The Restoration of the Hierarchy 1850-2000 and the Future October 2000

The English Catholic agenda, 1850-2000

Adrian Hastings

What was the Church's agenda at the time of the restoration? Adrian Hastings, Emeritus Professor of Theology at the University of Leeds and author of History of English Catholicism 1920-1985, looks back on the 150 years and then turns to what he calls a new, many-sided agenda. 'The English Catholic Church may never have been so free as now to establish its agenda creatively and influentially, if only it has the imagination and will to do so.'

When one considers the changing agenda of the Catholic Church in England and Wales between 1850 and 2000, it is important first to remind ourselves rather firmly that 1850 is not so important a date as all that. The establishment of a diocesan hierarchy as such made remarkably little difference except within the most clerical circles and as a sort of symbol that the penal days really were over. Stress upon it easily gives the impression that there was very little of a Catholic Church in England before that date. It is a lie and it would be sad to belittle the achievement of the Vicars Apostolic and everyone else in order to enhance the glory of Wiseman and Manning.

In 1850, Ushaw, Ware, Oscott already existed, and so did Ampleforth, Downside, Stanbrook, Stonyhurst, Mount St Bernard’s. So did The Tablet. There were 383 ‘missions’ functioning back in 1829 and a healthy growth in most parts of the country, by no means all of it due to Irish immigration. The idea that pre-1850 English Catholicism was an inward-looking, almost mindless community, consisting of little more than a few great families and their retainers, is a gross libel on the ecclesiastical tradition of Mary Ward and Augustine Baker, of Dryden and Pope, of Bishop Challoner and John Lingard.

The restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 was, of course, sensible enough, indeed overdue, but the actual difference in most places between a Church ruled by Vicars Apostolic and one ruled by diocesan bishops was rather slight. England remained under Propaganda Fide for another fifty years. Administratively that was more important. The 1850 restoration had, however, three notable consequences.

The Second Spring?

The first was a temporary escalation of anti-Catholicism throughout the country due to the flamboyant and foolish language of Wiseman’s famous pastoral ‘From without the Flaminian Gate’. The second was Newman’s wonderfully evocative but extremely misleading sermon ‘The Second Spring’, preached at Oscott in 1852 at the first Provincial Synod of Westminster. Its suggestion that the Catholic Church in this country had become ‘not a body, however small, representative of the Great Communion abroad, but a mere handful of individuals’ could only have been made by someone with singularly little understanding of the Church he had joined. It has certainly misled subsequent generations and played into the hands of Ultramontane restorationists who wanted to treat English Catholicism as a tabula rasa on which to impose their model of the Church. The third consequence, however, was still more important and lasting: it was the establishment of the primacy of the archiepiscopal see of Westminster. This indeed was something quite new. For many years there would be no second archbishop and when further archbishoprics were established at Liverpool, Birmingham and Cardiff the unique leadership position of Westminster remained unimpaired even if it irked some of the bishops.


The choice of the title of Westminster was inspired, one of Wiseman’s best contributions. Certainly this has shaped all our subsequent history though it did provide ground for the misleading impression that this might be little other than a chronicle of Cardinal Archbishops - Wiseman, Manning, Vaughan, Bourne, Hinsley, Griffin, Godfrey, Heenan, Hume, and now Murphy-O’Connor. It has been so much more than that, but we can hardly realise that it has been so much more unless we free our minds of the tendency to exaggerate the importance of 1850. Instead we must insist that the English Catholic Church already existed, as it had always done, long before there was an Archbishop of Westminster.

