Home Page

Fr Aidan Nichols

Catholic Herald Article

Catholics Converted England once - and must do so again.

Fr Aidan Nichols argues that it is not too late for the Church to win through against postmodern relativism.

I was recently asked to give a talk to a lay Catholics on "Conversion" There was some surprise when I explained that I would not be interpreting the word in the sense of individual conversion - though all full conversion to the Gospel must of course be personal. I preferred to treat the subject on a wider canvas, the canvas of the Catholic Church in England. or what is sometimes called nowadays "the English Catholic Church". I would be speaking then - and writing now - about the "conversion of England". It is a phrase we have heard little of in recent years for reasons connected with the specifically contemporary Catholic form of political correctness. It is a phrase of which I would like us to hear more.

The "politically correct" refusal to speak about the conversion of England for fear of offending ecumenical or inter-faith sensibilities as well as arousing humanist-secularist irritation takes its rise from a misreading of the documents of the Council. Those documents furnish a mandate for courtesy, respect and the seeking of common ground in dialogue with such different constituencies as separated Christians, adherents of other religions, humanists. But they do not understand dialogue as entailing the cessation of mission, or as putting into cold storage the universalist claims of the Catholic Church.

The obscuring of these imperatives, on the ground that in a pluralist society to refer to them at all would be bad taste, has damaged the Church, not only by insinuating doubt as to what our message is and how committed we are. It has also, I believe, created what the scholastic theologians call an obex, an "obstacle" to the development in us of the graces of baptism and confirmation. These graces are not given exclusively for the purpose of personal sanctification. They are given for the insertion of individuals into the common mission of the Church, which continues that of the Apostles, who continued that of Christ, whose own mission was the prolongation of his eternal procession as the divine Son - all with a view of bringing back a world lost and wandering to the Father in its entirety As the present Holy Father put it in his encyclical on mission, "faith is strengthened when it is given to others". When the Church in England slapped a self-defying ordinance on converting those outside the household (for that is the widespread perception), did. it not in part bring upon itself the decline recent statistics have charted?

Contrary to the spin put on the figures by The Tablet (June 19) in the editorial which prefaced the issue where they appeared, the key to understanding what has, happened is, I am convinced, apathy and not dissent. The fundamental reason for the decline is not principled opposition to the norms of Church doctrine and discipline (though that may play a subsidiary part). It lies rather in an apathetic attitude toward the whole realm of religion, that cosmic framework within which the great majority of the inhabitants of these islands once lived. I find it simply incredible that if at a Third Vatican Council a progressive Pope by wave of a wand introduced into the Catholic Church that package of liberal reforms conjured up by The Tablet's name, the effect would be to re-galvanise English Catholicism, which would recover its lapsed and revitalize its parishes at a stroke. The obvious, and to my mind entirely sufficient, justification for such incredulity lies in the fact that the desiderata usually trotted out (from the remarriage of the divorced and the legitimising of contraception to a married and female clergy) are now already achieved in the Church of England. Bearing in mind that Anglicanism's decline in England during these years has only been only slightly less rapid than our own, a dose of scepticism about this panacea seems prescribed.

Apathy about the religious dimension is a far more plausible motive than dissent. That religious dimension is not, of course, simply one dimension among others in life, because it opens out on to the divine Revelation which shows us the total context of truth, goodness and beauty in which our lives as a whole are set. Apathy about that "dimension" was bound to set in if the desire to throw open more windows from the Church into the world coincided - by a piece of really bad timing in the 1960s - with the increasing secularisation of that world, and if, moreover, the Church herself compounded the problem by certain weaknesses in her own self-presentation: doctrinally, exegetically, philosophically, liturgically, aesthetically, socially. A blurring of the image of what Catholic Christianity is took place simultaneously with a loss of confidence in just how important it may be to stay connected with religion anyway. After that it was only to be expected that Catholicism's role in the imaginations of more and more people would become less and less substantial. And so it transpired.

We have been told by the Second Vatican Council and by Pope John Paul to try and read the "signs of the times". I believe one vital sign for the renaissance of Catholicism in England is to be found in the new debate over English identity - itself largely catalysed by events north of the border.

If it can be shown that Catholic Christianity was not only essential to the making of England in the past but also provides the best foundation - intellectual, moral, social - for the remaking of England in the future, then two giant steps in the direction of reversing decline can be taken at once: the outlines of what Catholicism is can be clarified, and its importance gauged at its true worth.

This offers a strategy for the mobilisation of believers, for encouraging them to enter a debate with the wellsprings, the roots, the chief historical determinants of the English contribution to civilisation which is also a debate about the future orientation of an English culture and society - steadied, hopefully, by a firmer grasp of its historic patrimony. And here the aim should be nor just to figure in the debate but to communicate our faith to others as what made England once and can make England again.

There will be many questions to ask. From where do we get the virtues the .English respect or want to recover? Does the civility and rationality of the parliamentary process depend on assumptions about human sensibility and wisdom drawn from the Judaeo-Christian revelation? Is the concept of the Crown separable from that of Christian monarchy? How indebted are the founders of our literary tradition - from Chaucer to Shakespeare, say - to a Catholic metaphysic and ethic? How much of the strengths of the English people in time of tribulation -during the London blitz, for instance - are owed to the continuance of a latent Christianity, to a tacit faith, hope and charity?

