Project Canterbury

Conversion, Catholicism, and the English Church

By Walter Carey, D.D.
Bishop of Bloemfontein

London: Mowbray, 1923.

Of Conversion


CONVERSION is the first permanent and unchanging element in Christianity. If the Oxford attempt to convert England starts with the Sacraments, or the power and authority of the Church, or any other of the great truths, it will fail. There is only one beginning for the authentic Christianity of Christ, and that is the individual converted heart and will. The individual has first to come under the influence of Christ. He has to be first interested, then mastered and absorbed, and finally self-surrendered. The individual who has thus become a discipulus, a learner, has many paths to tread and many experiences to find; there are Sacraments to be received, and a certain Way of life to be followed, and all this is of the very essence of Christianity; but he will have started at the right end, and the only right end, with conversion.

This is the way of the Bible, and the great main royal road to vital Christianity never changes.

But we must notice at the very beginning that one cannot enter the royal road at one's own will. God has to act, and man must have acted also, before the via Christiana can be begun. The people who were converted by S. Peter and S. Paul and the rest were not in the least like the crowds in Piccadilly or Bethnal Green, or in Bloemfontein for that matter. Neither Peter nor Paul would have made a much better job of modern conditions than most of us do-nor would an angel from heaven. For the immutable law of God seems to be that although there are times in the life of men and nations when God does everything and man does nothing, yet normally this is not so. God gives according to what use a man has made of what he has already. "To him that hath shall be given," i.e. "those who have used their natural gifts shall receive supernatural"; or, "those who have rightly used partial gifts shall receive fuller gifts." Those who were converted by the Apostles had received and had used antecedent spiritual gifts. They had received those natural endowments of some belief in God and some natural morality which are given to every homo sapiens, and are still found in every man except the sophisticated and superior. They had, further, received the Law and the Prophets, and therefore knew that they were under a covenant to reverence and obey God, and that because God was good and holy while they themselves were not, therefore they were sinners who needed washing from sin and reconciliation to God. They were under no misapprehension of the essential facts of God's existence, and His claim on their life, or of their own sinful-ness and need of reconciliation.

So it was that to the deep stirrings of the apostolic preaching there was a deep response. The Apostles could appeal with every confidence to that consciousness of God and of sin which was to be found in every Jew; which was in truth the national endowment which made God able to use the Jews as the chosen people. And the Apostles were not disappointed in their appeal. But our modern difficulty (quite alien to the difficulties of the Apostles) is that the man in the street only vaguely believes in God-not enough to take Him seriously-and doesn't believe in his own sinfulness at all.

Gradually and yet firmly the convictions are forced upon me (a) that the alienation from God of masses of the people is largely their own fault and due to their own shallowness, and (6) that if we are ever going to build up a Christian world again we must take little or nothing for granted, but must lay afresh the thought-out foundations of a holy God: a sinful people: a strong and loving Saviour: a salvation much to be sought for and desired.

Thus again I am constrained to disagree with teachers who start their programme with sin or Sacraments. Before you can deal adequately with sin, you must have come to an understanding with your audience about God and His claims on them, and their responsibility to Him. We should have to deal with sin quite differently if there were no righteous God and no sins against Him. You must get that right first. And to begin with Sacraments is useless unless you have the background of

God worked out

Sin worked out

Jesus the Redeemer, worked out

and accepted: for Sacraments are only sense when they come in as the means whereby the life of the disciple can be joined to the life of the Redeemer and so to the Father. Sacraments come at a later stage than conversion. They are certainly equally necessary to full Christianity, but they are logically subsequent. Sacraments bind the converted to Him to whom they have been converted, but unless the conversion had taken place there is no reason why any one should ever wish to use the Sacraments.

One understands the desire of lovers to push on to the binding compact of marriage, but none would want to get married unless they loved. So just as falling in love precedes marriage, so conversion precedes Sacraments. Love and marriage are both necessary for a perfect Christian life's union, but love is logically prior. So conversion is to Sacraments.

I press this point because it is quite eternal. So long as the world lasts, whether Catholics or Protestants sway the religious world, the fact will remain immutable that the making of a real Christian logically starts with the conversion of the heart and will to Jesus, whose spiritual lordship and ownership are acknowledged to the full.


