My Journey into Catholicism

I recently came across the following reflections, which were shared some years ago with the (now defunct) Leicester Chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests. The article describes my journey into 'full faith Catholicism' and pre-dates both my joining the Sodality of Mary Mother of Priests and the re-awakening of my Charismatic spirituality. Nevertheless, the story remains accurate - so far as it goes - and I am still happy to own the points it makes, though I realise some will perhaps be contentious. I am happy to reproduce it here unedited, as a key part of my personal testimony and in the hope that it may be of interest, amusement or encouragement to others.


“The Fullness of Faith : My Journey into Catholicism”
Paper delivered to the Leicester Chapter of SCP
on the Feast of St Joseph 2014

When Lisa originally invited me to speak this evening, she suggested that I should talk about the importance of the living-out of our Catholic faith.  I was somewhat daunted at this prospect; after all, what makes me such an expert on the subject, especially in such august company where I would most certainly be teaching my grandmothers – and grandfathers – to suck eggs?
I decided the only way around the problem was to speak specifically about how important the living out of my Catholicism is to me personally, and that the best way of doing that might be to describe my own spiritual pilgrimage – hence the title of this session. I hope that there will be things here with which you’ll identify – and maybe also one or two things that will be thought-provoking or even challenging.

As some of you know, I was born in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, affectionately known as “The Cheltenham of the north”. My parents were nominal Anglicans, but they dutifully sent me to Sunday School every Sunday afternoon. This was not at our parish church, but at our nearest church, which at that time was of the Evangelical Free variety.

Maybe my innate Catholicism reacted to the fundamentalist environment in which it found itself, but I remember fighting tooth and nail every week not to attend Sunday School. On one occasion - which for some reason I remember very vividly - when perhaps some other innate tendencies were surfacing, I insisted that I would only go on condition that I went dressed as a cowboy, which indeed I did. Make of that what you will! It was, I suspect, no accident that at the annual prize-giving service – when I quite rightly missed-out on all the awards for good attendance and so on, I was given a “special” prize. It was a book telling the parable of the lost sheep.

Only too happy to be a lost sheep, I stopped attending Sunday School at the earliest opportunity, my parents being well and truly ground-down; and, despite my definitely believing in God, that was the end of any involvement with church for several years.

At the age of five I started to learn the piano at the hands of a fierce old lady who sat next to me clutching a thick wooden knitting needle with which she’d rap me over the knuckles if I got anything wrong. Nowadays of course she’d be in prison by now and the story would have hit the headlines, but this was a different era. By the time I was eleven, I was with a rather more civilised piano tutor, who expressed the view that I would probably be very good at playing the organ. Again, make of that what you will!

As it happens, I started to have organ lessons at what was now our parish church, Christ Church, Harrogate. The tradition there was what you might call “sunny side of middle”. I started to attend services and to occasionally play. I loved the ritual and the colour of the services and decided that there was definitely something in this God business.At the age of fifteen, I was head-hunted for the one and only time in my life, and was invited to become the organist of a nearby Methodist Church. From a musical point of view – to say nothing about supplementary pocket-money – this was too good an opportunity to miss. It wasn’t really a typical Methodist church. It did have a predominantly elderly and I must say rather quaint congregation, but it also had a significant number of young people in their teens and twenties, who had a very evangelical and charismatic outlook on life. 

Needless to say the liturgy – what there was of it – wasn’t to my liking. Whilst my heart leapt for joy when I heard that the choir would be doing a torch-lit procession into church for the Christmas carol service, it sank heavily when they entered the darkened church bearing battery-operated torches.
As you might expect, I was taken under the wing of these young evangelicals and it wasn’t long before I was being told that I must give my life to Jesus. I have to say in all honesty that I saw a genuineness in the faith of my friends there, and I could see that their belief had a profound effect on how they saw life and how they lived life. I was envious – and wanted what they had, but something held me back. Was it that innate Catholicism again?

