Tuesday, 20 November 2012

An Effortless Conversion

From the archives:

I was brought up in the Church of England and, until I was in my early twenties, all the people I knew, whether friends or relations, were also Anglicans, if they were Christians at all. As far as I was concerned, "Christianity" and "the Church of England" were simply two ways of describing the same thing. When I came across a reference to "the Church" in the Bible, I mentally added "of England", without even realising that I was doing it. I knew that there were chapels around, labelled Baptist or Methodist, or whatever, but nobody I knew went to them: presumably some people had been brought up that way and couldn't help it, poor things. I knew that Irish, or French or Italian people were apt to be Roman Catholics, but they were foreigners and couldn't help it, poor things. Real people were Church of England.

I went to a Church of England school and in my history lessons was taught, among many other things, that over the centuries the Church had grown more and more corrupt, and farther and farther from its original purity, until a wonderful man called Martin Luther was inspired to see what was wrong and to put it right. Henry VIII was not a very admirable character, but he did one magnificent thing in bringing the Reformation to England and freeing it from the despotic tyranny of the Pope. His cruel daughter Mary tried to turn the clock back and burned hundreds of Protestant martyrs at the stake, but Good Queen Bess soon put that right, to everyone's great joy and relief. I read about Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, but never so much as heard the names of Edmund Campion, Cuthbert Mayne or Margaret Clitheroe. In this state of unconscious arrogance and ignorance I came up to Oxford, where I continued to be a devout and sincere Anglican.

In my second year there, I met a young man called X and his great friend Y. X came from Manchester and his parents used to go to the local Methodist chapel, but at the age of seventeen or thereabouts, he decided that religion was simply a matter of social convention and respectability, with no real meaning behind it, and abandoned it. He was a bit surprised, when he came up to Oxford, to find that the person in his college whom he liked the most - Y - was a convinced Christian, but he put it down to the influence of upbringing, and was prepared to overlook it, because Y was otherwise so intelligent, one of the best and nicest people he had ever met and so very, very funny.

The three of us began spending much of our free time together and Y eventually became engaged to X's sister. X (I can say it without too much conceit after fifty-five years!) thought me an intelligent and attractive young woman, and yet I was as committed a Christian as Y. He began to wonder if there was more in Christianity than he had supposed when he "saw through it'. X was the sort of person who is totally incapable of being superficial about anything important, so he decided that the best way of finding out about this "Christianity thing" would be to take a post-graduate degree in Theology, at the same college for the training of Congregational ministers to which Y was going. In the meantime I had taken my degree and been "directed" (this was during World War II) into the Ministry of Supply in London.

X and I had had a series of tiffs, and I had decided that I never wanted to see him again, although I remained on the friendliest terms with his sister Z and with Y. So I had no idea that in the course of his studies he had had to read some of the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, and had been completely bowled over by them. It seemed to him that St Thomas made complete sense and that nothing else which he had read could be compared to him for accuracy and persuasiveness. He read very deeply in his works and began to study other medieval Catholic philosophers and theologians, as well as going back to the early Fathers of the Church and re-reading their works as St Thomas expounded them, rather than as his Protestant professors did. As he read and studied and prayed, he became more and more convinced that Christ had founded a Church, that it was to exist until the end of time, and that it was to be found today in the Roman Catholic Church. He did not know a single Catholic.

He came up to London to work in a settlement which his college ran in the heavily-bombed docks area to help the homeless and bereaved people there, and went on using his spare time to read and study Catholicism. There were just a few complicated points of doctrine where he was not quite certain that the Catholic Church had got the right answer, and he felt that he needed to consult a Catholic priest about them. He'd heard of a Catholic church at Farm Street in central London, so on his free afternoon he set off, found it, rang the presbytery bell and asked to see a priest. A very old priest, with the auspicious name of Father Luck, came to meet him, and when X had explained his position and begun to raise his abstruse theological points, Father Luck said, "I think we'd better begin with this", and pulled the "Penny Catechism" out of his pocket.

Who made me? God made me.

Why did God make me? To know Him, love Him and serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him for ever in the next,

and so on. By the time, four months later, that they had gone through the whole catechism, X was ready to be received into the Church.

About a couple of months before this happened, I received an invitation to Z's wedding to Y, with a note from her, saying that although she would love to have me there, she would quite understand if I didn't want to come. My reaction was, "I'm not going to stay away from Z's wedding just because she's got a horrid brother!" But once we had met again, I soon discovered that he was not so horrid after all, and shortly afterwards we were going out together as often as we could. One of these occasions was to be a Saturday spent in Richmond Park, and on the previous day I had a note from X saying: "Yesterday (this was Corpus Christi, although I didn't know it) I was received into the Catholic Church." We had talked about everything else under the sun but not about religion, and I have to admit that my immediate reaction was, "Oh X! First he's a Non-Conformist and now he's a Roman Catholic! Why can't he be Church of England like everybody else?!"

But on that day at Richmond, we had such a lovely time together that when I got home that night I said to myself, "If X asks me to marry him, I shall say yes." And I went on to myself, "That will mean I shall have to become a Roman Catholic, because if we get married we shall have children, and it would be terribly muddling for them to have their parents going to different churches." And I finished (I blush hotly to recall), "After all, they are Christians"(!)

Of course X didn't know what my thought-processes were, and I didn't know that his were: "She is a pious, happy, contented Anglican and can't be expected to change, so I shall have to be very patient, and try to give good example and pray a lot, and then perhaps one day…” So when, as soon as the proposal of marriage had been made and accepted, I said, "And now, what do I do about becoming a Catholic?" for the first and last time in my life I saw X totally taken aback - eyes popping, jaw dropping.

Having recovered, he was, of course, delighted to take me to see his aged Jesuit Father Luck, who passed me on to an even older Tyburn nun called Mother St Paul. She took one look at me and produced a children's book. Its story-line would seem very dated now, but it incorporated a quite splendid exposition of Catholic doctrine, and I lapped it up like a cat with a saucer of cream. As she continued with my instruction I found that where the Church of England said, "You may believe that if you want to, or find it beautiful or helpful," the Catholic Church said, "You've got to believe that, because it's TRUE" - things like the efficacy of prayer to Our Lady and the Saints, or the necessity of Confession, or the existence of Purgatory. As I wanted my religion to be as true as the multiplication table, this suited me down to the ground. I went on lapping up all that I was told and read with ever-increasing enthusiasm and happiness. This was the period of flying bombs and V2 rockets, so they were letting people into the Church fairly quickly and, having started my instruction at the beginning of July, I was received halfway through October.

I could never read the words of Our Lord: "Others have laboured and you have entered into their labour" without applying them to X and me. I know that all conversions are simply the result of the grace of God, but mine seems to me to have been quite exceptionally free from any merit, effort or intention on my part, so little, indeed, that the remembrance fills me with some shame - but with far, far more gratitude!

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