'A Victorian Convert Quintet' by Michael Clifton

'A Victorian Convert Quintet' by Michael Clifton

Michael Daniel

(St. Austin Press, 1998, 212pp, RRP $31.20. Available through Ignatius Press in Brisbane)

Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century was the extraordinary number of converts to Catholicism from Anglicanism and the influence these people were to have upon the Catholic Church. Most books and studies have concentrated on figures such as Newman, Faber and Manning. Clifton, a priest of the Southwark Archdiocese and diocesan archivist, examines five lesser known converts: Coffin, Oakeley, Sibthorp, Simpson and St George Jackson Mivart. Clifton focuses upon the faith development of each of these converts.

The selection of converts is interesting as it challenges the popular assumption regarding converts in the 19th century (and, arguably, in any other century) that the convert "lived happily ever after" in the Catholic Church. Only two of the five converts in Clifton's study seem to fit this description. Coffin was to become an ultramontanist, whereas Oakeley seemed to endorse a more moderate view of the Pope's role in the Church, as envisaged by Newman.

The faith journeys of the other three are quite different. Sibthorp was to convert to Catholicism and be ordained a Catholic priest only to return to the Church of England, in which he remained for almost twenty years before returning to and dying within the Catholic Church. However, his beliefs seemed to be an eclectic mixture of Anglican and Catholic teachings, manifested by the funery requests in his will: Requiem Mass followed by burial office from the Book of Common Prayer. Simpson can best be described as a liberal Catholic, who earnestly tried to remain faithful to the Chuch's teachings. He was, as Clifton argues, never to resolve his dilemma regarding the promulgation of Papal Infallibility.


The last convert, the scientist St George Jackson Mivart, is perhaps the most enigmatic. Whilst the seeds of doubt were sown well before his death, in his last years, he was to openly deny fundamental Catholic teachings through his adoption of the modernist rationale that all Church teachings were to be updated in the light of contemporary secular learning. As a consequence, Mivart died excommunicate.

In treating Mivart, Clifton's difficulties in compiling biographies which focus on the faith development of the subjects, become apparent. Not only is there a dearth of primary sources for many of the five converts, but always the difficulty in making judgements about a person's personal, interior faith, the workings of which are sometimes not even fully understood by the individual concerned.

In the case of Mivart, the question of how responsible he was for his public attacks upon Church teachings remains. He was extremely ill at the time: was his mind unduly affected by his illness? Clifton leaves the decision to the reader, but skilfully provides sufficient evidence for the reader to make a decision.

A Victorian Convert Quintet would be of value to anyone interested in Catholic history. It also provides insight into the experience of conversion, both the reasons for people's conversion to Catholicism and the range of ways in which their faith is likely to develop.

Michael Daniel teaches at a Melbourne independent college.

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