Breathing the light scent of spring air admixed with incense, the priest’s words from Exodus rolling like an elixir into our ears and the feeling of angels over the altar, we came into full communion with the holy, catholic and apostolic church on our knees at the Easter Vigil two years ago.
I can tell you now that I am home. I can also tell you that becoming Catholic wasn’t about rejection so much as fulfilment; the fulfilment of an arc that had run through my life to that point. It was making peace with a still small voice; first soft but eventually overwhelming. It felt like an act of consummation.
Of course, all Anglicans end up having to make some sort of internal accommodation with the successor to St Peter, and in the end, for me, that accommodation could only be total.
As a child I never had any trouble with the trilling, mad, fact of mere existence. The simple delight at merely being. Something our pagan ancestors would have quite understood. Neither did I have any trouble with the idea that if all that existed in the universe was a single blade of grass that alone would be sufficient. That alone would be miracle enough to take seriously the notion that there may be a God. But it wasn’t until I got to Cambridge that I started to call myself a Christian.
I was confirmed an Anglican in Queen’s College Chapel by Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward whose kindness knew no bounds. He entreated me never to stop my effort to “grow in love”. Bishop John Taylor, who kindly prepared me, said: “Hold on to Jesus with all your strength.” Beyond these two, I was provided by the Anglican Church with an astonishing cloud of witnesses.
For these purposes, one stands out. Michael Ward was close to my age, reading Theology at Ridley with an eye on ordination, and is now probably the world’s leading authority on CS Lewis. Back then we toyed with the idea of forming a debating group called The Stone Table, but spent too much time chatting to each other to get round to it. Michael went on to become an Anglican priest. In time he would pray at our wedding, bury my father, godfather and my daughter, though neither of us knew that then.
Oddly, even as I rushed headlong into the English church, I didn’t have much trouble accepting inwardly the primacy of the Pope. I think I just took it for granted. Our Lord’s words: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my community. And the gates of the underworld can never overpower it” seemed clear enough to me.
I spent a little time at Fisher House (the university’s Catholic chaplaincy) and seem to remember discussing doctrine with a priest and finding his position somewhat inflexible to the point of being a little bleak. But I didn’t feel the need to move, I repeated to myself what Lewis had said, something like: “I will stay where I have been put.” Anyway, Catholic bishops had become Anglican bishops, apostolic succession and the laying on of hands was intact. The English Church if anything was an interesting derivation of the Catholic Church. It didn’t seem to matter.
Life moved on. I tried to follow Jesus’ teaching as best I could and despite my many insufficiencies saw fruit for which I was grateful. The world heaved and wrenched when my father was ill, but I had the myriad distractions of a young family and soon I was living in the countryside and building a crazy garden, the best distraction of all. In the miracle of independent growth, the basic idea that when I plant a seed it will grow on without me, I always saw something sacramental. I saw the outward and visible manifestation of an inward and invisible grace.
As the garden grew I became increasingly aware of an ache. I ached for the sacraments of the Church. I ached for a communion built fully and without quibble on Our Lord’s words: “Take it… this is my body… this is my blood” – an instruction, not a request. I railed. I railed against what seemed to be the indecision and disagreement within protestant churches.
Confession might be like getting into a swimming pool: painful at first and best done quickly, but essential if you want to enjoy swimming.
One day Michael called me. “I am going to become a Catholic,” he said. My first feeling was somewhere between jealousy and longing. We began to talk. Over time I realised I had to revisit sola scriptura, this idea that all authority rests in the Bible. It is hard to unpick, frightening even, because it is a pillar of Protestant thinking.
Sola scriptura sounds like a jolly fine idea, at least to begin with. But the trouble is all texts require interpretation. Theologians can and will build opposing positions from scripture. I began to see in sola scriptura not biblical authority so much as the possibility afforded to each individual that they are free to make up their own mind on important matters of doctrine and claim biblical authority for that. The fact that there are over 30,000 Protestant churches makes perfect sense and, of course, it all fitted hand in glove with the spirit of the age, the inexorable slide towards the primacy in all things of the “individual”.
