Deeply personal stories of conversion to Catholicism
THE PATH TO ROME:
Modern Journeys to the Catholic Church
Edited by Dwight Longenecker & Cyprian Blamires
(Gracewing, 2010, 379pp, $39.95, ISBN: 978-0-85244-729-1
This is a revised, reordered, and expanded, Tenth Anniversary Edition of a book published in 1999. Its reappearance is no less relevant - indeed probably more so, especially for Anglicans facing painful disintegration and challenging realignment: globally, nationally, and locally.
There are 23 contributors to this book, providing deeply personal stories which offer much food for thought: whether you are a cradle Catholic, an Anglican considering changing ship, a person who has made the journey, or a reader simply interested in spiritual autobiography. And, given the remarkable variety on offer, there is something here for everyone. The chapters make convenient bite size readings of about 20 pages each.
There are eight sections: the first is made up of five women clergy and a clergy wife; the second, five Evangelical bible Christians; the third, a New Ager; the fourth, three Anglo-Catholics; the fifth, a "mainstream" Anglican; the sixth, an introduction to the unfinished business of Conversion and Ecumenism; the seventh, four public figures - two politicians and two Anglican bishops; the eighth comprises two historical perspectives on conversion to Catholicism in England. There is also a final summing up by a contributing editor.
At the outset one should be wary of simplistic or triumphalist notions of "conversion to Rome," given the rich diversity of Catholicism itself, and the uniqueness of each Christian response it is always a venture in faith. One contributor points out, via St Augustine, that conversion itself is a daily demand, and reception into the Catholic Church is "a step and not a judgement".
As Sheridan Gilley wisely reminds us, "conversion is part of the history of a soul, and its public face can seem as remote as the stars from what the convert thinks and feels". It is a response to the call of God and the insistent prompting and goading of the Holy Spirit. It is also a home-coming that liberates.
Such considerations are not least true for the women clergy in the first section: from Scottish Presbyterianism, the Salvation Army, Methodism (two), and American Anglicanism. The last by Linda Poindexter, wife of a high profile military assistant to President Reagan, is the most substantial, providing us with considered responses to decisive Catholic teaching concerning the role of women, the nature of priesthood, abortion, and gender issues.
The concluding essay in this section will be of especial value and encouragement to married Anglican priests and their wives - the many difficulties and challenges faced, but also the welcome and support received during transition, retraining, and settling into a new ministry.
The five Evangelical bible Christians in the next section comprise three mainly Anglican, one Plymouth Brethren and one Presbyterian, in background. Each of these moves from assumed biblical convictions only to discover the necessity of an ecclesial and more historic dimension to faith and another source of authority. Variously, they also discover a wholeness of faith and a wholeness of life.
Their stories prick many bubbles as to misconceptions of the Catholic Church. One has subsequently become a leader in the work of the St Barnabas Society in England (formerly the Converts' Aid Society) which exists to help clergy who have become Catholics, and another heads up an American based counterpart: The Coming Home Network International.
As the intellectually gifted co-editor of this book, Cyprian Blamires, puts it, "the tests of discipleship vary enormously from person to person ... I was very proud. I had to have my pride broken the hard way ... by nature, a very cerebral person I have had to let go of my desire to understand the mysteries of life and learn to love instead ... ultimately the Catholic faith is not about understanding but about loving."
We are given next the journey of a "new-ager" - a less than felicitous term for such a rich spiritual explorer as Stratford Caldecott. Certainly, he pursues many paths before heading for Rome but does so to exhaust their insights before moving on. He arrives at the conclusion, "Christianity is not a set of ideas. It is not like gnosticism, a doctrine of liberation through enlightenment. It is primarily a means of salvation, which is to say a method of integration - the integration of human with divine life". A gifted writer on many subjects, he is a powerful advocate for the Church and an expert on the interface between Christianity and culture. John Paul II's maxim is also his, "Faith when lived becomes culture".
Anglo-Catholicism may seem a puzzling, perhaps fellow-travelling, expression of Christianity to many Roman Catholics. It is a term covering a range of practices and beliefs emerging from the Catholic revival in the Church of England that began with the Oxford Movement in the mid-nineteenth century, the key figures being Keble, Pusey, and Newman. Three examples comprise our fourth group.
The first, a cradle Anglo-Catholic and subsequent Jesuit, identifies its close relationship with art and architecture as well as a growing isolation within the broader and increasingly liberal Anglican spectrum of recent times. He comes to the conclusion that "it is an essentially nineteenth century development ... an experiment that failed and is progressively anachronistic in its parent body."
The second, a patristic scholar, expands on the subject of continuity, coherence, and sacramentality in the early Fathers - and to whom Anglicanism has historically appealed. He shows the rapid decline of such a perspective in recent years and the increasing incoherence of the Anglican position, with Anglo-Catholic hopes dashed by the failure of the ARCIC process and the introduction of the ordination of women. This is a balanced, objective, convincing, and well documented account of developments resulting in the current disintegration of historic Anglicanism and the case for "seeking theological coherence and sacramental assurance elsewhere". The third writer reflects both Welsh and personal isolation, the crisis of which leads him to finally "belong" following, literally, in the steps of Newman.
