The House of Mirrors – 4

Furthermore, after two years in the parish I got married and we soon had a couple of children. Country vicarage life was pleasant and good. It seemed an ideal place to settle and bring up a family. In addition I didn’t really like what I saw of the Catholic Church.

If it was simply a matter of choosing a church I liked I’d still be an Anglican. But when the General Synod of the Church of England voted to ordain women as priests all the doubts and disenchantment which had remained vague started to crystallize. How could the Anglican church, which claimed to be part of the Catholic and Apostolic church, take such a decision unilaterally? The desperate and well-meaning attempts to keep Anglo-Catholics on board that followed looked like the principle of Anglican ‘comprehensiveness’ was really the only thing that mattered. The bishops had maintained a formal unity, but without doctrinal unity what kind of foundation was the house built on? In contrast, the other Protestant groups seemed to have doctrinal agreement, but had split up into sectarian denominations and had so lost the structural unity which the Anglicans retained. Why couldn’t a church maintain unity in both form and doctrine?


It was then that I read Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and something he said hit me between the eyes. Newman wrote:

If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must, humanly speaking, have an infallible expounder, else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties; between latitudinarian and sectarian error … You must accept the whole or reject the whole … it is trifling to receive all but something which is as integral as any other portion. Thus it would be trifling indeed to accept everything Catholic except the head of the body of Christ on earth.

There wasn’t any way around it. In Newman’s terms Anglicanism was social. It was latitudinarian. It was comprehensive of opinion. But to retain these strengths it had to sacrifice unity of doctrine. On the other hand the other Protestant groups were dogmatic. They were sectarian, they had resolved into parties. They had kept doctrinal agreement but sacrificed structural unity. The only way to retain unity of form and unity of doctrine was to have an agreed, visible, infallible authority. Such an authority would faithfully interpret the Scriptures to ensure unity of doctrine while providing the structure which would ensure unity of form.

The pressure was mounting. Could I take the step to Rome? I hadn’t trained for any other career or profession. I had a wife and young family to support. At the same time I was reading Eammon Duffy’s monumental work, The Stripping of the Altars. All the Protestant propaganda about the corrupt and moribund pre-Reformation church began to fall away in the face of Duffy’s relentless accumulation of facts and documentation. To make matters worse I began to read the apostolic fathers – works that I had never been encouraged to read in my Evangelical training. I was astounded to find them Catholicthrough and through. As Newman had discovered, any trace of Anglican or distinctively Evangelical thought was completely absent.

By now I was a regular at Quarr Abbey. If I was quick I could slip away on Sunday afternoons for Vespers and Solemn Benediction and still get back to my parish to take Evensong. So one Sunday afternoon as the monks’ plainchant ascended with the incense things came to a climax. I told God just how I felt. I resented the move I was being asked to make. I was just getting settled in my marriage, my career, my parish, my dream.

Now it was being pulled out from under my feet. ‘Lord,’ I cried silently, ‘I only wanted to be part of the ancient church in England!’ Then, as the monks resumed their chant, and the incense filled the sanctuary, the still small voice replied, ‘But THIS is the ancient church in England.’

Three months later on a cold night in February with my wife and two small children and a handful of friends we went into the crypt of the Abbey church at Quarr and were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. If living within Anglicanism was like being in a hall of mirrors, then being united with the Catholic Church was like being in a hall flanked with tall windows. Within Anglicanism I had looked for a church which held a high view of Scripture and the Sacraments, and reached out with a social conscience enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

What I had tried to construct on my own I found waiting for me within the Catholic Church. Within Anglicanism I found a sense of history and continuity, but within Catholicism I found a history and continuity which went back not five hundred years, but two thousand. I had wanted to affirm all things, and in the Catholic Church I can say that my whole Evangelical and Anglican experiences have not been denied, but fulfilled. I can still affirm all that my non-Catholic friends and family affirm. I simply cannot deny what some of them deny.

Most importantly I came to realize that much of the problem of relativity was linked with my own instability of life. So that night in the crypt of Quarr Abbey I ceased chasing my own dream of a church, and submitted to Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. There, with a sense of both loss and relief, we entered a house built not on shifting sands, but on the Rock.