The Diocese of Northampton was dismissed as the 'dead diocese' until the arrival of Bishop Arthur Riddell

Gracewing has recently published Catholic East Anglia, edited by Francis Young, as a way of celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Diocese of East Anglia, carved out of the Diocese of Northampton in 1976. This not only gave East Anglian Catholics their own bishop for the first time since the Reformation but killed off the old joke that Catholics on the East Coast were nearer to Holland than they were to Northampton.

I have been reading the chapter “East Anglia in the Victorian Diocese of Northampton 1850-1901” by Professor John Charmley of the University of East Anglia, a regular contributor to the Herald magazine. He paints a bleak picture of this rural outpost: “For 300 years the area included in the bishopric (seven counties: Bucks, Beds, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk) had been a most desolate one from the Catholic point of view.”

Twenty-seven priests served 86 churches and chapels in an area of 7,000 square miles. It remained untouched by the industrial revolution and the consequent urbanisation; the huge numbers of Irish Catholics escaping famine went to big cities, such as London, Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool, rather than to a seemingly remote countryside where Nonconformity ruled and where Anglicanism predominated in Northampton, Norwich and Cambridge, the three largest towns.

Charmley comments that the middle-class Catholics of the region survived “in the purlieus of the gentry” and that the location of the Catholic communities “maps out recusant households.” He adds that these old aristocratic families had not particularly welcomed the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales in 1851, “being somewhat Gallican in their sympathies.” Given their memory of their past history, one of fines and persecution, they tended to keep themselves to themselves and did not seek to evangelise. As Charmley writes: “It was a recipe for stagnation and decline.”

The first new Bishop of Northampton, William Wareham, lacked the zeal required to change this forlorn situation: “not the man to lead any great mission”. His successor Bishop Amherst, from recusant gentry stock, did nothing to alter Cardinal Manning’s verdict on Northampton as “the dead diocese”. But the situation changed with the appointment of Bishop Arthur Riddell in 1880. In office for 27 years, he was determined to open new mission centres and to halt the decline of his diocese.

He opened 25 mission centres, 18 stations (where Masses were celebrated) and 14 chapels. By 1896, the numbers of clergy had risen from 25 to 61 and the churches from 35 to 61, alongside another 17 chapels and communities. There were also 41 Catholic elementary schools and a seminary. By the time of the bishop’s 25th anniversary the congregation of his diocese had risen to 12,744, with 70 priests and 35 parishes. Riddell’s evangelising methods followed a tried and successful pattern: at first, renting a room for a priest; then establishing a small oratory; subsequently collecting donations to buy land to build a church.

I mention Professor Charmley’s chapter and the energy of Bishop Riddell in particular, because it shows what a far-sighted and determined bishop can achieve in unpromising circumstances. He gave a clarion call to his fellow Catholics in his diocese which is worth quoting, as his message is still very pertinent today: “What is our duty? It is to be thorough Catholics, Catholics in name and in deed; practical Catholics, fulfilling all our duties to God and to our neighbour, praying, hearing Mass, frequenting the Sacraments, keeping the days of fasting and abstinence, avoiding sin, practising virtue, loving God; this is the way for us to assist in the conversion of England, and there is no other.”

What a splendid formula! When I was a child, we always prayed at Sunday Mass for “the conversion of England”. What happened to this prayer? Did it fall by the wayside in the wake of misplaced ecumenism? Why don’t we revive it? Do we actually want it? Professor Charmley tells me that his research gave him “a real admiration for Riddell, who trusted in God but kept his ammunition dry.” He adds that he has “great faith in our new bishop [Bishop Alan Hopes, a convert, like Charmley]. Some of us are working hard with him to get our catechesis in schools right. That is the foundation for everything else. If we get this right, much else will follow.”

Charmley is “cautiously optimistic”. He tells me that he liked the article by T.A. Pascoe, “Make Britain Catholic again” in last week’s Herald magazine and, like Pascoe, thinks the current situation of the Church in this country is “far from hopeless – though much work needs doing.”