Let us clear out of the way the quite simple question whether conversion is sudden or otherwise. With S. Paul it came suddenly, with S. Thomas it came gradually: and wisdom is equally justified of both sorts of her children. Decisions and enlightenments of all sorts come to some people with lightning-like rapidity, and are accompanied with heightened emotion. And it is often so with the Christian's acceptance of the claim of Christ upon the soul. But it is not so with all. There are many whose spiritual growth is imperceptible to themselves, yet who cannot be mistaken for anything else but true Christians, although they are unconscious of any great crisis at any past moment.

If conversion is real, it cannot surely matter whether it was sudden or gradual, any more than it matters whether true love was "at first sight" or not. If conversion is there, it is there, and that is enough. When Christ is Lord of the soul, the person is converted. But it is far more important to notice another point, for this too is eternal. Conversion may arrive suddenly, and so be called sudden conversion, but it is never a sudden thing in the sense of a suddenly complete thing. Conversion is never finished in this life, for conversion is the process of sharing the Mind, the Purpose, the Life of Christ as regards God, the universe, and man.

Thus I suppose a conversion must be continually progressing and deepening, or else growing faint and receding. It is a terrible and rather daunting thought, that we cannot sit down to talk of our old conversion of ten or twenty years ago, and, in thought, to rest upon it without much further effort. Before us stretches as the price, and indeed the matter, of a true conversion nothing less than the stretching of ourselves to fit and to coincide with the whole Mind and Life of Christ. When finally converted we shall look at God as Christ does; our thoughts will be His; our outlook on all things His. We shall be so "oned" with Him that all He loves and hates and approves or disapproves we shall, by the energetic union of our wills and life with His, also love and hate.

Converted people are all still far from this: we call that conversion (by a magnificent acceptance of potentiality for actuality) which is really only the whole-hearted first effort to turn to Christ.

It is, indeed, a great thing to have made the first effort, to have given the promise; but real conversion means years and centuries and aeons of growth until there is nothing in Christ which is not reproduced in us as far as the possibilities and boundaries of our created nature allow: and nothing in us which is not beating in complete harmony with Christ.

It is this ever growing, ever expanding characteristic of conversion that is so important. It leads us through strange ways of suffering and aspiration, but without it we are little better than the Turks in their contemptible heaven where the saved enjoy the sensuous pleasures which God throws to them, without any thought on their part of growing like God in wisdom and beauty, in goodness or in love.

Thus conversion will be a gradual growing of the soul into the Mind and Purpose of Jesus Christ.


For we must know this. If our own conversion means sharing His Mind, we must be very certain what it is.

Jesus has a Mind towards God and Man; let us examine what it is.

Our Lord's mind to God is (1) Obedience; (2) Ratification; (3) Adoration. He obeys God because He is God; He deliberately affirms that this obedience is not blind nor futile but will be justified eternally because God's will is best in heaven and earth; He makes this ratification of God's will not grudgingly nor of necessity, but with a loving, rejoicing, adoring heart.

I really don't think that this statement of Christ's attitude to the Father needs any elaborate proof: it seems to me clear on any hypothesis that our Lord's attitude of filial obedience to the Father was absolute; that it was no half rebellious and grudging obedience, but was reinforced throughout by the affirmation of the Son's whole heart and will that what the Father's will was, the same was His will too; and that this affirmation was made not in the spirit of a duty to be done, but with the completes! self-abandonment, and confidence that the Father's will was ever adorable and worshipful. This attitude every Christian must share. But the Mind and purpose of Christ was not only directed towards God: it included a view of mankind as well.

What did Jesus think of men and women? What was His verdict on the state of mankind? It is worth finding out because (a) whatever it was it was right and always will be right, (b) every converted Christian must look at mankind as Christ looked.

And to bring our inquiry to a point let us analyse one particular occasion-the fasting in the wilderness-the first Lent; for this is symptomatic of His whole outlook. Jesus was then thirty years old. He knew what was in man. I do not think it is stretching facts to say that He went into the wilderness:-

(1) Because He realized that man was disjointed with God: was sinful: was disinherited. He wished to think it over: to sorrow over it: to do penance for it.

(2) Because He purposed to cancel the disinheritance and find out a Way to Salvation whereby man could be brought back to God.

(3) Because He wished to train Himself by fasting, prayer, and self-discipline for the great and tragic price which He knew He must pay, which would tax His spiritual resources to the uttermost.

