England and Always: Can These Bones Live?

ENGLAND AND ALWAYS”
THE BRITISH, THE EMPIRE, AND THE FAITH
Part IX: Can These Bones Live?

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
-J.R.R. Tolkien

The conversion of England — let along the entire Anglosphere — seems like a mighty tall order, and one that the Church has been trying unsuccessfully to accomplish since Elizabeth I decided to break the deal that brought her to the throne. But let us consider two facts. The first is that Great Britain still revels in the desiccated remains of a Catholic order. The folk calendar that plays such a large role in national life is based upon preserved or revived inheritance that — despite the fluttering of the Neo-pagans — come not from paganry but from the Faith; as scholar Ronald Hutton has pointed out repeatedly, in the British Isles, the “Old Religion” from which so many of these rituals derive is not Wicca but Catholicism.

The Guilds of the Middle Ages survive in attenuated form in England and Wales as the Livery Companies of London and the various Guilds of Freemen in the rest of the country, where Scotland has its Guildry and the Associated Trades in Burghs like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, and Irvine. Every city and town council in England goes to an annual “civic service” in the “town church;” this is called the “Kirking of the Council” in Scotland. The Catholic Duke of Norfolk as Earl Marshal presides over the College of Arms, which rules heraldry in England (the Scots have their own heraldic authority). Every regiment in the army has a prayer peculiar to it and a regimental chapel; the Orders of Chivalry such as the Garter and the Thistle have their own chapels for their annual services, as visitors to St. Georges Chapel, Windsor, Westminster Abbey, St. Giles High Kirk, and St. Pauls Cathedral soon discover. The Houses of Lords and Commons each have prayers peculiar to them. There is an annual service of the opening of the judicial year. The Inns of Court, backbones of the English legal profession, each have chapels: Grays Inn and Lincolns Inn have their own, while the Middle Temple and Inner Temple share the Temple Church. At Oxford and Cambridge, in addition to the two university churches of St. Mary the Virgin and Great St. Marys, each college has a chapel, and many of the colleges continue Medieval customs (Magdalen College, Oxford’s Eucharistic May Day Hymn is quite Catholic; Queen’s College Oxford has the bringing of the Boars Head at Christmas; King’s College Cambridge is known for its service of Lessons and Carols; most of the colleges have Latin grace at mealtimes, and so on). The Queen is, as we have noticed, head of the Church of England and chief laywoman of the Church of Scotland; but she enjoys her Medieval predecessors’ Royal Peculiars and Chapels Royal, and presides over the Epiphany and Maundy Thursday ceremonies. Alas, there is no touching for the Queen’s Evil!

But in looking at all these remnants, one cannot help but ask — can these bones live? Can they come to life again? If Great Britain is to survive as anything like itself in the face of all that is going on around and inside her (the burgeoning Muslim population is only one indicator), then they must. Perhaps they shall, since with God, all things are possible. Certainly, the renewal of the shrines of St. Alban and St. David — part of a small movement since the 1990s to rediscover Britain’s lost Medieval sacred heritage — are hopeful signs amidst the general wreck.

There are a number of Catholic thinkers in Britain to-day — many of them converts, unsurprisingly — of whom Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. is perhaps best known, who are working very specifically toward the goal of the conversion of England. In such books as Christendom Awake and The Realm, he outlines strategies necessary for the survival of the West and Britain, and their evangelisation. Moreover, there are prayer crusades such as the Walsingham Project and the Society of St. Justin Martyr, which encourages its members to prayer in formerly Catholic churches (quite common, of course, in the British Isles) for their return with their denizens to the Catholic Faith.

