Project Canterbury

Conversion, Catholicism, and the English Church

By Walter Carey, D.D.
Bishop of Bloemfontein

London: Mowbray, 1923.

An Ethic of Converted Catholicism

I DARE say I shall be thought a sort of traitor to Catholicism for laying such emphasis upon the Bible and the part it plays in mediating Catholic dogma. Certainly it is, for myself, a comparatively new discovery. I owe it to Oxford, I think, and my sojourn therefrom 1908 to 1914. I expect my experience was much the same as many another Catholic. I used to say my prayers before I left school: I made my communions and confessions at Oxford as an undergraduate: I went rather shrinkingly to Ely Theological College, where I was taught to meditate and to value the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist, and where I heard (though not from the Principal) a certain amount of ecclesiastical jargon and gossip, and gathered that it was my business to convert people and to bring them to the Sacraments.

The only criticism I have to offer was that among us students, with some bright exceptions, the whole ideal and aim of our ministry did not seem big enough. The ideal seemed fully satisfied if English Churchmen were taught to pray and worship and to make their confessions and communions. It seems to me still no ignoble ideal, but it contained a certain timidity: we were to create an inner world of Catholic-minded people, and the world of politics or labour, of civic and national life, only came in in the sense that it was hoped that all, as individuals, would become Catholic Christians. I may have been unreceptive of better teaching, but the whole vision of a kingdom to be built--a kingdom of truth and righteousness and love, embracing all and every side of national and international life, deriving its power and vigour from Christ--did not dawn upon me then. It was simply a question of converting individuals to Catholic Christianity. If a man was a Catholic he was all right.

And then I went to my first curacy. My brother, who was there too, had wide ideas and read deeply, but he departed soon to a living, and for many years I shared the rooms and ideas of various assistant priests whose ideal were similarly the conversion of individuals to Catholic Christianity. When we had persuaded people to accept Christ, to come to Mass and the Sacraments, and to live a decent life, we felt that the job was done.

Thank God I have never found bad priests nor apathetic priests among my many colleagues. They all had an ideal, noble in itself, which they pursued energetically, but it seems to me to have been deficient in breadth and scope, and, above all, to have been too passive in its ethic. I think now that the fault lay in the practical omission of the Bible. It was treated as a book of reference for the Catholic Faith.

I do not remember any one ever being told to study the Gospels in order to study the Mind and Character of Christ, or to grasp His ideal for us. If you wanted to find Christ you did so in the Blessed Sacrament: you needed no more. I still maintain that you do find Christ's Presence and Love in the Eucharist, but for His character and teaching you must go to the Gospels.

And among some of my colleagues it was simply taken for granted that the Church of England was a poor show; it had nothing in it worth keeping except certain dregs and remains of Catholicity, the nearer we approximated to Rome the better. The upshot of it all was that two of them joined Rome, but I am persuaded that they had never at any time considered or even noticed that twin basis of the English position which I have laboured in the last chapter. They had no test at all of what was "of necessity to salvation" and what was not. I do not think that the test of Catholicity by Scripture had ever crossed their minds, even to be rejected. All the traditions, dogmas, customs of the Catholic Church were indiscriminatingly true, and all that Rome taught, if it could not be pressed, was certainly admirable.

That the Church of England possessed anything valuable of its own--otherwise than by derivation--was unthinkable and unthought. Belief in our Orders made defection difficult, but the best we could do was to drag on as well as we could, making the best of a dreary business, and consoling ourselves that at least we converted some, and kept many true to an individual religion of a Catholic type. But the note of hopelessness was over all. I ought to say that this was not true of Canon Wallace, my vicar, who on a celebrated occasion was asked what line he would take if the whole of the Church of England joined Rome. "Wallace would remain," the valiant old man replied. But he too had lost the hope of conquest. We must hang on, convert all we could, and at the Judgement Day we could at least present a thousand or two thousand souls kept uncontaminated by the world. He was temperamentally Anglican, an old gentleman of high character and sunny temper, but was as fit to run a great conquering movement to capture English life as he was to command a submarine. I believe that the position of the Scriptures upon Catholicity was unconsidered by him, at least I never heard him speak of it; he rejected Rome because he was convinced that the Papacy was an innovation on Early Church history; and he was personally satisfied with the religion of the Prayer Book, interpreted in a reasonable Catholic spirit.

