I touched down from America hoping only for a few good dinners. But I found hints everywhere of British Catholicism's surprising vitality

‘England is not a Catholic country.” This claim seems trite even to an outsider like me, but over the course of my recent visit, it became hard to sustain. I had not taken the transatlantic flight with the idea of arriving at any religious insights, let alone of making a pilgrimage. I did not wander from church to shrine like an Anglophilic Henry Adams.

No, my goal was simply to have good dinners with friends (under the heading of business, of course). And yet, I found myself confronted, time and again, with relics of faith and hints of resurrection, as though saints with strange names like Cuthbert and Etheldreda were ready to burst from their tombs, and the Tyburn Tree were quietly sending forth the blooms of a second spring.

My first stop is the Carlton Club, for dinner and a discussion of England’s post-national future. The discussants are evenly split between Protestants and Catholics. The former are staunch in defending the nation state and speak of the English landscape in romantic raptures (it seems that Wycliffe’s sons are Shinto Brexiteers). The Catholics have more varied reactions, with traditionalists longing for a cosmopolitan Christian Europe, and liberals defending the current EU, which after all differs from the Church only on the same points they do. The traditional Catholics alone seem capable of imagining a future that is cosmopolitan without being liberal. This is the first sign I see of the Church’s strength in England, a strength not yet called upon but real.

Next comes Clarke’s. I enter this crisp and airy Kensington restaurant damp and panting from the walk across Hyde Park (apparently it rains in London). I apologise for being late, and Peter Hitchens, despite his Protestantism, absolves me. We order wine, followed by Scottish cod with fennel for me and chicken with Jerusalem artichokes for Peter. We begin discussing his recent article on the disappearance of the Church of England, and he tells me that his son – a Catholic convert – and I have no more reason for optimism in our Church than he does in his.

I suddenly have a vision of Cardinals Kasper and Danneels leaning in toward the Holy Father’s ear, spinning plots that will ensure the baby boomers’ sins last unto the third and fourth generation. This vision, much less a fantasy than one might hope, makes me feel that Peter is right. But optimism is not hope.

I am in the basement of a central London church, where I have volunteered to help serve food to the homeless. A young Catholic from the north of England begins whispering in my ear: “The Church of England has finally been exposed for the sham it always was.” I nod as though I’m listening, but I’m trying to hear the crew manager who is now announcing our assignments. The northerner is undeterred. “We Catholics are not much better off. If you knew the state of things …” Has he been reading Peter? Here is a young man who gives up his evenings to feed the homeless. A sign of hope, surely, and yet he is all pessimism.

After the meal has been cleared, guests and servers join together for hymns. I sit across from a fashionably dressed homeless man. (Yes, some homeless people are stylish. Some are vegetarians. What of it?) He is wearing a shirt for the rock band Killing Joke that shows a Catholic priest giving the Sieg Heil. Whatever he thinks of priests, he is singing the Lourdes hymn more loudly than I am. Strange town, this, where the pessimists outdo optimists in good works, and atheists sing like Christians. Perfidious Albion may be faithful England after all.

After the roast fennel and ricotta, corn-fed chicken and spring cabbage, gariguette strawberries with panna cotta and shortbread – washed down with a bottle of biodynamic wine – we are on to whisky. Its smoke calls up Tom Holland’s memories (they are too vivid to be anything else) of the Northumbrian saints who forged England with prayer and adamantine will. He tells me of St Cuthbert wading into the North Sea to pray, of otters who sat on Cuthbert’s feet to keep him from catching cold. Of St Etheldreda who refused to be bullied into consummating a political marriage and so went off to found an abbey.

We are sitting in Blacks Club, a famously bohemian establishment built where Samuel Johnson once convened his literary society. But I do not know any of this history, and so when the food comes, I bless it, something Tom Holland tells me he’s never seen anyone do here.

The mystical element has gone out of the English Church, Tom tells me. “Too often it seems a mere humanitarianism. That church soup kitchen you described working at is doing wonderful things. But what is the Church offering that can’t be done by the welfare state?”

He is an entrancing talker, and his love for these saints inspires me to take a train north to Durham. At the great cathedral there, the iron forge of English Christianity, I place a candle atop Cuthbert’s cold tomb and pray a rosary. I ask his intercession for my grandparents and for a friend who I hope will come to the Catholic faith. I then try to pray before Bede, but his tomb is surrounded by felt banners and other strange impositions of the latter-day Anglicans, who have outdone their ancestors by compounding heresy and schism with appalling taste.