I began to see that it was silly to expect any man or woman to achieve in a lifetime what the magisterium of the church has spent 2,000 years building. Worse, it can push a person in on themselves. It can cause a sort of melancholy and neurosis. Taken seriously, it is not freedom, but rather an unbearable weight on the shoulders of the faithful. Why did I accept the authority of scripture but reject the authority of the church who wrote it? I longed for the cool breeze of properly constituted authority. To put it simply, I wanted to know where I stood.
I have noticed over the last 20 years that the Anglican Church has talked more and more about feelings and less and less about sin. I suppose sin is an awkward topic at the best of times (certainly as a sinner I find it so) and to dwell on it more than is strictly necessary would be very, very dull. The trouble is Jesus spoke about sin and the church must also. There is a huge temptation to pretend sins aren’t sinful because then it avoids the whole wretched business in the first place. It would be a spiffing solution if it were possible to carry off honestly. I longed for the comfort of the sacrament of reconciliation; what Catholics call confession. Broad smiles and a positive mental outlook weren’t sufficient for me. I needed a sacrament. In the end I decided that I would rather know where north is even as I repeatedly failed to find it. Confession, I surmised, might be like getting into a swimming pool: painful at first and best done quickly, but essential if you want to enjoy swimming.
I had this dim sense that becoming a Catholic might be unpatriotic. Strangely my garden helped me here too. Walking around it I suddenly began to see all the embers of Catholic England lying about me. The clues are still their smouldering for those who have eyes to see. Our lady’s bird (lady bird), marigold (Mary’s gold) and my favourite cottage garden flower, St Joseph’s Staff (hollyhock). It dawned on me gradually that my garden had been Catholic for longer than it had been Anglican. Twice as long. Becoming Catholic wasn’t a rejection of Englishness, it was Englishness. England was known within the medieval Catholic world as “Mary’s Dowry” and it had a distinct Catholicism which I like to think of running along Friar Tuck lines. Catholicism, if anything, was a way to recapture the jolliness of Merry Old England. Our village church had been Catholic before it was Anglican. In its initial incarnation it would have been a beacon of colour and light.
Another wrinkle. Those I love and had walked shoulder to shoulder with might feel rejected. It was no rejection, of course, but they might feel it nonetheless. To their immense credit this was an entirely misplaced concern. I have been blessed with generous friends.
But with all these machinations in place, I still couldn’t quite jump. Then something happened. One evening, quite out of the blue, as I was sitting on the sofa thinking of nothing in particular, I felt I saw in my mind’s eye the Lord on the cross delivering these words: “Woman, this is your son. This is your mother.”
Without knowing quite why, I wept for several hours, dropping hot urgent tears. The next morning I woke up and knew I must become a Catholic.
Looking at the thing now, it seems ironic to me that those who preach sola scriptura choose to diverge from Catholic teaching most markedly on points of scripture. I see even when I was on my way, mother church wasn’t so very far. She sits patiently calling those she loves.
The 39 articles were a piece of brilliant politicking that saved lives. But the Anglican settlement, born in murder and delivered in blood, strikes me now as thin. In a world that heaves and lurches, that seems to disappear into ever narrower circles of self, the last city to remain intact is Peter’s. We know from our Lord’s words that it will remain until the end times.
Formally speaking, being a Catholic is accepting the pope as successor to St Peter. Jesus clearly meant for the Church to have a leader. He appointed Peter. It would be more or less unintelligible if such leadership was intended only to the point of the cross. So if not the pope, then who? Can it really be wise to elect yourself pope? But the Catholic Church is something beautiful to behold well before it is something vulnerable to defend. When the natural world evaporates and Jesus is seen by all, his church will remain, like a great ship with a single captain. When the game is up I suspect we will all be Catholics, but of course I think that – I am one. In the meantime, as Belloc quipped: “Wherever the Catholic sun does shine, there is always laughter and good red wine.” Home has brought freedom, the air is light and it is always spring.
Charlie Hart is the author of the memoir Skymeadow and No Fear Gardening (Constable)
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