At the age of sixteen, my life changed completely. I went off on holiday with my parents to Norfolk, but once there we went our separate ways. I spent a good deal of my time walking on long, solitary beaches and thinking about God. For me, as for so many others, the sea tends to heighten the spiritual senses.
I also spent time visiting a number of churches, among them Wymondham Abbey – a glorious building of cathedral proportions, with a wonderful gilded reredos by Ninian Comper and a strong Catholic tradition. The Vicar and Curate were putting out chairs for a concert that evening, and we chatted for a few minutes, mainly about church music and then I knelt at the back of the nave somewhere and lost myself in the wonderful ambience of the building. As I left the church I was struck, with an almost physical impact, by a thought that was as ridiculous as it was powerful. “One day, I’m going to be a priest.”

The whole idea was, of course, absurd. At this stage I wasn’t even confirmed. I was the offspring of nominal Anglican parents, currently attending a Methodist church, mixing with Evangelical Charismatics, teetering on the brink of being evangelically converted but feeling a distinct call to be an Anglican priest. What nonsense!

But the thought wouldn’t go away. It nagged and nagged until eventually I cracked and told my Methodist friends. Strangely, they didn’t seem at-all surprised, and their basic response was to say that my need to give my life to Jesus was all the more urgent. So believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened. With that surrender came a great sense of peace, but an ever-increasing sense of being called.

I was grateful – and I remain grateful to this day – for the sense of having a personal relationship with Christ which came from that encounter. Despite many differences, I continue to respect evangelical and Charismatic Christians for the impact that their faith has on their day-to-day lives, but I knew even back then that, for me, there was something missing in their worship. I may have found Jesus, but I was still searching for something.

At the age of eighteen or so I left the Methodists for good and returned to Christ Church where I eventually got confirmed, became a server and joined a contemplative prayer group. Within a couple of years, I was in the system as a potential ordination candidate. I definitely had a greater sense of belonging here and yet, there was still something missing and I had no idea what it was.

It was one Ascension Day when I decided, for no particular reason other than curiosity, to visit a church at the other end of town. St Wilfrid’s was known to be (I quote) “very high” – and I was intrigued to see what this meant. There was to be an evening Sung Eucharist there, so along I went. St Wilfrid’s is an impressive building in anybody’s book, but nothing prepared me for what I experienced that evening; a great procession with banners, gold vestments, clouds of incense, bells. I had found what I was looking for – or so I thought. Here was worship that for me at any rate was every bit as exuberant and uplifting as anything my charismatic friends did, but there was also an almost overwhelming sense of the numinous – the mystery and the wonder of God – and here was worship that engaged every one of the senses. I felt as if I had just come home.

Not long afterwards I had a conversation with my Director of Ordinands in which he agreed that it would be appropriate for me to shift my allegiance to St Wilfrid’s as I was, in his words, on a voyage of discovery learning about the diversity of Anglicanism; but he had a stern warning which, at that time, I didn’t really understand.
“Don’t imagine for a moment” he said, “that what you have found at St Wilfrid’s is Anglo-Catholicism. There’s a lot more for you to discover yet.”

In hindsight, I know that he was absolutely right. In those days St Wilfrid’s was a variation on what used to be known as “Prayer Book Catholic”. It was solidly Anglican, with a strong 'state' feel and a lot of high church ritual, but it wasn’t – to use a phrase I was to pick up later at Chichester – full faith Catholic. I believe nowadays it is!

My encounter with full-on Catholicism was to come a few months later, when an eccentric ex-nun in our congregation decided, much to the Vicar’s chagrin, to arrange a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

Our Vicar was a very bluff Yorkshireman, and although Mirfield trained, wasn’t into (I quote) “all that airy-fairy stuff”. As I clambered aboard the coach with thirty or so other parishioners, he looked on tutting and shaking his head and then he grabbed my arm and muttered sternly, “You watch yourself and don’t get a taste for all that ponsing around!”

He needn’t have worried. I enjoyed all the “ponsing around”, but I saw it for what it was – a bit of high camp and great fun – a Catholic equivalent of the charismatic arm-waving and dancing in the aisles. And what’s wrong with having a bit of fun?  In other ways, though, at a much deeper level Walsingham really blew me away. For the first time I encountered Marian devotion, which brought a whole new dimension into my spirituality.

Discovering Mary as a strong feminine element in my faith changed my relationship with God. That figure, that woman who stood with St John at the foot of the cross, suddenly stood with me as a helper, an intercessor, bringing gentleness and care and love and all that is best in true motherhood. This brought a new dynamic into my relationship with God.
St Bernard of Clairvaux’s much-loved prayer sums it up for me:

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly to you, O Virgin of Virgins, my Mother; to you do I come; before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer me. Amen. 