But no discussion of a possible conversion of England can be complete without mentioning the role of the Monarchy — which, despite the best doings of such as the humourless Graham Smith, is likely to remain the foremost institution in England at least, for the foreseeable future. It is interesting to note that, as the church of which his wife is nominal head has become ever more nominal in its Christianity, the Duke of Edinburgh has quietly returned to the Greek Orthodoxy of his childhood. The Queen’s cousin-in-law, the Duchess of Kent, has become a Catholic, as has her younger son, Lord Nicholas Windsor (he is one of the patrons of the Society of King Charles the Martyr); tellingly, he and his mother sit with the Duke of Norfolk and Fra Andrew Festing, English Grand Master of the Order of Malta on the board of the “Friends of the Ordinariate.”

In this area, however, it is Prince Charles who matters most, as the next de facto King of Great Britain and his other realms and territories. Regardless of his personal feelings, if he converted, he would have to give up the throne for the God that he loves. Legislation is being pushed throughout the realms that would allow the Monarch to marry a Catholic, but did he actually want to convert himself, that particular miss really would be as good as a mile. If he were to retain the Crown in such a case, he would have to buffalo 15 parliaments across the globe to acceding to his wishes.

But would he? His Royal Highness has an unfair reputation as a new ager and boob, and a more justified one as a sometime adulterer. Apart from the rather cynical jibe that if he were a Kennedy, no one would mind, it must be borne in mind that those incidents were almost 20 years ago, that he has expressed a great deal of regret over it, and that he is currently married to a woman whom he was legally free to marry, and who was herself free by Catholic (though not Anglican) standards.

The charges of boobery are easily dismissed by anyone who reads his writings. Whether or not he is a New Ager depends entirely upon what is meant by that overly elastic term. He certainly believes in the holistic connection of architecture, environment, education, and everything else — but the Fathers and Scholastics believed that. He has some unfortunate views on contraceptives, but those are endemic in an age when it took President Obama to remind America’s Catholics about the Church’s teaching on birth control. He strives to be friendly to Islam and other religions, but this does not mean he has no Faith of his own — rather, he sees them as allies in a world threatened by unbelief and secularisation. Certainly this is the strategy used by the Permanent Representative of the Holy See to the United Nations when assembling a majority to defeat a morally objectionable measure before the General Assembly. Indeed, for all that we are used to thinking of him as a little mad, there is much he says that would be echoed by Popes Benedict and Francis. His greatest crime in the eyes of media and government is to have well informed opinions — which were well expressed in the recent series of letters the government were forced to release recently. Indeed, it is that independent frame of mind that gives one the most hope for his conversion. Were it to happen, of course, it would be a greater scandal than princess Diana, Fergie, and Mrs. Simpson combined.

But if, somehow, Prince Charles or Prince William or Prince George converted — and somehow managed to retain the throne initially — what then? Well, if Charles III (or V!) or William V, or George VII were to avoid going the way of James II, the Ordinariate and the other branches of the Church in the Isles would have had already to have converted the better part of the population. And how would they do that? Well, in addition to the spectacle of reunited Anglo and Roman Catholicity, the ideas of Fr. Nichols and company, and the prayers of such as our Walsingham and St. Justin friends — without which, in truth, nothing can be done in any case — there is a fourth ingredient. That is the conviction of Ss. Joseph of Arimathea, Alban, George, Andrew, David, Patrick, Augustine of Canterbury, Cuthbert, Dunstan, Aidan, Mungo, Columbanus, Edward the Confessor and all the rest — that the peoples among whom they work shall not escape the flames of hell and taste forever the joys of Paradise until and unless they are brought into the Church. Without said reunion, ideas, and prayer, that conviction has no tactics; but without it, those three things have no strategy. Under those circumstances, a Catholic upon the throne would preside over something more like a Renaissance Fair than a Christian nation.

