A very Different kind of Parish

Fr Stephen Hill is a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross. But what first led the young electronics engineer to begin searching for God in the Catholic Church, and what is he creating today?

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Bishop Lopes celebrates the Ordinariate’s ‘Divine Worship’ liturgy, drawing from pre and post-Reformation traditions in the Book of Common Prayer. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Vocation can often be a meandering journey. Perhaps this is a reflection of the kind of world we live in. When I started my professional career as an electronics engineer, I had no idea I would end up Catholic, let alone a Catholic priest!

I am fortunate that I was raised to know Jesus, with prayer and church always important in my parents’ household.

Amongst my earliest memories are going to church. This experience of church was foundational to developing self-identity growing up. And I guess in early adulthood we can often go through periods of questioning, wondering, and wandering.

In the late nineties my parish decided to embrace what was ‘hip, in, and cool”’ because that’s what gets people in. But it didn’t. Traditional things were for fuddy-duddies, and when they died out would not be required anymore. As a young person, I was supposed to go to the ‘modern’ service with the worship band up the front.

“The Mass was in English, but not the kind of English you hear on the street. This was beautiful hieratic sacral English.”

Now I have very eclectic tastes in music, with my favourite being 70s prog rock, but I don’t want to hear that in church. So I guess being told this was what young people want pushed me away and started me on a journey.

One day I wandered into Solemn High Mass at All Saints’ Anglican church in Wickham Terrace, Brisbane. It’s basically the equivalent of Christ Church, St Laurence here in Sydney. I didn’t know what an Anglo-Catholic was, and I didn’t really know that much about Anglicanism either, but I knew that it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life.

It was amazing – the Mass, the choir and pipe organ, the servers, clouds of incense; ‘smells and bells’ as they say. I felt like I was in heaven.

One of the most beautiful and appealing aspects to me was the language. The Mass was in English, but not the kind of English you hear on the street. This was beautiful hieratic sacral English. What few people know is that modern English owes its existence directly to this sacral English. It was essentially invented by William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale – translators of the first modern English Bible; and Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer.

Precious down time: Fr Stephen Hill, a former Anglican who is a busy priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, enjoys a coffee and catching up on the news at a local cafe in Newtown. Currently engaged in building up the unique parish, he invites anyone interested to come and be part of it. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Precious down time: Fr Stephen Hill, a former Anglican who is a busy priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, enjoys a coffee and catching up on the news at a local cafe in Newtown. Currently engaged in building up the unique parish, he invites anyone interested to come and be part of it. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

These knew that for sacred English to work it had to be two things – proper English, and set apart from the language of the street. But so successful and influential was their work, that it changed the language of the street.

We assume everyone of that time spoke like that – but they didn’t. But much of the language of the Church found its way into popular parlance.

This was, for me, like falling in love with Jesus in a new way. But there as an intellectual aspect to my experience as well.

In this Anglo-Catholic parish (like the best of them), the Catholic religion was taught. I’d always seen faith as being something that stood on its own – sola fidei – but as an engineer I was a little worried what might happen if I applied intellect or reason too closely to matters of faith.

“At first it might seem as simple as saying that it’s all about the papacy, but it isn’t quite that simple.”

I had no concept of faith and reason standing together. Not until now. As I learned more about my faith, I felt I would like to do some study, and started a Masters in Theology. It was this trajectory that led to discerning a vocation to the priesthood, and being ordained a priest in the Anglican Catholic Church of Australia in 2008.

Like many Anglo-Catholics, I ultimately came to a fork in the road. If one believes the Catholic faith, why not be Catholic? Ultimately, there is no such thing as Catholicism without the Pope. Being Catholic isn’t just about believing what Catholics believe. This caused me to reflect on my journey through various Protestant churches and ultimately whether or not there was something irresistibly compelling about unity with the Catholic Church. After all, the one thing Jesus prayed for on the night he was betrayed was … unity.

At first it might seem as simple as saying that it’s all about the papacy, but it isn’t quite that simple. It comes down to one vital question – how can we know what is true in matters of faith and morals? How do we know what to believe?

Many Protestants profess that the Bible is sufficient in its own right to answer these questions (sola scriptura). But my own experience of Protestantism and examination of the recent history of Protestantism indicated that this was not satisfactory.