We consider next the pathway of a "mainstream Anglican" from comprehensiveness to Catholicism. It is not difficult to show, as here, that what purports to be Anglican comprehension is fatally flawed. Embracing Anglican diversity in practice can be not only a source of obfuscation but personally destructive. The author sees the core of the problem as endemic relativism. He goes on to assert that Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals, on this basis, "readily tolerate" one another and that for Anglicans there is no "objective theology". Such generalisations are wide of the mark. Later he says, "I came to realise that much of the problem of relativity was linked with my own instability of life". As he ceases "chasing my own dreams of a church" and submits to the Catholic Church he finds a new stability.
We are given one compelling account of conversion and ecumenism. The writer, as an Anglican priest, is profoundly challenged when he visits Poland and the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Confronted with the radical faith lived by suffering believers and the reality of martyrdom, he becomes painfully aware of his own personal and culturally compromised understanding of the Church. He is drawn to the centrality of the Cross and a more universal expression of the Church.
Christian East and West are united by the blood of the martyrs and the millions who have died for their faith during the last century. This is more than a path to Rome, it takes us to the heart of a profound unity in Christ's sufferings and also a unity emerging between the historically separated great Churches of East and West. The author is now Director of the Catholic Charity "Aid to the Church in Need".
Public figures taking the path to Rome are, of course, newsworthy and we are given four of these which offer us, variously, matters of public and private consideration. The first, Anne Widdicombe, a former British Cabinet Minister, is still very active in the media; the second, Janne Matlary, gives us an intriguing and unlikely journey, swimming against a tide of cultural subjectivism and relativism through political and Thomistic philosophy to the discovery of God and Christ in the Blessed Sacrament as objective realities. She becomes a delegate for the Holy See, a Christian Democrat politician, and an academic expert in international politics.
The late - and great - Graham Leonard, for nearly 30 years a C of E Bishop would, in the view of many, have become an Archbishop of Canterbury but for the rise of a Liberal ascendency which he opposed with firm theological principle throughout his ministry. He exposes Anglicanism's inbuilt weaknesses, especially the absence of a unifying authority to resolve conflict, and the use of General Synod and consensus politics to alter doctrinal matters – most notably the ordination of women. His reception and conditional re-ordination in 1994 opened, as with Newman, "a fresh understanding and experience of the reality of revealed truth."
The last of these contributors is Richard Rutt, for 20 years an Anglican missionary in Korea, six of them as a bishop. Returning to England he was Bishop of Leicester for 11 years. He unfolds an unflattering story of Anglican colonial expansion and its diverse missionary endeavours. Behind this lies the reality of a church shaped by political expediency rather than doctrinal cohesiveness. Increasingly feeling "the stress of living in a house built on the sand of shifting doctrines", in 1994 he moves to a house founded on the rock.
The final section brings the personal and professional insights of two exAnglican Catholic historians to bear on the issues raised by this book.
The first is Sheridan Gilley who presents us with what he calls "the public face of conversion". This is applied first to his own media travail on becoming a Catholic in 1992. He then unpacks statistics of conversion in England which "show that the number of conversions rose and fell with other indices of religious fervour outside the Roman Catholic Church" and "that proportionally speaking the Catholic Church is hardly, if at all, more successful in recruiting outside its own ranks than the Methodist Church". This chapter is replete with informative historical and socio-political material.
The second is Ian Ker, a leading authority on Newman, who brings a penetrating and analytic intellect to bear on his own spiritual biography which becomes interwoven with that of Newman himself. Progressive disenchantment with the Church of England characterises both as presented here. Harshest criticism is reserved for the shortcomings of Anglo-Catholicism whose only authority is that of "private judgement"; indeed, "carrying within itself the seeds of theological liberalism, however liturgical or sacramental it might be". Anglicanism was "a tomb of what was once living, the casket of a treasure which has been lost". In Ker's hands Newman's severity of judgement, along with his own, is unrelenting.
Fortunately for Anglicans, not least Anglo-Catholics, the judgement of Pope Benedict in his recent Apostolic Constitution is quite otherwise; for it is his intention to rescue Anglican treasure, placing it within Ordinariates - and further, to share it with other Catholics.
We may worship, he says, "according to the liturgical books proper to the Anglican tradition which have been approved by the Holy See, so as to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared".
Sheridan Gilley described Anglo-Catholicism as "the most culturally attractive form of Christianity I have ever encountered ... in its learning, its devotion, its sheer beauty, it is the preparation without equal". He was referring, of course, to his own preparation for becoming a Catholic. May it be so for many who will be blessed in taking such an Anglican patrimony into full communion with the Holy See.
Bishop David Robarts is the National Chairman of Forward in Faith Australia, and Bishop of the Southern Apostolic District in the Anglican Catholic Church of Australia - the Australian manifestation of the Traditional Anglican Communion.