It was also at Walsingham that I first encountered the rite of Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction, and it all made perfect sense to me. If I believed – as I instinctively did – that Christ was especially, mysteriously and really present in the Blessed Sacrament, why should he stay locked away for the sick and the housebound? Why shouldn’t he be enthroned on the altar as an object for our prayer and adoration? Why shouldn’t we be blessed in a special way by this most wonderful presence?

Although I had previously made the odd confession, it was on this same pilgrimage to Walsingham after a long time of prayer in the holy house, that I made my first full and truly honest confession, addressing all the inner conflict that I felt at that time between my vocation and my sexuality; and there, in the confessional, and later in the sprinkling at the holy well, for the first time in my Christian life, I found true healing and peace and reconciliation. When we left at the end of the weekend, although still confused and conflicted to a degree, but Iiberated from self-hate and misplaced guilt, I knew that I could and indeed must continue pursuing the possibility of ordination.

I knew, too, that I wanted to embrace this full, rich Catholic faith, with its celebration of all seven sacraments, with its sense of the role of the communion of saints and the power of their intercession, with its recognition of Mary’s role as Christ-bearer, Co-redemtrix and Mother of all Christians, with that special sense of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, with its deep historic roots and traditions, and above all with its uplifting worship and profound sense of the numinous.

So I knew that if I were accepted for ordination, I would have to go to a Catholic College. Eventually, having got through what was then called ACCM, I went to Chichester. There, too, I encountered full-faith Catholicism, but it must be said that I also encountered quite a lot of dysfunctional Catholicism.

First, there was the Romanist element. Now don’t get me wrong, as a Catholic I have no problem at-all with recognising that the unity of the church is a crucial goal, and that unity with Rome should be a priority within that goal. Nor do I have a problem in recognising that there are some bits of Roman liturgy that are far preferable to their Anglican counterparts, so I’ve never been averse to the use of VAT – Vatican Added Texts. I can even cope with people using the Roman Rite in its entirety, although that’s never been my particular thing.
What I couldn’t cope with at Chichester was the apparent total denial of some students of their true Anglican identity. Their looking to Rome had reached a point where it became a self-deception. To these students – and to the priests that they were to become – loyalty to their Catholicism meant they could disobey their own bishop as much as they wished; but they didn’t spot the problem here - that Catholic ecclesiology demands obedience to the bishop. They were effectively living a lie.

The second area of dysfunction was - surprise, surprise - to do with sexuality.  Most of my fellow students – including several of those who had wives – were gay. Some were committed to celibacy; some were striving to be celibate with varying degrees of success and failure. Others were in discreet, stable relationships; others were positively promiscuous.  

Being gay was a problem, if not for the individual, then at least for the church, and of course, sadly, things haven’t changed as much as one would hope; but this secretive and suppressed sexuality often emerged in bizarre and disturbing ways. There was a dishonesty surrounding the whole subject. There’s still a great deal of dishonesty about homosexuality in the church, of course, – not least in the house of bishops – but what I’m talking about here was a dishonesty about self,  a lack of inner integrity, which was profoundly destructive.

One of our more promiscuous brethren, for example, caused outrage one day by saying, “When I’m a priest and I hear confessions, I shall come down like a ton of bricks on anyone who confesses to any kind of same sex relationship”. When challenged about how he could say that, given his own situation, he responded with these chilling words: “I choose to follow my personal conscience in sexual matters; but my job as a priest is to uphold the teachings of the church.”

In some ways, of course, he was absolutely right, it’s the role of the priest to uphold the teachings of the church; but is it not also the role of the priest to live with personal integrity? In any event, given that he was also an arch-Romanist, how I wonder did he square his own conscience with the hard-line anti gay message coming from Rome at that time?

Linked in with all of this, of course, is the issue of the ordination of women. I must admit that it took me a few years to realise that my own hard-line opposition to women priests was actually an unthinking adherence to the party-line and a denial of personal integrity. I was, by then, exercising my own conscience in relation to my sexuality, and I was actively campaigning for a change in the church’s stance. If I were challenging the tradition regarding homosexuality, then was I not also obliged to re-think the tradition regarding gender and priesthood? When I did so, my position changed. To be honest, it was a hard transition to make, and I lost quite a few friends in the process, but made a few new ones to compensate.

