In my journey to the Catholic Church, I realised that liberal Christianity and religious cultural conservatism have a common flaw
My baptismal certificate gives the time and place – as an infant, in the mid-20th century, in a parish of the Church of England, at the hands of the vicar. But how was I to understand this baptism? I could think of it as baptism into the established church of a particular state and nation. Or because it was a baptism into Christ, I could think of it as being into a Church that is universal, and that has no essential connection either to England or to the British state. What did the fact of being English or being British have to do with my being Christian?
The question had long been in the background. My mother, though not a Catholic, had been educated at a convent school run by Catholic nuns, of the Sacred Heart. She never shared their religion, but deeply respected them and their very different allegiance from her own. As a child I had also heard of Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More, and of the judicial violence to which they were subjected by the very state of which I was a citizen and subject. This, I could already sense, was an attack on the very idea of Christianity as involving another allegiance than to that state. But it was only later, when I was an older schoolboy, that the question became pressing. It was made pressing through what lay at the heart of the Anglicanism in which I was brought up – its mode of worship.
The school chapel was a vast memorial to the military dead of the Great War, with walls of names from that conflict and those that followed flanking as you entered, the sanctuary at the far end dominated by what almost seemed a tomb above the altar, on which stood two mourning angels. Christianity there came to me as a state Anglicanism, mainly Protestant in the reflective spirit of CS Lewis, with hymns and sermons, and the Creed on Sunday. The more devout might frequent the Christian Union, run by a classics master, to find personal conversion through the Bible.
Many of our parents had served in war, and in the chapel war was also given living witness. The senior chaplain had been a prisoner of the Japanese, and once told us of a real martyr among his captors – a Japanese who, a Christian, was discovered organising communion services for his prisoners and was beheaded.
What was a communion service? Not the Catholic Mass. That the chaplain made very clear. He once warned me that the doctrine of transubstantiation was quite incredible, and belief in it only encouraged destructive scruples in minister and communicant alike. We were obviously consuming bread and wine, nothing else, in a commemorative meal. To celebrate this the chaplain would wear a plain surplice and a stole, and communion during the week took place in another older, smaller chapel, by cloisters commemorating the Boer Wars, early in the morning. I attended only seldom, driven into this less usual form of piety by fear of approaching A-levels.
Some of those who taught us were open agnostics. Among the believing Anglicans some, like the classics master and my own housemaster, were evangelicals. Others adhered to a broad Anglicanism, according to which the call of Christ to benevolence had been corrupted by Christians themselves, and especially by the obsessions of St Paul. Such corruptions were at their most damaging regarding sexual teaching, and other less enlightened forms of Christianity – most obviously Roman Catholicism – were still in thrall to these.
Christianity came to me, as it must to anyone, at a particular time and place. But that time and place, an English public school in the 1970s, seemed to present Christianity only to contain it there – as a form of mildly liberal Protestantism combined, in some mutual tension, with evangelical enthusiasm. The school religion was the Christianity of the post-Victorian Establishment modified, to a degree, by the cultural loosening of the 1960s.
It was in the library that I discovered John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and through Newman the Church Fathers. The Fathers were a revelation to me. Most astonishing of all, they clearly believed in the Mass – in a Eucharistic sacrifice and a change of elements, a change that took elements at a specific time and place, and transformed them into Someone really present, but not as Someone contained by a particular place or time. This Christianity came from somewhere quite different from the England of my family and school. It came from the Palestine of antiquity through Greece and Rome. And it was universal and not a religion subject to the authority of any state.
As I read him, Newman showed me that the contingency of history could unfold and reveal something eternal, not a mere object of memory, and not the property of a particular nation. My school religion was not really presenting me with this at all. The state and cultural establishment in which I had been brought up had tried to contain Christianity by seeking to suppress this very universality, and in particular – and most significantly it seemed to me – by denying the transcendent in the Eucharist.
