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An American revisits London as a Catholic

In 1841, John Henry Newman wrote to a Catholic acquaintance: “I do not fear that you will succeed among us; you will not supplant our Church in the affections of the English nation.” He emphasised that he hoped for a consolidation of the branches of the Church, but could not imagine an England without Anglicanism, nor of course did he think to consider a multicultural Catholicism alongside a majority of non-religious people and a sizable Muslim minority.

When I was confirmed in the Church of England in 2002, there still seemed something permanent about Anglicanism. England’s affection for its established religion lingered not only in all the old buildings; there were still plenty of people cycling to Evensong, and the Archbishop of Canterbury had interesting things to say on Thought for the Day and Newsnight. Secularism seemed strong, but not invincible; English Catholicism was interesting, but not compelling.

I returned to America in 2004, however, and attempted to live – and later minister – as an Anglican. Newman’s hope for Anglicanism failed me, just as it had failed him. Desire for the truth ultimately far outweighed affection for Anglicanism per se, although in the personal ordinariates it is possible to have both.

I had not been to England for almost two decades when I finally returned in February with Bishop Robert Barron (until very recently my boss at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries). I wondered what the Catholic presence would be like in a country whose state religion had continued to lose its place in the nation’s identity, and where radical secularism and Islam had made enormous strides since I was last there.

What I found among Catholics in London was most encouraging, and a couple of things made deep impressions upon me. First, I had failed to notice as an Anglican in England just how, by a miracle of God’s grace, Catholicism had endured. I used to speak of terrible atrocities on “both sides” during the English Reformation, while acknowledging that Catholics finally had it a bit worse.

Had I bothered to examine the bare facts, I would have discovered that Catholics suffered under an anti-Catholic police state akin to East Germany under the Stasi, and yet they miraculously survived to see the re-establishment of the hierarchy and regained the freedom to practise their faith openly.

I visited Tyburn Convent, near to where hundreds of Catholics were martyred over the course of a 150 years. I also stood in the cell at the Tower of London where St Thomas More awaited his eventual execution, along with the burial site where his body (minus the head) lies. Along with him in the crypt is St John Fisher, the last Catholic Bishop of Rochester.

His latter-day Anglican successor, Michael Nazir-Ali, is now a Catholic priest – a brilliant, holy man whom I had the pleasure to get to know a little bit on the trip. It occurred to me that whatever old-fashioned anti-Catholic prejudice may still exist, and whatever new anti-Catholic persecution may come, the English Martyrs surely had it worse, and their witness is palpable.

Even if the 17th-century Jesuits had hoped for a total reconquest of the British Isles, they would surely hardly have turned up their noses at 21st-century London. Catholics can attend Mass on any given day in spaces as uniquely enchanting as Westminster Cathedral, the Brompton Oratory and countless ordinary churches from one end of the metropolis to the other.

Priest holes and secret Masses may one day return, but they are long gone now. Today’s Catholic Church in England lives in the light of this victory, and by its example offers hope in the difficult circumstances that may lie ahead for Catholics in the United States and elsewhere.

The second thing I noticed was the easy-going traditionalism of the young Catholics I encountered. One of the events in which I participated was a large conference called “Sharing the Church’s Story”, put on by Catholic Voices UK. Again, the Catholic martyrs of centuries past could hardly have dreamed that one day in the future, more than a thousand, mostly young Catholics would gather across the street from Westminster Abbey to celebrate their faith.

Some of the attendees came from pious immigrant families. Many others told me they were baptised in the Church but were not raised particularly devoutly, and had a spiritual awakening as students. Many more were converts from completely unreligious families, and a few were – like me – former Anglicans.

All of them had a missionary zeal, but I detected no notes of the fierce belligerence that I expect (and often display myself) in the United States. Rather, my new British Catholic friends projected a quiet confidence in Christ and the Church, a joy that does not obsess over short-term losses, but plays the same long game that the martyrs of centuries of past teach us all how to win.

In this way, they embody the words of Pope Benedict XVI from his historic speech at Westminster Hall in 2010: “Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”

Significantly, I am told there were at least 20 Catholic members of the Lords and Commons of different parties – along with a host of bright, young Catholic staffers – in attendance at a jolly gathering on the terrace at the Houses of Parliament, where Bishop Barron gave a rousing talk.

Catholics in London have something else going for them, too: the city itself. An American visiting England cannot help but experience the overwhelming stamp of Christianity on society: a Church-hauntedness that is still, somehow, intrinsic to the national identity.

And even though there are more modern skyscrapers than when I was last there, and so many of the fine old buildings are, sadly, not in the Catholic Church’s possession, secularism simply cannot fill the space that a spiritually bankrupt Church of England and the post-Christian state that it serves have ceded to it.

Everyone knows that medieval churches are far more precious to society than the latest towers of glass and steel. Surely it is nearly at the point where Catholics are the only obvious inheritors of England’s rich spiritual patrimony. The Catholic Church in England now stands alone in representing the glory that has been, should be, and by God’s grace, will be again.

Newman was less concerned with the Catholic Church’s appeal to his countrymen’s affections in his lifetime, and more prescient about an existential crisis that only the Catholic Church could handle. He describes in his Apologia how he came to believe that “there was no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity”, and therefore one “must embrace either the one or the other”.

Today’s Catholics in Britain seem to understand the dilemmas that face them well. In the United States, it is different. Many of us still live in the delusion that our evangelism efforts may occupy an otherwise neutral space; yet we are not prepared to be standard bearers for the claims of Christ against the myriad inferior alternatives. As the baby boomers pass on, as our churches empty and close, and as our money runs out – will we be able to cope in a world that would just as soon see us gone forever?

We can all learn a lot from the humility and confidence of British Catholics who have always done a lot with a little, and whose young generation has a refreshing sense of adventure. In the years to come, we may even find – contra the Anglican Newman – that by their witness, the affections not only of England, but of people everywhere in this century, may indeed grow for the Church.

By Andrew Petiprin

(originally published by the Catholic Herald)


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