It is hard for me to express what made me so vaguely dissatisfied with the sort of position I have tried to sketch above. I think I was feeling all the time that if the Catholic Church could initiate unlimited new truths, then the larger part of the Catholic Church had so acted in regard to the Pope, and one might be logically driven to accept the Papacy. At the same time I did, and always do, find it quite beyond my capacity (unless my mind fails me with advancing senility) to reconcile the claims of the modern Papacy with the Acts of the Apostles. The whole atmosphere, tone, temper is different. The whole conduct and attitude of S. Paul is almost outrageous if S. Peter's claims and rights were to be interpreted as modern Romans claim.

I can only say to those who claim that S. Peter in the Acts was in germ what modern Romans say he is to-day, "It doesn't look like it." And therefore I hesitated, as I always do, to sacrifice my historic sense to the claims of logic. I saw and see much to admire in Rome. The obedience of its members and their devotion seem to me admirable, although I recognize that these are the virtues (and often the sole virtues) which flourish under an autocracy. But there were other sides to Rome which seemed to me incompatible with her claim to contain the sole and whole truth. If they are all they claim, they ought to have been better than they have been. I am not concerned here to say unkind things about the Church of Rome, whose grasp of the supernatural and fidelity to the Incarnation I respect so deeply and truly. But there are certain aspects of her that do not appeal to me. I should be sorry--I feel instinctively--to see England Roman Catholic. I doubt whether truth--whether in acknowledgement or inquiry--has been her strong point.

I don't deny that they are good, but they are not as good as they ought to be if they are all right and everybody else all wrong. So I was unconsciously fighting for a position, and of all the people I met the only man who caught my mind in this matter was Bishop Gore. He has reiterated the co-ordination of Scriptural Authority and Catholic Truth very frequently, and at last it took real hold of my mind and became the clue to many things. I think there are still many puzzles and many difficulties; but on fundamentals my mind is at rest. I see that Catholicity is autocratic and unrestrained without Scripture: I see that Scripture without Catholicity is individualistic. By holding them both together I see a position strong and sane, and worthy to be held by reasonable and disciplined men. Certain things are vital, guaranteed by the Catholic Religion and the Scriptures. Other things taught as true and right by the Church are binding with such authority as belongs to provincial or local authority, or to the intrinsic truth of them as far as they are important. But you ought never to be excommunicated or despised if you cannot accept them. We don't want a religion which fetters you down to the last nail-paring. I reckon that nearly all our divisions and troubles come from the desire to bind down all men, under pain of excommunication, to believe and act alike down to the last button. If only the scriptural test had been maintained and a reasonable liberty allowed, we should not be in the tragic muddle of disunion of to-day.

And since the time that this tangle about authority has been lifted from my mind I have made two discoveries. One is that the Church of England is by no means a hopeless or powerless affair. Perhaps it is because I semi-con-sciously moved out of the environment of the mere " authoritarians " and mixed with people who criticized less and did more. I got out of the atmosphere of hopelessness and fierce resentment, and came among the constructive people who, while hating separation, were satisfied with the intellectual basis of the Church of England. I saw what might yet be done if we could still a good deal of controversy and act reasonably and together.

