimes the Kingdom of Heaven offers in front of us. I think God has used these events to display something of the drama and choice that Christians have in front of us.
I’m not a particularly important person and Stephen Cottrell is, but nonetheless there is some symbolism in the fact that we both made the news in the same week.
CT: Your conversion to the Catholic Church is not simply because of a dissatisfaction with the Church of England, though. You genuinely appreciate the beliefs and theology of the Catholic Church and you have described it as “home”. What is it about the Catholic Church that has given you that sense of coming home?
Dr Ashenden: One of the things about being a Catholic Anglican is that one sometimes has the icing without the cake! Catholic Anglicans have long respected Mary and have very high views about the Eucharist but it is a bit like a stream that’s discovering the estuary because as an Anglican you are always having to explain yourself when you say: look, I believe what the Church has always taught about the saints, Our Lady and the Eucharist. You’ll
inevitably be slightly uncomfortable!
One of the things that’s happened over the last 10 years is that I’ve read more, I’ve prayed more and I’ve experienced more – they have all intensified. The teaching and the experience of the Catholic Church has exemplified more and more what I have been learning and experiencing myself, so there’s a sense of convergence.
And yes, there is definitely a sense of coming home and a sense of sheer enjoyment at being able to relish the fullness of the Christian experience and what it means to belong to the Catholic Church – to be able to pray the rosary and take part in Mass in an entirely unambiguous way. To heal the terrible divisions of history is a wonderful thing. As time has gone by, I have become more and more suspicious of the Reformation and there’s a very interesting book I’ve read, which is actually pro-EU and anti-Brexit, which was explaining that a great deal of propaganda was put out to justify the political move of England away from what was Catholic Europe.
I have become more aware of the damage the Reformation has caused both politically and theologically, and so there is a great sense of relief being back in the Church of my heroes – Augustine, Anselm, Benedict, Francis, Thomas More. I’m back with the family after 500 years of separation.
CT: And so what now for you in the Catholic Church?
Dr Ashenden: Nobody knows, it’s rather exciting! I will start off as a lay theologian and I may stay like that. But at the same time, one of the reasons I accepted episcopal office from American Anglicans previously was because the episcopal orders that they shared derived from a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil in the 1940s. But it looked as though they were valid but irregular. One of the things that Rome is now doing is looking into my orders to decide if they have any value in the Church’s eyes and I am waiting to hear what they decide and, of course, I will accept whatever the outcome is. So I may find myself working as a baptised lay theologian or in some form of clerical responsibility, I will find out soon.
But I’ve been absolutely blown away by the tsunami of affection from the Catholic world. Emails have rolled in saying “welcome home”, “we’re so glad you’re with us”. I’m embarrassed to say it but there’s been a level respect and affection which I’d rather missed out in the last 10 years. I’m afraid I’ve been an irritant within the Church of England, so it’s probably good for them and good for me that I am now in a place where I seem to fit better.