Although the church is still in a mess about homosexuality, I think there is at least a little more honesty than there used to be, and despite huge difficulties, I think those of us at the heart of the debate are managing to live with some degree of integrity. The lack of integrity now is found more amongst the church leadership.

At the risk of being highly contentious and perhaps rather judgmental, I have to say that I believe many of the dysfunctional elements of Anglo-Catholicism have subsided with the advent of the Ordinariate. I get a feeling that those Catholics now remaining within the Church of England, even those who remain opposed to women priests and bishops, are living with greater integrity, and I believe that integrity lies at the heart of true Catholic Faith.

One of the questions I find hard to answer these days is, “How do you describe your churchmanship?” Labels, of course, are always at best inadequate and at worst positively dangerous. The label “liberal catholic” is the one which I often seem to wear, but whilst I’m certainly open and inclusive in my Catholicism, I’m not at-all sure that I’m a liberal. Indeed spiritually, theologically and liturgically I’m actually very conservative.

Perhaps this is why I’ve been disappointed by some of the reforming Catholic movements of recent years. I was there decades ago at the meeting that launched what was to become Affirming Catholicism. The movement does some very good work, but I do find that many, perhaps even most of its adherents are what could be truly labelled 'Liberal Catholics'. They have a Eucharistic focus, wear vestments and often use incense, but the name Mary may seldom cross their lips and they wouldn’t dream of picking up a monstrance and giving benediction or promoting the idea of sacramental confession in their local congregation.

I’m not knocking these folk at all. They’re part of the rich spectrum of Anglicanism, but they don’t necessarily embrace the fullness of the Catholic faith; for whatever reasons they stop short. 

My concern is that some – I stress some - Catholics stop short through self-consciousness, through a fear of being perceived as “extreme” or evoking the disapproval of their bishop. I worry that it’s this kind of nervousness, far more than the gender of our priests or bishops, that is putting the future of the Catholic movement in the Church of England at serious risk.

If the full-faith Catholic wing of the church disappears, the liturgical balance of the Church of England will be lost. It’s not just that a valuable movement that has a lot to offer in and of itself will have gone, it’s that a strong influence across the whole Anglican spectrum will have been lost.

From the Oxford Movement onwards, Catholicism has shaped main- stream Anglican liturgy. At present, the Eucharist remains the central act of worship in most churches regardless of their tradition – although this is now increasingly at risk as the Eucharist is perceived as being somehow exclusive.  Clergy of all traditions now wear Eucharistic vestments. Wearing of the chasuble is pretty commonplace now even amongst some evangelicals; but many of those who wear it probably have no idea of what it represents and why it is worn, and indeed if they did know, they’d probably take it off pretty quickly.

I think it’s a shame that a church as rich and varied as the Church of England is in danger of becoming rather monochrome. I think it will be a tragedy if all that is best in our Catholic heritage is lost to the Ordinariate or to a shrinking marginalised conservative group. As I’ve said before, “Why should the devil have all the best liturgy?” 
                 
Well as you will gather, my Christian pilgrimage so far has been quite a journey – as I’m sure yours has. I’m left valuing and respecting the evangelical and charismatic tradition into which I was converted and in which I discovered the joy of having a personal relationship with Christ; I value too the middle church tradition that sustained me in my early days; but above all I value the Catholicism in which the faith is celebrated fully, in all its richness.  Other traditions have much to offer, but they only ever feel partial and incomplete.

Finally, I know the importance of discipline in the Christian life, and I know the value of having a rule of life – both of which are key elements in our membership of SCP - but I can honestly say that I have very seldom attended or celebrated Mass or kept a Saint’s feast day out of a sense of duty, but almost always out of a sense of the privilege and joy that is to be found in worshipping God in the fullness of faith and the beauty of holiness. I don’t think I’ve often made a confession merely out of a sense of duty, however apprehensive I may have felt beforehand, but I’ve done it above all because I know what a joy that sense of reconciliation and healing can bring. 

All of this is definitely something worth sharing with the wider church and definitely something worth fighting for, for the Church of England would be greatly impoverished by the loss of this tradition.     
                                         
          

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