I walk out of the gift shop with a copy of The Stripping of the Altars. Eamon Duffy wrote his impassioned account in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which he experienced as an iconoclastic episode not unlike the Reformation. Though he had greeted it with hope, the Council “triggered the dismantling of much of what had seemed immemorial and permanent in my own inner imaginative landscape”. As in Elizabeth’s time, “the externals of the Catholic Church were drastically altered and simplified”. England’s Catholics have more than one reformation to recover from.

I go to Littlemore, the retreat outside Oxford where John Henry Newman found his way into the Church. There Sister Catherine Murphy, a fellow American, greets me and takes me on a tour. I kiss the writing desk on which Newman wrote so many of his great works, but which he never used again after it served as the altar for his first Communion. I then ride back to Oxford, to a party at Campion Hall.

Another friend, Travis, takes me up to the chapel and shows me the vestments worn by Fr Martin D’Arcy. Perhaps the Pimm’s is getting to me, but I am particularly taken with a Dior chasuble laden with costume jewels and sequins. Here is the reform of the liturgy at its most fabulous! In order to dispel the decadent haze, I go to the Eagle and Child and quaff one of the bluff, honest ales that kept the Inklings going. How much do these men – Fr D’Arcy, Tolkien, Lewis – have to say to us today? Much, certainly, but the young English Catholics I meet want to look back farther, not to their near-contemporaries, but to the great and ancient saints.

I sit down to tea with an energetic, evangelical diocesan priest who tells me that he would join an order if he were becoming a priest today. He has been informed that no men entered the seminary for the archdiocese of Westminster this year, even as vocations for the Dominicans and Oratorians are rising. Men are receiving calls, but not to serve in the dioceses. I begin to wonder if this is not the first genuine manifestation of the much ballyhooed “Francis effect”. Francis reaches for the margins but does little to encourage the centre. He constantly barrages priests with insults: they are “whited sepulchres” who “throw stones” and “sit in the seat of Moses”; or they are “little monsters” who “have a heart as sour as vinegar”. Really, they are a very frightful mixed figure.

Such statements from Francis do not encourage men who are considering the priesthood, especially the diocesan priesthood, which looks to the Pope in a special way. “Preach to the critics with restraint, for they must be led to believe; but to the converted with fervour, for they must be driven to act,” wrote Hugh Trevor-Roper. Unlike John Paul II and Benedict, Francis preaches only to the critics. The converted, who are ready to act, must thus look for some specific place within the Church for community and inspiration. They look to the orders. Even today, many of the Church’s most successful bishops – Napier, O’Malley, Chaput – are drawn from their ranks. In the future, even more will be.

Flannery O’Connor described the American South as “Christ-haunted”. We Americans are proud of this observation, believing it indicates our nearness to God. We do not realise that one cannot draw close to a ghost. For an American, it seems more natural that Christ be accepted into one’s heart than that he be placed on one’s tongue. Rather than encounter him through sacrament and stone, we go searching for him in the vicissitudes of emotion or the obscurities of philology. What we find is a disembodied Christ, whether he is reconstructed by fundamentalist preachers on revivalist lines or by historical-critical scholars on liberal-humanist ones. Only in such a country could Jesus seem a mere spirit.

In England, Christ is no wisp or symbol, but an incarnate Lord, a king who once held the nation under his sway. He is bodied forth everywhere in ancient churches and sites of pilgrimage. These sites speak the truth of the Incarnation: Christ took on flesh, and so assumed definite physical limits. He founded a Church visible in history that has definite limits as well. There is no danger of collapsing the Second Person of the Trinity into the Third. Christ’s Church is his body, and even where the Church has been turned to ruin, we recognise him, for we know that his body was wounded.

I make my final stop at St Etheldreda’s, the oldest Catholic church in England, one of only two London structures still standing from the reign of Edward I. This is the spot where Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt delivers his great speech on “this Earth, this realm, this England … This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land.” This is the spot where the Reformation began, during a great feast at which Henry turned against Catherine of Aragon. I have come to visit the relic of St Etheldreda, a hand tucked away in a reliquary at the side of the altar. I kneel before her remains, surrounded by statues of the English martyrs. I then go down to the crypt of the church, which has been repurposed as a chic events venue. Here where Mass has been said for centuries, Polish women dressed in white set tables with silver and linen. One of them greets me with a smile.

I was not invited to the banquet, but I hope that I am dressed.

Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.

This article first appeared in the July 1 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.