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The Reconversion of England

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

By Br Bede Mullens | Last week we celebrated the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury; and that first apostle of the Angles perhaps raised in the minds of some Catholics the thought of England’s reconversion.

Last week we celebrated the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury; and that first apostle of the Angles perhaps raised in the minds of some Catholics the thought of England’s reconversion. You may know the first story already. St Gregory the Great, out for a potter in the forum, was struck by the bright blond features of two fair Saxon striplings. “What are they?” he asked.

– “Why, your holiness,” he was informed, “the men of this race are called Angli,” which is translated ‘Angles’ or ‘Englishmen’ in our tongue.

– The Pope looked again. –“Non Angli, sed angeli”, he replied, “not Angles, but Angels!” he declared them. And, moved with pity for a people in darkness still, he commissioned St Augustine to sally forth and call that people into God’s marvellous light.

“Perform signs again, work further wonders!” we are inclined to pray with the Psalmist. Would that England might be returned to the bosom of Holy Mother Church! “Faith of our fathers”, and all that. No doubt a noble intention, and one dear to the hearts of those who laboured to re-establish the Church in this land after the wreckage of the Reformation. But I am not sure that it is really an intention that can now be taken seriously: not because we should not desire the conversion of our country, but because there is no longer an England to be reconverted.

When late 19th and early 20th century Catholics spoke about the re-conversion of England, what they had in mind was something like is expressed in the well-known ‘Prayer for England’: “pray for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold, they may be united to the Chief Shepherd, the Vicar of thy Son.” One could speak about the reconversion of England as a whole, because it was taken for granted that England on the whole was Anglican; and the reconversion of England would consist of reuniting the English church to communion with the Roman, and correcting her erroneous ways. England, quite indisputably, is no longer homogeneously Anglican; and even if there were a wholesale corporate reunion between the Anglican Communion and the one holy Catholic Church (unlikely as that is), the upshot of it would not be the reconversion of England.

The difficulty is wider still. The loss of a homogeneous religious identity has come about with the deterioration of an English cultural identity. The reason for that is not so much the fact of immigration and multiculturalism, although that does have notable consequences for the demographic and cultural-devotional make-up of the Catholic Church in England. The bland, tolerant ideology of secular liberal democracy has undone English identity, and more than that the possibility of a robust national identity. What is left of such an identity in the mainstream of culture consists of hardly more than a certain kind of superficial rhetoric, an already dead attempt at recollecting ‘what it is to be English’: you know the kind of guff about tea and Churchill and the royal family and British values that are intended to bring a tear of swelling pride to the eye, but really cause one to cringe.

We are all the children of bland, tolerant secular liberal democracy. We are all born into a way of living whose default is characterised by an atomistic individualism, the indulgence of personal whims (call that autonomy) and the toleration of diverse tastes (they call it respect), in which culture (even religion) is presented to us as in a bazaar for picking and choosing, having your fill of this while haggling that away. Society is set up so that a general religious conversion is not possible: there is no longer a nation with a substantive and generally diffused culture to be evangelised, let alone a political figurehead (like a monarch or chieftain) with such authority or sway as to determine the creed of the people.

So the odds are rather stacked against the reconversion of England. I, at least, struggle to see what that could mean. That is not to say, however, that we should give up on a culture of English Catholicism. There is a valuable tradition, literary and spiritual and devotional, to be mined, which has fed on and nourished Catholicism in this land in all eras of its history, before the Normans, before Henry VIII, and even still after him. In all those times there have been saints, martyrs and doctors and kings and monks, women and men married and unmarried. We in England have a great many advocates in heaven, and a great wealth from the history of this place with which to enrich our practice and our preaching. Perhaps the attempt to retrieve such treasures, as well as the call to selflessness and common life that the Church issues in all times and places, will help us to overcome the more pernicious aspects of society’s present constitution.

Elsewhere, we have an abiding city, a blessed home, and for now a light that leads us on: “Christ is the Morning Star, who when the night of this world is past, brings to His saints the promise of the light of life, and opens everlasting day” (St Bede the Venerable).

Br Bede Mullens O.P.

Br Bede was born in Enfield and grew up in Essex. He read Literae Humaniores at St Hugh’s College in the University of Oxford. It was in Oxford that he first met the Dominicans, and he joined the Order in 2017 after completing his degree. The writings of Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger greatly influenced his development in the Faith. He retains a wide interest in literature; among religious authors, he particularly admires St Augustine and St John Henry Newman. | bede.mullens@english.op.org


Robert commented on 10-Jun-2019 09:45 AM
Nice one Br Bede!

Though I am old enough to remember the 1950s when England was a much more homogeneous place I often thought that the Re-conversion of England was an odd thing to pray for. It is not as though England before the Reformation was such a truly catholic place - life for most was pretty Hobbesian - nasty, brutish and short. The Oxford Movement in the 19th century led by Newman and the Tractarians may have for some briefly given impetus to a reunion of Catholic and Anglican communions I don't think it was ever a real possibility.

I pray for a less self-obsessed and often angry England where there was less violence and general nastiness in the way people treat each other. In other words, I guess, I am praying for a conversion of England to a realisation that we are all made in the image and likeness of our Creator and that we treat each other as such.

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