I came out to Africa and found bishops who were Catholic and yet reasonable, tolerant, and effective, just as there are others at home of the same type. I found that the work of the Church of the Province of South Africa, though hampered by the circumstances and materialism of a new country, was yet by far the most effective asset for the uplift and Christianization of this land. When I see the difficulties of the work here: the problems of the hundreds of thousands of natives on the Rand; the task of educating the boys and girls of a new country; the loneliness of Basutoland; the immense task of raising and educating the native, I am filled with a deep and abiding admiration for the possibilities of the Church and for the character and zeal of the men who do her work. I think the work of the Community of the Resurrection; of the Modderpoort and Cowley Fathers; of the Wantage and other Sisterhoods; of the Church educational authorities, is beyond praise. If the Church of the Province died to-morrow it has kindled a light both for native Africans and for Europeans which will never be quenched; it has set a standard which can never be forgotten. As I go from school to school, from mission to mission; as I see the cheerful diligence and the happy faces; as I note the self-sacrifice and joy of teachers and clergy and of their Socks, I am proud and joyful to find that the old principles are vindicated and that we have nothing of which to be ashamed.

I wish I could arrange a Cook's Tour for any faint or despairing hearts at home. If they came back uncheered they would indeed be blind. That the English Church, in spite of her isolation and disabilities, is powerless for good I deny in toto; I should blaspheme against the Holy Ghost if I said so. We are weakened by our grumblers and hurt by our extremists; but God has not forsaken the English Church.

And the other discovery I have made is that when you can lift yourself out of the ecclesiastical muddles and controversies, and get your foundations firm, then you have leisure and energy to scan wider horizons and explore further fields. For I call it a limited horizon and a narrow field when you merely attempt to turn people into a rather narrow and passive Catholicity.

What is a real Catholic? I can give no other answer than "A real Christian." And a real Christian is nothing else than one who, in Christ, and in association with all the members of Christ, is becoming like God. I think we have lost much through allowing the word "God-likeness" to be whittled down into "Godliness"; the latter word suggests mere passive piety, whereas the former preserves the electrifying truth that each of us is meant to reproduce, in Christ, and as far as our created nature allows, the whole gamut of the qualities and attributes and passion and beauty of God. The only ultimate question about anybody is not "Is he a Catholic?" "Does he go to Mass?" "Is he converted?" but "Is he becoming like God?"

And directly you see this it not only revolutionizes a whole host of religious and ecclesiastical ideas, but it makes us look at ethics from a very different point of view. The only ethic worth having is the science, that is to say the knowledge and the power, which enables us to be united to God and to reproduce His character. And no ethic is complete if it leaves any side of God's life unreproduced in some shape or form: you cannot isolate any of His attributes or divorce them from the entire passion and beauty of God's life.

Therefore I think that obedience and devotion, which are the prime virtues of any autocratic and authoritative Catholicism, need very narrow scrutiny. If obedience means anything real, it is a good deal more than obedience to the Church's laws, or indeed passive obedience to anybody, even God. It means the acceptance and affirmation of, and the considered co-operation with, and the passionate and energetic fulfilment of, the whole character and purpose of God towards creation.

Whatever God's character is we adore it: whatever His purposes are we affirm and execute them. And devotion will mean not only adoration of Him because He is what He is, but a determination to bring about the fulfilment of His will as regards all His creatures.

I reckon that obedience and devotion must never stop short of God: that they must affirm and adore and fulfil all that is in God: that they must be active and not merely passive.

The phrase, therefore, "an obedient and devout Catholic," ought to mean a good deal more than meets the eye. It is not that one quarrels with the phrase, but it wants watching lest it be accepted that obedience to the Church's laws and devout attendance to her devotional life is the end of all things.

What is the real content of Christian ethics? We shall never grasp it all because we shall never know in its fullness all God's character, or be able to reproduce it as it was revealed in and for human life in Jesus. But its content might provisionally be summed up in the three words Truth, Goodness, Love. God is Truth, God is Goodness, God is Love; and one might add that Beauty blooms on Truth, Goodness, and Love, and that God is therefore Beauty also.

Christian ethics would, then, mean that every one of us must be, in Christ, truthful, good, and loving; that we must fulfil the will of God in making the world truthful, good, and loving; and that as these two tasks--the personal and the altruistic--are accomplished, the result will be Beauty and Harmony.

Dr. Lynch says that the real basis of ethics is a "tripod," viz. truth, energy, sympathy; but I do not want to change my phraseology, so I would emphasize the fact that "goodness" is energetic, vital goodness--not only being good but doing good.

