A prominent priest in the Diocese of Menevia has announced he is leaving the Catholic Church for the Anglican Communion.
Fr Ceirion Gilbert was a parish priest at Briton Ferry in Neath, director of youth services, chaplain to two secondary schools, secretary to the bishop’s council and in charge of the diocese’s online and social media presence. He is also a fluent Welsh speaker. He has now, however, announced he is to be received into the Church in Wales on 12 October and will continue ordained ministry in the Diocese of Llandaff.
In the letter below he explains why he decided to leave the Catholic Church.
Just above the picturesque village of Llansteffan, nestled on the banks of the beautiful Carmarthen Estuary, lies the ruins of a medieval castle and, just below it, the impressive manor that substituted it when the era of castle strongholds and all that they were needed for passed into history. Since then times have changed again, and when I walk along the beach on the other side of the river and look up at them, they remind me that very little lasts for ever, and that what so often is seen as absolute truth is, in fact, contingent upon so many things - time, especially.
I think that is true for us, as well. If we are honest with ourselves (something that is not always easy) we realise that over time, and formed and trans-formed by experience, even our deepest held convictions and the building-blocks that construct our identity - faith, politics, values, nationhood - evolve and mutate. The fortresses that we once built become obsolete as we need new words and "homes" to accommodate what and who we become. It is never easy, because it involves demolition and re-construction, but (as even the scriptures remind us) there is a time for that, too.
On hearing of my decision to leave the Catholic Church after twenty years - the last ten in ministry as a priest -and continue my priesthood within the Anglican Communion, the reaction of many - friends, parishioners, and others - has been one of overwhelming support and continued friendship, an incarnate " ecumenism" that (as is so often the case) is "ahead" of the official church's position. But there has also been an assumption that I am leaving because I am unhappy, or feel somehow let down by the Roman Catholic Church and my experience of it. Neither, in fact, is true. Of course there have been "ups and downs", as there are for all of us in all walks of life, but I have nothing but fond memories of the communities I have had the privilege of serving, firstly in Italy and then in Wales; communities where I have forged bonds of friendship and faith and where "ordinary" people have taught me something extraordinary about courage, compassion, faith and love, above all. These are the greatest treasures that I carry with me, and that I hope will enrich my future ministry in the Church in Wales. I am also profoundly grateful for what the Roman Catholic Church has given me; a church whose own sacramental theology acknowledges that I am, and always will be, a priest ordained by the Bishop of Padua ten years ago, something for which I will always be grateful and a church that will remain in my prayers and close to my heart.
So why change? Perhaps because in that collision between the Absolute and my story, in that uncomfortable, ever- shifting "messy" space where, however, Grace is revealed and our own very personal Salvation narratives are written, I have come slowly to an awareness of two other truths too, that - for me, at least - are absolute and necessary edifices for my life and ministry to build and become what it should be.
The first is my belief in the profound "one-ness" of the Church; that the church is wherever and whenever in a life or in the life of a community Christ is proclaimed as Lord, and the Paschal Mystery of sacrificial and hence life-nurturing Love proclaimed, not so much in rite and liturgy but in reality and life. The question that will be asked of us before the Gates of he Kingdom of heaven will not be what particular brand of Christianity we belonged to but, surely, the one question that takes different forms in the Gospel stories but remains essentially the same: "Have you loved? Have you been a person of compassion, solidarity, of healing and hope, as you were able, in the places and with the people whose stories touched your own?" Love one another, as I have loved you. Ecumenism is not about doing everything we can do so that "they ( non-Catholics) come back to us" (an interpretation that, sadly, seems still to be in practice that of the Catholic Hierarchy) but is rather about dismantling the unnecessary and obstructive barriers of dogma and definition, history and tradition that have decimated our common home and prevent us from seeing the clarity of that simple but immense and profound truth. We are all disciples, walking in our own ways, in our own time, with our own baggage, and yes with our own styles and differences of expression and language - but together following him, the crucified and risen one. Where he leads us, not where we think we should be going.
And it is him, his words and his life that have led me to that other "truth" that I find defines my life and my choices - and this decision, as well. What is the Church - and ministry and priesthood and liturgy and sacrament- really "for"? What are we here to "do"? It is, I believe, about continuing in history and in the human stories of those entrusted to our care the principle of incarnation; of the liberating and life-giving presence of God that John so wonderfully sings about at the beginning of his Gospel. It's about doing in our lives and as a church precisely what that incarnate Word, Jesus of Nazareth, did in his short life on earth: giving a voice to those who had lost it (or who were being ignored), healing to those who were left to die, hope to those who were in despair, and life "in its fullness" to all who search for it. It's about recognising the profound inalienable dignity of every woman and man without exception and doing what we can so that they can live fulfilled and happy lives. Ultimately, about hearing every voice, discerning every language, bringing together in a common home that wonderful symphonic truth of humankind. And that home for me, today, is within the Anglican Communion, where it does, yes, get cramped, and noisy and "messy". But so often incarnation is.
The edifices of history remain, and - just like the castles of Wales - teach us something, but only if and when we recognise that the world swirling around their feet and rushing past the doors of our Cathedrals and all the structures we build (real and ideal) is constantly changing, constantly searching, constantly re-building its identity and re-evaluating what truth is. It has something to say to us, just as much as what we have to offer it. About life and love, justice and peace, about that fundamental yearning that defines and directs every human heart. To be accepted and acknowledged, to be confirmed in that sacred dignity of each existence. That is the challenge of the church in every age, built on the one certain foundation found not in Rome or Canterbury or Constantinople but in Christ, and his call to build together in the here and now of our history the one, constant, borderless and ageless truth of his Kingdom.