Edmund Matyjaszek says British Christians must become defenders of conscience once again Unheralded and almost unrecorded, an event occurred about 18 months ago that I believe will be in future history books held up as the defining moment when the long estrangement of England from itself that the violent eruption of the Reformation ushered in was finally ended.
The tale is one that takes us back in history: first, to that terrible wrench that made so many Christian martyrs on both sides, on to the compelling tale of the conversion of John Henry Newman; and finally to the noble but to date, at the institutional level, ineffective efforts of the ecumenical movement in the last 40 years.
The event itself was a simple one: the laying of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the altar at the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
But it is those who had signed it and on whose behalf it was laid that mattered: the bishops of the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), and above all that it was the act of an ecclesial body, not as in the 19th century and since a matter of individual conversions. That is the crux of the matter and its significance.
To that we add a third dimension that makes it an issue of supreme applicability to us in England: that it was at the ancient shrine of Our Lady that harbours both an Anglican and a Catholic (and an Orthodox) presence and which pre-dates the divisions of the Reformation. But why should such an act carry the actual and symbolic significance I would claim for it?
For that we need to go back to John Henry Newman’s conversion in 1845 and indeed earlier to the foundation of the Oxford or Tractarian movement in 1833. This was at a time when Tennyson was beginning to write his Arthurian poems, conjuring up an earlier and idealistic era of British history, when Augustus Pugin was stimulating and enacting the Gothic revival in architecture, and when men like Edward Pusey and John Keble, along with Newman, were searching for a more solid foundation for their faith in the Church Fathers.
Newman and his colleagues were looking for a restoration of faith, doctrine and liturgical practice that could substantiate the claim of the Church of England to be in Apostolic Succession. The rich liturgical ceremonial of the Anglo-Catholic church was then born, with its re-emphasis on the sacraments and the re-establishment of devotions, including Marian prayer. Of course the search for authenticity finally took Newman into the Catholic Church itself in 1845. And later took such figures as Cardinal Manning and, in the last century, Ronald Knox and many others along the same path.
But these were all individual conversions. The belief of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican church was always that it held an unbroken line of continuity from the medieval Church. This was the originating passion of the Tractarians. The same medieval Church whose architecture informed and inspired August Pugin and configured so much of what we are familiar with as church architecture in this country. The same medieval Church that had as its one great national shrine that of Our Lady at Walsingham that king and commoner would both make pilgrimages to, entering as Sir Walter Raleigh put it in his poem “the holy land of Walsingham”.
What has in recent years made this Anglo-Catholic position untenable has been the way in which the main Anglican Communion has broken by its ordination of women any continuity with this pre Reformation Church. Add to that the continuing controversy over the role of sexuality, in particular same-sex practice (made more critical by the episcopal ordination of an avowedly gay cleric in America) to decide which there appears no conclusive text from scripture, or at least none that all parties can agree upon, and the very issue of doctrinal and teaching authority that so taxed Newman and his colleagues becomes a pressing one for thoughtful Anglo-Catholics.
When you add to that the continued hostility of government to the religiously minded, and the fear that practices not in conformity with the Gospel will insistently be forced upon the unwilling consciences of Christians in this country, particularly in education and healthcare, any safety and anchorage that being an established church may give Anglicans or others ceases to attract. Increasingly it will be the independence of the Christian conscience and those churches that can sustain that independence in spirit and in fact that will come to be seen as the defences of human liberty.
Suddenly now the phrase from Magna Carta – that “the English Church should be free” – takes on a pressing contemporary relevance and restores to the Christian body its ancient role as the defender of liberty and of conscience against the overweening power of the state. That was the role of St Thomas of Canterbury when he resisted – and paid for it with his life – the claims of Henry II’s Plantagenet state. That is also the legacy – of the primacy of conscience – that the martyrs of the Reformation on all sides have given to us, an inheritance we can all jointly cherish and uphold. That was the long and hard task of the reduced Catholic Church during the times of the penal laws.
But whatever the processes that have led the TAC to make its historic act of avowal on the Catechism, it is that they have done so not as a set of individuals but as an ecclesial body that is most significant. If the response of the Catholic Church is constructive and generous, and the nature of the times is properly read, this could lead to a form of acceptance that would allow full communion with the Catholic Church while retaining so much of their own liturgical and devotional traditions as to make unity a real communion instead of either a dilution or an act of submission. The signing of the Catechism by their body of bishops has cleared the way for this. And if accepted, they could be the means by which ecclesial groups find a procedure as Christian “churches” to seek the unity Christ enjoins upon his one body, the church.
That would then start to complete the process begun by the Tractarians of 1833 when they sought authentic tradition; and reach back earlier to heal the wounds of the Reformation. It would occur at a time when a united proclamation of the truths of Christ is so sorely needed by our society. This potential realignment of Christian forces in this country, and the challenge posed to us by an aggressive and hostile state, prompted this “call to arms”, to defend not just our own Christian beliefs and the right to love and worship our Lord without hindrance but to do so as one united people, as our Lord enjoined, and to do so standing in line with these witnesses of old from the time of Magna Carta to the martyrs of the Reformation, to defend that most basic liberty of all, that of thought and conscience.
Edmund Matyjaszek is a poet and playwright