Now I assert that conversion carries with it a sharing of the Mind and outlook of Christ. Converted people can never, therefore, take a simply optimistic view of life. Life is tragic and on the whole sad. It is not sad for those who are in the Way of Salvation, for the grey is shot through with the gold of redemption; but the world regarded as a world is a sinful, sorrowful place which needs conversion and redemption. The antics of the so-called "smart set" and of all complete pleasure-lovers are really the frantic efforts to escape seeing the world as it really is. Part of the West End of life shuts its eyes rigidly tight because it dare not vizualize parts of life's East End. This is no doubt true of all of us, that we are mercifully blind to the whole vista of human misery. But we don't deny that the grey is there in life, and that the world is out of joint, selfish, restless, pathetic, sinful, unsatisfied. The converted person mourns over this grey, sinful world. There is always a Lenten streak in his heart and religion. He shares the Mind of Christ.

But this resolute seeing of the world as it is does not mean an acquiescence in things as they are. Our Lord in the wilderness was planning out a way of salvation for the world. So if we are to share His mind it is imperative that every Christian should be full of a definite purpose of altering and bettering and saving the world. Not saving some little department of the world: nor collecting some little band of "faithful" and letting the world go by; but every Christian's purpose must be to alter and save the whole world. Purposeless, aimless, frivolous, pessimistic, futile Christians are not Christians. If the Mind of Christ contains the saving of the world, then the mind of a Christian shares that purpose and determination of salvation for creation. To go to prayer-meetings or to Mass: to receive communion or absolution: all these things, if ends in themselves, are merely a fetish; only if they are done to the glory of God and as a means to the salvation of the world are they Christian.

Yes: we Christians must mean the salvation of the world. How often we see people who come to church occasionally and give a subscription sometimes (if sufficiently worried) and are willing to criticize the parson or the services, and add to all this a kindly life respectably lived. Is this Christianity P I assert that it is not Christianity. It does not share the Mind and purpose of the Master; it does not definitely intend to alter and save the world.

And, finally, our Lord in the wilderness was not only sorrowing over the true vision of man as alienated from God: nor purposing with all His will to end that alienation and to save the world: He was doubtless facing and training Himself to pay the price. For our Lord anticipated trouble, persecution, death. He knew well, what all would-be uplifters of the world know, that salvation is only effected at a price. It is not possible to help the world without self-sacrifice, pain, self-suppression, perhaps even to death.

So it is with any real Christian: to share the outlook, the sorrows, the saving purpose of Jesus is essential Christianity. You are not a Christian without it; but it can only be done at a price. To share the Mind of the Master means to share the pain of the Master; there is no evading self-sacrifice, and that no easy self-sacrifice, but something daunting and wearying and desolating. To look at an ungodly world and see the truth, and then to attempt to alter that world for the better, means pain; physical pains of weariness and exhaustion; mental pains of disappointment and distress; mystical pains which cannot be analysed, but are a Christian's mysterious partnership in the Agony and Calvary.

Conversion, then, in its true sense, means a growing towards a complete sharing of the Mind of Christ.


I have tried to make clear my conviction that conversion not only puts Christ first in a Christian's loyalty and obedience, but involves an ever completer sharing of His Mind and purpose towards God and Man.

But how does this conversion come about? How can it be produced? Is it simply a product of the Spirit blowing where He listeth, so that some will be converted and some will not, according to the Spirit's own selection?

I wonder how far it is intellectual. I am in the middle of Bishop Gore's book on Belief in God, and if I have to go through the same intellectual processes as that great man, I'm sure that I at least shall be unconverted and unsaved. For some of us know just enough to know how little we know and yet how much there is to know. And if our conversion and salvation depend on a reading of all that should be read, and a picking out of truth from the mixed mass of truth and error that is actually read, how few of us are competent, alas I Must I wade through all the moderns: the Euckens and the Troeltsches and all those grim authors of whom von Hugel holds the secret? And must I digest all that Pringle-Patterson has to say? And must I follow all that my old tutors, Dr. Rashdall and Dr. Inge, have written? And must I accompany my old principal, Dr. Darwell Stone, through all the Fathers, Greek and Latin, wherein is his daily diet?

And really one must not omit S. Thomas Aquinas, to say nothing about Plato and Aristotle. I shall never read all that I ought to, and I am sure I am not capable of finding the truth and rejecting the false in all that I read.

No; one must read all one can and continue reading, one must think all one can and continue thinking, but the decision must be made on slenderer grounds than the perusal and weighing of all that has ever been written. We marry, we choose our professions, we do all the big acts of life on insufficient premisses, and correct our mistakes by the painful experiences of life. So it seems to me that conversion comes to us on two or three rough and ready and yet quite sufficient grounds. In fact it is only when I read defences of my religion that I have serious doubts.