While we ponder the what-ifs — let’s look a little further at what might result. Perhaps such a King, with such a people, would be an effective Monarch; to that sort of Sovereign, being at once King of England and King of Scots at once might be a sound replacement for Kingship of Great Britain. Mayhap the Irish would not mind such a ruler — certainly, as we see by the referendum, they cannot any longer claim moral superiority to the British. This way, however, the Ulster Scots could stay under the Crown and the once-again Catholic Irish could have a united Ireland! A confident and Catholic Great Britain would surely at once spur conversions in her daughter countries and inspire them to draw closer — and as with Scotland, an effective common King might make up for separate parliaments in a true Imperial Federation. All far-fetched? Possibly, but perhaps no more so than the scenarios of those who dream of our United States constitution being restored — and this fantasy has a lot more actual time behind it.

But in all honesty, it might well be that a Catholic Britain would take a very different form from either the renewed Monarchy imagined above or the kind of republic an Irish-American would prefer. Something perhaps as completely unimaginable to us to-day as the Empire of Charlemagne would have been to St. Ambrose or St. Augustine, a result of the slow, organic conversion of those islands to the Faith. But in any case, once accomplished it shall have an inevitable effect upon we daughter nations — presuming that we too are still around.

What part have the Ordinariates in all of this? Plenty. To start with, in addition to the gifts they bring the Church, their clerical and lay membership have evangelistic zeal of a sort rare in cradle Catholics in the Anglosphere. Here too, we encounter a strange paradox; before the Council, for many Anglophone Protestants, we Catholics were simply too odd and foreign to consider joining — what with our strange customs, Latin liturgy, etc., we were peculiar at best, and downright un-American (or, especially if we were of Irish descent in some country of the British Empire, disloyal to the Crown) at worst. In those days, many a Protestant learned to understand such concepts as the Sacraments, the Real Presence, liturgy, devotions to Mary and the saints, prayers for the dead, and so on that were so foreign to his own experience. In some cases, Anglo-Catholicism was a way station on his eventual journey into the Church; for others though, it meant having everything one wanted religiously without that nasty old Pope.

In the years since the Council, the situation has reversed; to the naked eye of the non-Catholic, while most of our churches no longer seem foreign, neither do they seem sufficiently different from, say, Methodists, Lutheran, or the general run of Anglicans to really engage with: we do not appear to have anything to say. Here too, Anglo-Catholicism can play a mediating role, but for the opposite reason to before: it IS sufficiently different from the generality of Western Catholicism to merit one’s attention. I know quite a number of people in the Ordinariates who did make the trek from simpler kinds of Protestantism, in a way they never would have done had their initial exposure to the Church been a Teen Mass.

There is another point, too. In Commonwealth countries, as we have seen, Anglicanism in general was the religion of the Crown and establishment, plain and simple. In a somewhat attenuated way, it was here as well. The National Cathedral is Episcopalian, and of course there are such shrines to our national independence as the Valley Forge Memorial Chapel and St. Johns, Lafayette Square, “The Church of the Presidents.” Such Colonial and Revolutionary war era Episcopal churches as Old North Church and Kings Chapel (now Unitarian, though Anglican in liturgy) in Boston, St. Pauls Chapel, New York, Christ Church Philadelphia, Bruton Parish Church, and St. Michaels church in Charleston seem at once to reinforce both our roots in and independence from Great Britain. Eleven out of 44 of our presidents have been Episcopalian, and their parish churches — like FDR’s St. James, Hyde Park become sacred to their memory. The Confederate schism from the national faith has brought us St. Pauls church, Richmond, where Jefferson Davis shall always be revered, and the Robert E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, Virginia. Every state capital has an imposing Episcopal cathedral or church near the Capitol where the most elite of the state government can be found on Sunday. If one wanted tartans kirked or hounds blessed, it was to an Episcopalian cleric he went. As the Ordinariates grow in strength on a local level, they shall be able to slide ever more into that quasi-civil role.