Much play was made of reasonable compromise and spiritual accommodation towards other Christian traditions – but the real willingness to concede was very limited. Once I asked the chaplain, in the still confident heyday of Anglican-Catholic ecumenism, why he constantly expected Catholicism to become more Anglican, and not the reverse. Oh, that was easy to explain, he replied – since (in England) Anglicanism stood between Catholicism and Nonconformity, for reunion to occur both extremes would have to move towards the middle, as would assuredly happen.
When asked why one should be an Anglican, a friend and former pupil of the chaplain’s, a master at another similar school, told me that it was Anglicanism that was practised throughout the ancient cathedrals and parishes of England; and so that was the form of Christianity that was most truly English.
Christianity entered into the world subject to the persecution of a state. How then could its proper form now be determined by just another particular state, and be defended to me on the basis of political and cultural arrangements that were entirely local, deeply contingent, and that would almost certainly soon change, as they had so often changed before?
In that library I lost my belief in the form of Christianity practised by my family and many of my teachers – as expressive of allegiance to a particular state and of membership of a particular nation. Nothing since has led me to regret this. It only anticipated what was to come: the continued decline of Anglicanism into a doctrinally chaotic sect that now clearly bores and embarrasses the political and cultural elite that once supported it; and the increasing transformation of the British state itself into a real enemy of Christianity.
Christianity is an unconditional allegiance; and it involves membership of a Church which, though she exists in a world of political communities and nations, co-exists with these as contingent realities that are merely passing. Our allegiance as Christians to any of these merely passing realities can only be conditional; and it must be conditional, in particular, on the extent of their respect for Christianity and the mission of the Church.
The Anglicanism of my schooldays never expressly denied this, and therein lay much of its genuine value. Why else had the chaplain never forgotten the heroism of that Japanese who had followed Christ rather than the direction of his state?
But then that same Anglicanism wrapped itself up in a passing political and cultural identity, and defended itself in terms only intelligible in the context of that identity.
And that seemed to me absurd. This sense of absurdity did not on its own make me a Catholic. For some time, at university, I was an unbeliever in any revealed religion. But it left me with a vivid conviction of the only form in which Christianity is possible. Just as for a Christian attachment to earthly goods must be conditional, so too must attachment to earthly states and cultures.
Humans are deeply social animals. A particular political community and a particular cultural identity – these are bound up with one’s natural humanity, as is their profound influence on all that one thinks and does. It often seems hardly possible to detach oneself.
But some such detachment is a demand of Christianity. It is part of our detachment from the merely earthly. The detachment is part of the supernatural life that transcends anything we as humans are naturally capable of and which only grace makes possible. Political allegiance and cultural identity can never be allowed to define Christianity or to decide the content of its teaching.
The particular time or place of one’s youth and childhood is always vividly one’s own. Equally it is irrecoverable, and impossible fully to communicate to others. It is a place to which one can never return, and it cannot provide a common life. But Christianity provides, through the Church, a common life that is eternal – to which one must arrive through a history, but not to remain in that history. This common life appeals to memory but cannot remain locked up in the vividness of a particular remembered past, not that of an individual, or even of a nation.
There is a religiose form of cultural conservatism that ignores this, and that seeks to defend Christianity as, in effect, a local human tradition. It can take Anglican form, and celebrate a national idyll of prayer book and common law, or it can equally well take a more superficially Catholic form, and celebrate Christianity as the essence of a European culture. But this is limiting and presumptuous.
The Christian future may have as little to do with Europe as we know it, let alone the fortunes of English parish churches, as the Christian present now has to do with, say, the largely vanished culture of once deeply Christian North Africa.
The Christian life is supernatural. It divinises the human. Cultural conservatism parading as religion does the reverse. In this respect it curiously resembles Christianity in overtly liberal form. Like liberal Christianity, cultural nostalgia reduces to the human what should be divine.
Thomas Pink is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, London.
This article first appeared in the September 2 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.