I believe that the three great causes of conversion are-

(1) The action of God.

(2) The witness of living agents; the Church and godly people.

(3) The witness of the written Word.

And when we feel that we have enough petrol in our tanks, then we must make our decision and head for the open road, hoping to pick up more fuel and more experience as we go, but not waiting till we can find a car which can carry enough petrol to take us to our journey's end.

I sometimes feel as if we were almost too painfully anxious to buttress every belief by some reason recognized by logic or psychology or science. We go along explaining like the authors who guarantee every sentence by a foot-note or reference. Human nature gets sick of it sometimes. I wonder whether some of us at any rate wouldn't be more successful if we dashed ahead in a more reckless religious way, calling to any who cared to come to jump in and join us, and letting them see by experience that without God the world is chaotic; without Christ God is inexplicable; and without grace and salvation the world is a sorry farce and a pretentious humbug.

And yet I should be very sorry that any one should think that religion and reason are ultimately divorced. They may lose each other in the hunting-field, and yet both must be in at the death. But what I do deprecate is this unwillingness to make a decision until an amount of reading has been done which is impossible to the average person. I hold that there are methods and modes of conversion which are both adequate and effective for the ordinary man-the most numerous class of humanity.

(1) The action of God.

Sudden, unforeseen conversion. No doubt it will be said that there were unknown and unrecognized antecedent causes which terminated in this sudden uprush or onset which we call conversion. No doubt it is probable that the material for conflagration was there, but He Who put the match to it was God and no human person, the self or another.

Nothing will ever convince the subject of sudden conversion that it was the act of any other person save God. You may harass S. Paul or S. Augustine, S. Francis or Cardinal Newman, with ratiocinating arguments, but they will not listen. Just as there is a finality and eternity in certain apprehensions of truth and beauty which remove them from the sphere of the contingent to that of the absolute, so you will never persuade any mystic that his great experiences were not direct from the hand of God.

There are numbers of simple people who know that God has entered their lives and altered them; and if they take my advice they will never swerve from their conviction. They may read the defence of Bishop Gore, or the attacks of others on the Faith, if they think they will thus be better equipped for helping others in their difficulties. But if I had advice for mystics it would be to trust their mystic experiences (as tested by the Church and the Gospels), and to let their share of contribution to truth be-not controversy-but the witness of their Christlike lives.

(2) The witness of man.

The Anglo-Catholic missioners will rightly lay much stress on preaching. For it is quite astonishing that anybody should have been found to sneer at the power of preaching. We passed through a phase of such belittling of preaching a few years back. The underlying meaning was, no doubt, that there are ways of reaching souls besides through the ears, and also that preaching is no substitute for worship. This is no doubt true. But the proclamation of truth through personality, which is what preaching is, will never be obsolete, and as it was in the beginning with the Apostles so it will be to the end. Faithful preaching of the Christian message by converted and converting preachers will be one main source of converting the world.

Even as things are the power of preaching is astonishing. Politicians may gather huge crowds at election times, but how many politicians could gather together Sunday by Sunday the great numbers which even now come to listen to the Gospel?

If there is to be a message to the world, it must count preaching as one of the greatest of its assets.

(3) The witness of the written Word.

It is under this heading that I would place my most strenuous appeal to all who seek the Christianization of England. I assert that, on the whole, the most converting power in the world is the compelling witness of the Gospels.

If there were a mission to lapsed Roman Catholics, it might well be that the getting of them to church and the sight of the Mass, and the recapturing of the old associations and sights and smells, might have a most arresting and converting effect. And among the unlearned and emotional I do not doubt that crowded services, with either Catholic or Evangelical adjuncts, will have a great effect towards conversion. But the difficulty is that the effects are not necessarily lasting, nor do they always produce their result in better characters as they should.

But I have found of late years that if you can persuade people to read the Gospels weightily and seriously it has at least two great effects.

It impresses on them as nothing else does the centralness of the central Figure, Jesus Christ. Across the stage where the Jews dispute, and the politicians wrangle, and the sick and suffering walk in sad procession, and the disciples ask and guess and squabble, moves this Supreme Figure. How little and odd they all look beside Him! Hear His words, observe His acts, study His character. Who is He? Where do you place Him? Is He only a man, or just one of the prophets? See if you can place Him in your soul in any less position than the Church placed Him in its Creed-as Man and yet as God. I do think that in these days of Modernism, when persons of an academic mind, for the most part, are trying to give us a sympathizing Jesus instead of a saving Jesus, and leave us with a Saviour Who doesn't save and with a God whose character of Love is never vindicated, we shall find the study of the Gospels more vital than ever.

