Growing up in Wales in the 1950s, you still couldn’t quite avoid the sense that Catholics were exotic and a bit frightening. People of my grandmother’s generation from the Welsh valleys would occasionally resort to dark headshakings: Catholics were devoted to the suppression of natural feelings, freedom of thought and common honesty. Kingsley had won over Newman in this constituency at least. When we started attending the Anglican parish church in my early teens, a new world of Christian imagination opened up.
It was a moderately Anglo-Catholic church where the liturgy was celebrated with unfussy dignity and care. But the real blessing was a parish priest of extraordinary gifts – a man with a profound and informed enthusiasm for theology, poetry and drama, whose sermons I still recall as models of what preaching should be, and whose pastoral generosity was limitless. He talked about prayer and contemplation, and his concentration at the altar made it plain that this was more than words. And – like a good many Anglo-Catholics of his generation – he had a keen sense of the global Church. Curates went from the parish to foreign missions and came back with stirring accounts of the challenges of poverty and political struggle. We had the then very rare experience of a black preacher in the pulpit, an archdeacon from Botswana. And the same pulpit also hosted a Franciscan friar on one occasion.
Odd as it may sound, Roman Catholicism seemed a long way away from all this, seldom talked about or worried about. I think it was probably when I was around 15 that a mixture of things began to stir my interest in the roots of Catholic spirituality. School studies contributed: reading Chaucer, and GK Chesterton’s book on the poet, kindled a fascination with the Middle Ages. The Franciscan’s visit was perhaps the first time I thought about the religious life, and whether my exploration of vocation ought to take stock of this. And the news trickling through about the Second Vatican Council presented a picture of the Roman Catholic Church as gathering its resources for genuine creative renewal.
I went up to Cambridge wrestling with all this. Was there a clear call to the religious life, and if so did that entail becoming a Roman Catholic?
Monasticism in the Anglican context was a reality, often an impressive one, but was it really rooted in the day-to-day practice of the Anglican Church?
Looking back now, what comes most clearly into focus is that the Roman Catholics with whom I discussed this never exerted the least pressure; and I think of them as setting out to help me be a better Christian rather than to secure a convert. Richard Incledon, who was the Catholic chaplain at Cambridge at that period, was one such, a priest of great integrity, by no means at ease in the ecclesiastical climate of the day, but having something of the sheer focus and sense of spiritual priorities that I recognised in my old parish priest. And when, in my third year, a friend invited me to spend some time with him at Quarr Abbey, my first meeting with Fr Joseph Warrilow, the sensation was the same. Fr Joe was to be my spiritual director for many years, up to and beyond my ordination in the Church of England, and my debt to him is beyond calculation.
These were people who were clear about their own commitment, but gentle with my hesitation. They reassured me that trying to maintain intellectual integrity was a proper spiritual concern. But they pressed hard on the need now for disciplined prayer: not putting off the hard work of discipleship until a decision had been reached.
The Anglican I am today is who he is because of those uncomfortable years of exploration and because of the sensitivity of the Catholic guides who so generously accompanied, encouraged, warned and inspired. We’re probably all prone to degrees of confessional self-sufficiency; at the very least this experience put paid to that, and I can only be deeply thankful for it.
Rowan Williams is a theologian, poet and former Archbishop of Canterbury