BIRMINGHAM, England—It may come as a surprise to some but pre-Reformation England was one of the most devout Catholic countries in Europe.
A series of speakers at a Path to Rome Conference held here in October made just that point and speculated that the country is quietly becoming Catholic once again.
The fourth International Path to Rome Conference was the first to be held in England. An apostolate of the Miles Jesu apostolic institute, the conferences are designed to promote the important role of converts in the life and ministry of the Church, including Catholic apologetics and evangelization.
“One of the common experiences [expressed in the stories of recent English converts] is the sense of coming home,” said Dwight Longenecker, a former Anglican minister. “No matter what the person's background, no matter what the previous denomination, it was this sense of fulfillment” that convinces the convert to enter the Church.
The Catholic Church in England was suppressed by King Henry VIII in the 16th century and was not legally restored until 1850. A second springtime for the Church began almost immediately with Cardinal John Henry Newman, a convert, in the vanguard.
And the movement has continued in contemporary times — despite the problems afflicting the Church in the West in recent decades.
The number of those received into the Church increases year by year while the reality of the country's Catholic history and the Church's influence on English culture is more openly acknowledged.
A current exhibition at the British Museum of London includes artifacts belonging to St. Thomas More, who met a martyr's death for refusing to renounce the pope's authority. Such an exhibit would have been unthinkable not long ago.
This process received a major boost in 1992 with the publication of a landmark historical work, The Stripping of The Altars, by Cambridge University's Eamon Duffy. The book exploded the myth that the Reformation was embraced by the ordinary people. Instead, Duffy demonstrated that the Reformation represented a violent rupture from a popular and theologically sound English Catholic culture.
The 1990s has seen a new wave of high-profile converts which even included members of the extended royal family, academia, the media and the world of politics.
The late Cardinal Basil Hume, archbishop of Westminster, openly talked of “the conversion of England,” and few would disagree that conversions to Catholicism is a major factor in English religious life that cannot be ignored or dismissed as a passing fad.
Conference speakers included Father Graham Leonard, the former Anglican bishop of London, along with members of Parliament John Gummer and Ann Widdecombe.
Widdecombe, the opposition spokeswoman on crime and justice, told the conference that her conversion had become inevitable as the Church of England seemed to be losing its moral authority. “The vote to ordain women was the last straw for me,” she said.
Widdecombe said that she needed only 15 minutes with Cardinal Hume to dispel the doubts of a lifetime about the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Hume is credited by many with leading the Church to new levels of social acceptability in England, helping to shed the Church's image among the majority Anglicans as a religion for Italian and Irish immigrants.
According to William Oddie, a former Anglican clergyman and current editor of The Catholic Herald weekly newspaper, social acceptance is only one aspect of a wider sea change in the religious attitudes of Britons.
Oddie, whose newspaper sponsored the conference, told the Register, “The Roman Catholic Church used to have a rather working-class image but things began to change [in the 1980s] with the production on national TV of Brideshead Revisited,” Evelyn Waugh's novel about an aristocratic family that was both English and Catholic.
“I also think, on a more serious note, this coincided with a feeling that history had to be put right after a major distortion,” he said. “It was about this time that Eamon Duffy's book appeared on the scene.”
Oddie and others agreed that the book produced a genuine paradigm shift in the way English historians view the Reformation, making it difficult for any scholar to deny England's Catholic roots.
It was Oddie's predecessor at the Herald, American-born Christina Odone, who, in the early 1990s, was the first media figure to note that it had become “chic” to be Catholic.
Not a single national magazine or newspaper failed to pick up on the trend. Gossip columns reported on high society converts throughout the '90s, and continue to speculate on which celebrities are thinking about becoming Catholic.
There has been “an element of fun in this,” acknowledged Oddie, who has chronicled the serious aspects of the trend, including in a 1996 book, The Roman Option, that chronicled the conversions of Anglican clerics.
He said, “The prayer for the conversion of England [formerly said after Mass] has been neglected but the conversion of England is a constant theme of my editorials.”
World-renowned Newman authority Father Ian Ker said the Catholic Church has little room to be triumphal at the present time, despite the declining state of the Church of England.
Father Ker reminded the conference of Newman's prophetic words shortly before his death that a combination of liberal and evangelical influences would destroy Anglican claims to be part of the Catholic Church. “This became true in 1992, a century after [Newman's] death with the vote to ordain women as priests in defiance of both [Orthodox] Constantinople and [Catholic] Rome,” said Father Ker.
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.