For, as we all know, it is no good saying to the "un-Faithful" that the Church says this or that, and has finally pronounced in A.D. 325 that Jesus was God. We have got to show that the Church was right in so pronouncing. And there is no way comparable to the simple method of leading people back to the Gospel. Put S. Mark, for instance, into their hands and say, "Read this carefully and seriously and see what you make of the central Figure."

I suppose some Catholics would say that Jesus is found through preaching and, above all, in the Blessed Sacrament. It is quite true that if a preacher could present the Christ as vividly and convincingly as the Evangelists did, it might well convert many. Yet the congregation would subconsciously know that the preaching was largely based on the Gospels. Why, then, not turn our people to browse on the Gospels themselves?

And I dispute the assertion that you find Jesus sufficiently in the Blessed Sacrament. If you are a Catholic believer you find there His Presence and His Love, but you do not find His teaching or His character. You must go to the Gospels for these. Moreover, that type of Catholic teaching takes for granted a priest and a church somewhere just round the corner. We have to deal, in this country particularly, with dwellers in remote places, who see a priest perhaps once a month or less frequently. We must give them some solid food to keep them in union with their Saviour, and this food is regular prayer and study of the Gospels.

But I would go further than this. I believe that a steady reading and study of the Gospels actually is a cause of conversion, perhaps the most powerful cause in the world. I think that the most converted of the world's great Christians have ever been devout students of the Bible. Essentially Catholic characters, such as Father Dolling, are expressly described in their biographies as grounded fast in the Scriptures.

I say all this because I found, when I was first licensed to a parish, that the whole mind of my brother clergy was against any recommendation of Gospel study to our people. "It was easy to become a heretic if you read the Bible without guidance." I expect this is true, but it is a risk which must be taken and yet guarded against.

I think, as one gets older, that one shrinks from the type which feeds on devotion and devotions: which reads all sorts of rather exotic and overstrained books, but knows nothing of the solid sanity of the Gospels.

I was reading lately that Dr. Laws of Livingstonia had written of his ideal that it was to make all his people converted Bible-readers. I should want something more, naturally. There are the Sacraments of union with Jesus, and there are the mysteries of Catholic devotion. But the ideal of Dr. Laws represents what has been largely lacking in the neo-Tractarian or neo-Catholic revival. It has been a revival in which Gospel study has been left out, except for the snippets which prove some dogmatic or devotional point. I feel to-day, intuitively, that a Catholic priest who is also a Gospel-man is a live wire, a solid source of continual refreshment to his people: and, in the same way, that a Catholic layman who studies the Gospel is a quieter, solider, less erratic type than that which is fed on devotions.

Without the continual corrective and steadying influence of the daily contact with Christ's teaching and character, photographed so supremely in the Evangelistic record, people get odd and onesided and fanatical. They cheer wildly at meetings over Benediction or vestments or disestablishment, but seem almost blind to the much greater matters of Truth, Justice, and Charity. It seems disproportionate somehow, and I would urge that a quiet devotional reading of the Gospels is not only a most fruitful cause of conversion, but acts as a steadying influence over the whole character, teaching proportion as to the things that matter, and also forming a spiritual school to which we frequently retire, to live with our Lord in His timeless teaching and in the eternal revelation of God's love and character and requirements.

I do not find that Bible-reading makes people careless of Sacraments or devotion. It appears, on the contrary, as a continual fertilization of the soil, so that you can plant all sorts of other true and beautiful things.

If the Catholic propaganda could boldly include the Gospels as one of the primary sources of conversion and sanctification, I am persuaded that it would be the recovery of a lost key. How am I to convert my people? How am I to deepen their characters when converted? Among Catholics the answer has too frequently been reliance on some extra-heightened presentation of the Holy Communion, Sacrifice and Sacrament.

This frequently succeeds, but in countless cases still leaves a feeling that some solidity is lacking somewhere. When we are with certain types of Catholics we would hesitate to make all mankind such, if we had the power to do so. There isn't enough weight in the boat somehow. But combine it with Gospel study and Gospel character, and it would win every time.

So I trust that the effort to convert England will have Sacraments in one hand and the Bible in the other. Both need explanation, but they are the twin keys, when rightly understood and used, to unlock the treasure house of a deep, weighty, devout Christian life and character.

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