It is here that new horizons begin. The soul of man, tainted and soiled with littleness and sin, has yet the call and privilege and power through Christ of becoming Godlike and of making a stern effort to render the world Godlike. And this Godlikeness is not the enforcement of some arbitrary or insufficient standard which God has set up, but is the very assimilation and reproduction of God's life and character by the individual and by the world in general.

Our ambitions, then, must not, cannot, end at our personal salvation (though this is necessary if we are ever to do any real work for God and others), nor at passive obedience to any laws of the Church or of God Himself.

There must be an increasing apprehension of God's character and a passion for union with Him and likeness to Him, and, further, a passion that all creation should--in the measure possible to the nature of each unit of creation--share and exhibit the life and qualities of God.

Thus Truth would include religious truth, but would reach up and down to all scientific fact and historical research. No scientific inquiry would be anything but welcome, for God cannot contradict Himself, and all scientific truth is a revelation of Himself and cannot contradict any real religious or theological truth.

Energetic Goodness would invade all departments of life. It would not eschew politics or labour problems, but would, for instance, esteem a slum as a sin, and political machinations as a crime. Goodness would never seek a cloistered virtue except for refreshment or to use the great weapon of prayer, but would confront all social and corporate evils with exactly the same challenge as it uses towards individual sins. "It's no affair of mine" would be a phrase unknown to Goodness, although it might be that prayer was the only weapon possible; but all human affairs belong to it, since in essence it is the life and character of God seeking, largely through human agencies, to be domiciled among men.

And Love (or sympathy, as Dr. Lynch would call it) supplies that very motive power without which all efforts tend to be spasmodic and fussy and intermittent. This love--whether of God or man--is derived from God and is sustained by God. Apart from God the philanthropic sentiment most easily degrades or declines into class feeling or impatience, and too easily tends to disillusionment or disgust. I know that the labour party has among its members many non-Christians who are actuated by a sense of fairplayand a real compassion for the suffering members of their own class. But you can see how limited is this love of theirs. It is almost always confined to their own class; it has moods of disgust and disappointment; it notoriously confines itself to material sufferings, and does little or nothing for the sins of men. This is not to deny that their compassion is divine--for all human love is God in action--but it does show that it is only when love is constantly reinforced by a real heart-union with God that it grows to its full stature, including in its scope the whole world and every sorrowful and sinful tragedy of man, and persisting in its loving-kindness through every disappointment or ingratitude. I must be pardoned for insisting on this because my experience within labour circles has shown me that while the philanthropy of labour people is often much greater than that of professing Christians, yet it conspicuously falls short of the sort of love I associate with F. D. Maurice or Dolling; it would be content if every man had his decent house and happy home; it falls far short of the desire to make man Godlike.

Thus it is a wider ethical and religious outlook that is required. I know that many have it: but not so very many.

The bitterness of the struggle among Catholics has drawn their interests to the vindication of their Catholic privileges and rights. They are really passionately keen on the revision of the Liturgy, or on trying to establish Benediction or devotions; their talk and their keenness run in the environment of such subjects. They miss, it seems to me, the wider horizon. Truth to them means Catholic truth: religious truth: ecclesiastical truth. They are the last to explore Old and New Testament criticism: the last to give a hearing to Darwin and Driver alike. The result is a certain narrowness, which must not last. All truth must be our interest: every department of energetic goodness our field of action: complete love of God and man our driving power.

All ethics seem to me to come into this field. And unless this field is worked it leaves life and ethics cold and powerless.

And unless the Catholic effort to win England has some background of this sort--a wide balance concerning the facts of life, a large toleration for the various levels of struggling humanity, a generous desire to bring God's love and pity and justice into all human conditions and relationships, a large allowance for the various obsessions and perversities of mankind--the whole thing will fail. Narrow ecclesiastics will catch a certain number of narrow ecclesiastical fish; but the backbone of the nation can only be attracted by something wider and bigger than itself. We want a generous ethic behind our Catholic Faith if we are to win the great British nation.

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