Magazine article The Spectator

Anglicanism Is Alive and Well in Umbria

Magazine article The Spectator

Anglicanism Is Alive and Well in Umbria

Article excerpt

On the first Sunday in Advent it is so cold in the 12th-century church of Sant'Andrea that puffs of breath hang in the air as we sing -- not 'O Come All Ye Faithful', nor even 'Adeste Fideles', but 'Venite Fedeli' which, in Italian, doesn't always quite scan. Café-style al fresco steel burners are losing the battle to waft heat over the mixed congregation of Roman Catholics and Anglicans but in the evening chill the mediaeval nave is packed.

This Advent festival of lessons and carols has proved a rival draw to Christmas shopping, a newer religion in the Umbrian hilltown of Orvieto. A charabanc of American, Latin American and African worshippers drawn from Anglican congregations in Rome has made the 90-minute trip, but plenty of local Catholics have also slipped inside under cover of darkness. Word has got around of a religious phenomenon in one of Orvieto's most important Catholic churches. The Revd Susan Skillen, sporting a blond bob, American accent, black cassock and snowy surplice, is in charge tonight and few, if any, local Catholics have ever before witnessed a female priest taking a service.

Before the cornerstone of Orvieto's magnificent Duomo was laid in 1290, Sant'Andrea was the town's most important place of worship. It was built on the site of a 6th-century church, which in turn was built on top of an Etruscan street. It was here that Innocent III proclaimed the Fourth Crusade; here that, in 1281, Charles of Anjou brought his courtiers to mark the papal coronation of Martin IV.

Tonight, elderly Italian ladies look on in wonder as the guest of honour, Giovanni Scanavino -- the beloved Catholic bishop of Orvieto and Todi -- comes scurrying in after a 6 p. m. Mass at the Duomo and is welcomed by 'Revd Susan', as she is known. 'Ma, è una donna, ' they murmur disbelievingly. And not only a woman, but a member of the Episcopal Church, which plunged Anglicanism into crisis in 2003 with the appointment of an openly homosexual bishop, and last month installed Katharine Jefferts Schori as its primate.

Women priests and gay bishops have severely tested relations between Canterbury and Rome, who admitted recently to rubbing along in an 'imperfect communion'. Even so, during the Archbishop of Canterbury's official visit to Rome last month he was invited to celebrate the Eucharist in the beautiful Santa Sabina church on the Aventine Hill, where the Pope himself preaches on Ash Wednesday each year. Across Italy, in fact, widespread co-operation between the faiths at grass-roots level is helping Anglicanism thrive. The pockets of worship may be small -- in Orvieto, Ms Skillen has just 17 worshippers -- but regular services are being held from Padua in the north to Sorrento in the south.

In Orvieto, the ecumenically minded Bishop Scanavino says he is keen to 'normalise relations', advising Ms Skillen to brush up her Italian so that he may more easily talk to this 53-year-old mother of four daughters who was ordained less than two years ago. Even so she is stunned when, at the end of the Advent service, he stands alongside her at the altar to perform a simultaneous blessing, having earlier preached a message of unity that left his Italian ladies visibly reassured.

'Our Anglican brothers are surely our closest brothers, ' the bishop told the congregation.

'We are instruments of God to create communion and unity. We have all heard the same words and we have told the same story of faith.

That's what unites us, and those things are great and important. …

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