Mons Harry Entwistle, leader of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, and Fr Richard Waddell, priest of the Ordinariate’s community of St Bede in Sydney. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

There was one thing that Catholicism had that the Protestant Churches did not – that being the Magisterium. And of course the papacy is part of that. It is the answer to the question “How do we know what to believe?”

As the Second Vatican Council wonderfully enunciated, Jesus did not leave us to our own devices but established a teaching office that is handed on down into our own time. And we find this teaching office of the bishops recorded not only in the Bible, but existing before the Bible. Indeed, the first books of the New Testament were letters written by the first bishops to their congregations.

This easily contrasted with what I had witnessed in Protestant churches, which was fundamentally a crisis of belief. Membership in most Protestant churches has crashed over the last few decades – far worse than experienced in the Catholic Church.

Much of this is because people no longer know what to believe. One day their church said it believed one thing, then took a vote at a synod, and then said it believed something completely different. Many of the laity just gave up. If your religion can change what it believes on the basis of a vote, what’s the point?

“In 2009, Pope Benedict created new structures in the Church, essentially non-geographical dioceses, that were a response to centuries of prayer from Anglicans seeking unity with the Catholic Church.”

I think this is one of the great points of appeal of the Catholic Church, the Magisterium provides a solid foundation of belief. However as the Magisterium is living, it can respond to the questions and challenges of our age.

In 2009, Pope Benedict created new structures in the Church, essentially non-geographical dioceses, that were a response to centuries of prayer from Anglicans seeking unity with the Catholic Church.

These structures, called ordinariates, realised ecumenism, also bringing into the Catholic Church many of the most beautiful aspects of Anglicanism. For example, the Ordinariates have their own expression of the Roman Rite that uses sacral English – that same form of English that I had fallen in love with. Matins, Evensong, the sonorous words of the traditional English marriage rite “for better, for worse, for richer for poorer”, “with this ring I thee wed”, amongst other things, these now have an honoured place within the liturgy of the Catholic Church – recognising indeed the meaning of Catholic “to embrace the fulness”.

It was through the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross here in Australia that I became Catholic, and was ordained a Catholic priest in 2013.

Mons Harry Entwistle, shares a moment with Pope Francis as a copy of the ordinariate’s icon, Our Lady of the Southern Cross, is presented to the pontiff. Photo: L’Osservatore Romano
Mons Harry Entwistle, shares a moment with Pope Francis as a copy of the ordinariate’s icon, Our Lady of the Southern Cross, is presented to the pontiff. Photo: L’Osservatore Romano

The ordinariates should be seen as a fulfillment of the Oxford movement and Anglo-Catholicism. However they are fundamentally an evangelical movement. Their mission is that of the Church. They recognise that one size does not fit all. Pastoral responses can be – and are – made for the building up of the Body of Christ.

As such, anyone is welcome to make an Ordinariate Parish their own. Likewise, anyone can become Catholic through an Ordinariate parish, no matter what their background.

Here in Sydney, our Parish is the Parish of Saint Bede the Venerable and we are based at Saint Joseph’s, Newtown. We are blessed to have one of the most beautiful churches in Sydney. We have sung Mass every Sunday at 12 noon, in which we bring many of the best aspects of the English tradition – good quality hymns and music, solid preaching and reverent liturgy.

The pandemic has made growing our parish very difficult and it is hard to get the word out that we are here. We also know that there are lots of people out there who are searching, just as I once did. Maybe we are just what they are looking for.

“My hope for the future is that more will come to know about us, that those who are looking for something different might try us out.”

It seems to be really hard these days to find people who want to put the work in to grow a parish. More and more, people seem to want to just turn up to a parish where someone else did all the hard work before them. Right now, the Church needs more builders – people who are prepared to get in and grow the kingdom. We could really use some pioneers at St Bede’s like the ones who built Catholicism in this country.

The Ordinariate is one way amongst many of being Catholic. It is not “better” per se – but it is different. My hope for the future is that more will come to know about us, that those who are looking for something different might try us out.

It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you are a former Anglican, from another faith tradition or a cradle Catholic.

We would love for you to come and see.

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