But how well fitted (statistics apart) is the Catholic Church in England - the so-called English Catholic Church - to launch a new mission to the people of England, remobilising energies ecclesial and sacramental and so ultimately gracious and salvific? The Church once made England; can she now remake this not terribly impressive culture of supermarkets and sport? Actually, I think the Church here is quite well equipped to take up this mighty challenge, and the reason is that it is not the "English Catholic Church" - a Church of ethnically pure Englishmen (and women) - at all, It is a Church that is .rather a dog's dinner or, to put .it more complimentarily, a pot-pourri, which includes, yes, recusant families and converts from Anglicanism but also a large constituency of Irish people and those descended from them, Italians, Poles and other southern and eastern Europeans, incomers from the New Commonwealth, Filipinos and a host of others.

Now if the original Anglo-Saxon conversion of England is anything to go by, what you need for a successful movement of conversion - one that really "takes" and acts to transform culture across a whole society - is precisely a mixture of indigenous and exogenous elements: people from inside and people from outside. If you think of the great figures of the development of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England which are the great names? Cuthbert and Wilfrid, certainly, who were of pure Anglo-Saxon stock, but also Augustine the Italian, Theodore of Tarsus, the Greek, and Aidan who was a Scotus, or more or less what we now call an Irishman. And really it stands to reason. If the protagonists of mission come exclusively from within the culture, they won't be able to see it with sufficient objective distance to judge what its baptism requires. If, on the other hand, they come exclusively from outside the culture, they won't have the inner sympathy for it, and the simplicity of identification with its members which are prerequisite for winning people. If you could imagine Mary Kenny, say, and the Abbot of Downside rolled into one, you would have the perfect apostle for the conversion of the English.

In a new book, Christendom Awake, subtitled On re-energising the Church in Culture (T & T Clark, £14.95), I deal with the main things we need to get right and do better if, like the sleeping princess in the legend, Christendom - orthodox Christianity in its plenary manifestation in culture - is to be kissed awake. They include:

*A renaissance of doctrine in catechesis and preaching: necessary if we are to show that Revelation is the greatest truth ever known.

*A re-enchanting of the liturgy so that by language, gesture, image music, it brings us before the beauty of the Kingdom.

*A recovery of metaphysics, so as to demonstrate how the bits and pieces of ideas in common currency can't be exchanged for a coherent philosophy of the created order.

*Renewing Christian political thinking, which is just about favouring the poor, but must deal with the wider question of combining order and spontaneity within a spacious civil life under God (we don't opt for the poor so that that they can have 1.5 colour TVs to watch soap operas).

*The revivication of the family through uniting wherever possible the domestic and the productive, home and work,

*The resacralising of art and architecture so that they can again bring us echoes of the divine order as well as of the meanings men make within it.

· Recovering a Catholic reading of the Scriptures, and above all of the Gospels, on the understanding that we shall find there what Liturgy and doctrine tell us about, the divine-human Christ who accepted the union of the two natures in himself for our salvation. (Imagine what a state Islam would be in if Islamic scholars held as many contradictory views of what Mohammed was up to as exegetes now do about the aims of Jesus.)

We need all this and much, much more.

The "identity of England question" can provide us with a providential re-entry of the Church into a public discussion which interests a wide range of people and touches them all. At the same time, the fact that in our high culture the intellectual style increasingly prevalent - if also increasingly controverted - is that of "postmodernism" makes it very desirable that something like our kind of answer should be forthcoming to the question of what we are all doing here on this island. Postmodernism, which is definitely not to be studied before breakfast, is a sort of philosophy whose central thrust is to make the fragmentary the ultimate. It denies that any story ("meta-narrative", they call it) can in broad outline tell it all. It abandons hope for any truth that can be a sky under which we can all shelter, there to live and love, play and rest secure. If we can trust the sources of ecclesiastical journalist Clifford Longley, the reason why the Catholic bishops here told the Royal Commission on ecclesiastical Lords' Reform that they would, after all, be prepared to sit in a new upper chamber was because of (my gloss) the postmodern threat. The Chief Rabbi - no slouch in these matters - persuaded them that our culture and its discourse is fragmenting into broken shards: interest groups and single-issue lobbies have at best one or another of the severed pieces. In this situation the need will eventually be felt for an architectonic schema, a vision where everything falls into place. And isn't that what "Catholicism" means? It is thinking, acting, praying, living that goes kat'holon, "by the whole" - recognising, over against postmodernism, the human thirst to be in touch with totality.

So when that need is acknowledged, that need for a great home in which all can dwell, we, the Catholics of England, can point to the house of Anselm and Newman, of Mother Julian and Sir Thomas More, and say: "Here, in England, there is accessible to you the very house of God, and the gate of heaven."

Fr Aidan Nichols is Prior of Blackfriars, Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 23 July 1999 issue of The Catholic Herald.

Version 18th July 2009

 Home Page

Fr Aidan Nichols