Learning from our history


So struck was I by Francis Phillip’s comments on the book about Catholicism in East Anglia that I went and bought a copy. Our own Chalcedon contributed a notable chapter, of which we had a precis the other day. I was much struck by this comment from Bishop Riddell:

“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.”

I think if we all applied that maxim, substituting our own variation of Christianity for the word ‘Catholic’, or even better, substituted the name ‘Christian’, we should be doing better than we are in witnessing to the world. There are many reasons why the tide of faith has ebbed in the Western world, but I think high among them is the failure to witness in the way Riddell recommended to his flock.

I am most struck, reading C’s chapter, by the parlous state of Catholicism in the Northampton diocese – across a 7000 square mile ares there were scare 600 Catholics and scare 30 priests to serve them – and we think we are in poor shape. By the end of Riddell’s time the number of priests had risen and the number of Catholics doubled. This was done not by slick campaigns or evangelical rallies, it was done the old-fashioned way, with missioners going out from where there were Catholics to where there were no Catholics, setting up a house church, putting the word out and then, as people came, ministering to them. I daresay a modern committee would find this a distressingly old-fashioned way of proceeding, but when they enjoy the success this method delivered, they might become qualified to offer an opinion deserving of respect.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in Christianity, especially in its Catholic variety. It tells an interesting story of persecution, failure, discouragement and continuous struggle against our own weaknesses. But it carries an interesting and ever-relevant message – that if the Spirit is with us in our work, it will succeed, and if He isn’t, then our labour will be in vain. It was interesting to read an historian willing to put that on paper in a serious work of history. Too often historians writing about religion do so from a position of scepticism or unbelief, but our own C is willing to admit what so many others will not, namely that religious people in the past, like religious people now, actually believe what they say, and they act in faith that Father, Son and Holy Spirit will bless their enterprise.

The story he tells about East Anglia in the nineteenth century is one relevant for us all now, which is that the only sin is despair and lack of faith in the workings of the Spirit. If we will trust in God and work, then if our work is meant to prosper, it will, and it will do so despite our best efforts to mess thing up. As we look at our own plight in our own times, it is good to be reminded not only that some Christians have had it worse, but even more that they have thrived by the oldest method of all – bearing witness to the Christian message of love and hope in their own persons. So may we all be in Christ’s service.


13 thoughts on “Learning from our history

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