When the British were at the height of their Gothic Revival in the late 19th century, reliving what they considered to be their greatest, noblest age — we responded in kind with our Colonial Revival. That pre- and post-Revolutionary period was what we in turn thought was our greatest and noblest era — as perhaps it was. This fact, together with all the history we have been looking at, may give us some clues as to evangelising the local areas in which we find ourselves — another gift we can take from the Anglicans. Now, most Catholic parishes have a good understanding of part of what that means — the temporal works of mercy, as shown by the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Societies, Knights of Columbus, parish food banks, and the like. All well and good. But it is the act of skilfully commemorating — on one’s own terms, rather than just forming part of the chorus of great men and events in the community, that puts the Anglican parish at the centre of most of the places it serves.

What I am going to suggest here requires three things in order to succeed. First, a pretty good knowledge of local history; you will be amazed by how many Episcopalians staff local historical societies. We as Catholics need to cultivate within ourselves a true love of place. Secondly, REALLY good liturgy and music. I realise that for many, the whole thing breaks down there — but there is no substitute for it, as you shall see. Lastly, a willingness to provide all the priest might need to accomplish the second goal — money, musicians, manpower, and so on.

The first step is to find out whom any local Catholics of note might have been, and when they died. Then a Requiem might be arranged with, say, his successor in office (provided he occupied one) or his descendants, if any, invited to attend. Red Masses might be offered for the opening of any court or council session, and eminent members of whatever body it happened to invite to attend. Special Masses might be offered for — say — St. George’s, St. Andrew’s, or St. David’s day for all those of English, Scots, or Welsh descent, regardless of religion, in the parish —taking care, of course to explain the Church’s Eucharistic discipline to them. Something similar could be done for patron saints’ days of the various professions. Anglican Ordinariate parishes are uniquely equipped to do this sort of thing, this kind of “ministry of presence.” But so can we all if only our zeal and our liturgy be up to the task.

Regardless, for better or worse, all of us in the Anglosphere are locked together by history, language, and culture. What affects one of our nations affects us all — and the trans-national nature of the Ordinariates shows us that. It is fitting, indeed, to remember James II, who is a candidate for beatification (stalled though his cause has been since the French Revolution). He was King not only in London, Edinburgh, and Dublin, but in New York, Annapolis, Boston, Charleston, and Bombay, and left some very affecting prayers. Here is one:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God! Who only workest great marvells, show the riches of Thy goodness to Thy desolate and persecuted Church, that now sits mourning in her own dust and ruins, torn by schism and stripped and spoiled by sacrilege.

And Thou, who after a long captivity didst bring back Thy people to rebuild their Temple, look upon us with the same eyes of mercy.

Restore to us once again the publick worship of Thy name, the reverent administration of Thy sacraments; raise up the King, that we may once more enter into Thy courts with praise and serve Thee with that reverence, that unity, and order, as may be acceptable in Thy sight, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

King or not, let us pray for all our sister nations that have sprung from that man’s realms, and for the Ordinariates; let us join further the Catholics of all other countries — France (with her National Vow), Spain, Germany, Italy, and the rest, — that all lands return to Christ their King. To that end, we’ll close with William Blake’s endlessly repeated hymn:

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land

  • Many thoughts and wonderings provoked by this rich, evocative series. So much I’d like to say if I could find good opportunity.

    But simply for now: I am intrigued by this detailed excursion into the common history of the Anglosphere.

    Intrigued also by your _ultimate reasons_ for dedicating your good self to this task.

    In terms of the evidence for this in this latest post, my reaction is a mixed one.

    On the one hand, having lived most of my adult life in Britain, the possibility of Catholicizing the country seems ever more remote.

    Despite all the English love for the trappings of tradition, no country in Europe seems to me further removed from the Catholic spirit, except perhaps ones in Scandinavia.

    Stalin’s comment regarding Poland – trying to saddle a cow – comes to mind …

    And yet … And yet … Do not mistake me.

    I am NOT dismissing this. The insight into the Ordinariiates and much more points to hidden currents that seem so profoundly important …

    Stammering now …

    Something numinous here, something deeply significant seems to be moving in the depths of these articles. Something in the footsteps of Belloc or so it seems to me …

    I hope to find better words soon, dear Charles.