Converting England with two buns and a banana
I found on a shelf a yellowing and stippled volume inherited from the library of my old friend Gerry Brine. It is a “recollection” by the founder of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, published in 1928. Gerry was a lifelong “Ransomer”; the guild provided devotional, cultural and social enrichment for him. But like so many similar Catholic guilds, it is now moribund.
Fr Philip Fletcher’s book sets out the objectives with which he founded the guild in 1879: “To revive old Catholic customs in England such as pilgrimages and processions of Our Lady; to keep the memory of our martyrs ever before our people and to promote devotion to these glorious heroes; to urge Catholicism in sermons and addresses; to pray for the conversion of England.”
The guild’s name derives from a medieval order whose members used to beg alms to ransom those enslaved by Islam. If they couldn’t raise the money they would offer themselves in place of the captives. Fr Fletcher’s guild desired to rescue souls in danger of heresy or apostasy, or forgotten in purgatory.
Fr Fletcher’s zeal for the conversion of England owed its energy to the fact that he had previously been an Anglican who, after a brilliant Oxford career, took orders in the Church of England. Like John Henry Newman and many other Tractarians, he was once convinced of the catholicity of the Church of England, but eventually saw that this putative catholicity of a faction of Anglicans itself impelled itself towards a unity which could never be realised collectively but only individually.
For Fletcher, the idea that “what we have in common is greater than what divides us” cannot surmount an essential obstacle. He says starkly that the would-be Catholic faces the same choice as did John Fisher and Thomas More, that is: “The choice between Caesar, the Monarch of England and the Vicar of Christ. For the Royal Supremacy, in all causes ecclesiastical as well as civil, is a patent fact to those who dispassionately study the Anglican Church.” That Church’s final court of appeal is not the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops or the synod, but the Crown.
Two books were pivotal to Fletcher’s conversion, Newman’s Apologia and St Bonaventure’s Life of St Francis. He wrote to Newman for advice when agonising over his conversion. Newman’s reply invited him to visit the Oratory in Birmingham to talk. “But I never went. I feared to go. I clung to the Church of England, for all I loved best were in it.” His adherence to Anglicanism was finally undermined by Newman’s own conclusion that “the deliberate judgment in which the whole Church at length rests and acquiesces is an infallible prescription and a final sentence against such portions of it as protest and secede.”
After ordination in the Catholic Church and founding his guild, Fr Fletcher embarked on an itinerant mission in support of its spiritual objects. He travelled the country for 25 years. As he relates this period, his character emerges more expansively than in his own conversion “apologia”. He self-deprecatingly explains that the only luggage he ever had was two coats, both of which he would wear, winter and summer. These were made with voluminous poachers’ pockets which he referred to by their functions: the “sacristy” was the pocket for prayer books, the “smoking room” for his pipes and the “refectory” the pocket for his habitual rations of two buns and a banana, “available from any station buffet”.
During this vagabond time he was also instrumental in founding the Historical Research Society and Catholic Evidence Guild. He clearly understood Isaiah’s advice, “remember the rock from which you were hewn”, as he reminded fellow Catholics of their heritage, and he also understood the need for apologetics for those who struggle with faith.
Nowadays testimony seems to be the preferred tool of evangelisation. Then it was apologetics, but Fr Fletcher’s own life is a testimony to Catholicism. He concludes his book with a beautiful quotation: “May it be ours to take part with the choirs of angels, to assist with the blessed ones at the glory of the Creator; to see the infinite Light, to be affected by no fear of death”; and a final hope: “May all this be ours – his who writes and theirs who read!”
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London