What was the agenda at that time? Wiseman believed fervently in the ‘Conversion of England’ and the public lectures he regularly delivered derived from this agenda. He was outgoing enough, nevertheless the principal concern then and for long afterwards was a more prosaic one: pastoral and institutional expansion to provide for rapidly increasing numbers due, above all, to the Irish influx. England and Ireland were part of one state though their hierarchies were distinct as were their underlying loyalties. But they co-operated well enough to cope with the pastoral problem. The number of priests and Catholics had been growing fast before 1850 and continued to grow. Schools and institutions of every sort were needed, mostly to serve the very poor. The agenda followed was, for the latter part of the century, essentially Manning’s - vigorous, pastoral, concerned with social realities. But at a time when society’s mental climate was changing fast under the influence of the physical and social sciences, there was effectively no intellectual agenda, other than a self-confident denial that any was needed. Catholics were forbidden to enter the old universities until after Manning’s death. Newman, almost the only priest with the theological ability to grapple with the issues, was under constant suspicion, despite the influence he had in some lay circles. So was Acton, by far the most brilliant Catholic lay intellectual of the late Victorian age. So was Von Hügel. There had, in a way, been what one might call a liberal Catholic agenda at the end of the eighteenth century; there was one again, briefly enough, in the 1860s, and again around the turn of the century. But each time it was crushed by bishops who had, for the most part, very little learning or theological expertise and were simply frightened of subjects they did not understand. In consequence the Church in this country as a whole lacked any serious intellectual agenda until well after the Second World War.

Conversion of England? While the pastoral struggle bore fruit and the number of Catholics increased, there lay at the back of the agenda the recurring phrase, ‘the Conversion of England’. It remained there as a sort of Utopian hope throughout our period. Even Hume could appeal to it in an unguarded moment. In practice, however, at least on the part of the bishops, there never was much serious attempt to ‘convert’ England. Clerical efforts were directed, instead, towards bringing back the ‘lapsed’ as it was clear that a large proportion of Catholic Irish immigrants quickly abandoned the Church, as of course did many other Catholics in England.

If the lapsing rate had not been so high, the growth in Catholic numbers would have been considerably greater. Even at its most lively moment, under the leadership of John Heenan and George Dwyer, the Catholic Missionary Society still had as its principal aim the seeking out of the lapsed. Only the Catholic Evidence Guild, an overwhelmingly lay organisation, directed its efforts principally to society at large. Until the 1960s there was, then, a pretty consistent official agenda, pragmatic and partially successful. Through the opening of more and more churches, schools, teacher training colleges and other institutions, the Catholic proportion of the population slowly but steadily grew. At the same time the visionary ‘Conversion of England’ agenda remained available to stir up enthusiasm on suitable occasions. Utopian as it was, it did not seem wholly unrealistic, particularly in the middle years of the century. There were enough distinguished converts to make one hope for more - scientists like Sir Edmund Whittaker, George Temple or Sherwood Taylor, Anglican clergy like Ronald Knox, Vernon Johnson or Edward Rich; literary figures like Evelyn Waugh, Siegfried Sassoon or Edith Sitwell - to name just a few.

Fifty-two years ago, in 1948, the great national pilgrimage to Walsingham involved fourteen groups of men carrying heavy crosses for a fortnight across almost every part of the country before arriving together at Walsingham. The fourteen crosses still stand outside the Slipper Chapel. Everywhere the pilgrimage chaplains preached as they passed through towns and villages, in market places or by the roadside. Its agenda was unmistakably ‘the Conversion of England’ but again it was very much a lay initiative.

It was noticeable that, fifty years later, the Catholic press never, so far as I could see, recalled that amazing moment - perhaps it seemed altogether too unreal in the world of 1998. As a young man who took part in that pilgrimage, I had grown up a totally ‘Conversion of England’ man, happy enough to sing ‘Faith of our Fathers’ through the English countryside. So many of my own Catholic friends and acquaintances at Oxford, many of them of exceptional ability, were converts. They went on to be priests, professors, headmasters… In such an atmosphere the ‘Conversion of England’ did not seem impossible and, for my part, I only abandoned that agenda for another equally simplistic but apparently still more compelling - the conversion of Africa!

‘We who needed conversion’

It should be noted that the agenda of that time did not include any significant alteration in the Catholic Church itself. Indeed the bishops were extremely reluctant to countenance even the slightest innovation, such as introduction of the dialogue Mass. Fifteen years later Vatican II, and the tidal wave of thinking that went with it, faced the English Catholic Church with the need for such an intellectual revolution as left its leadership profoundly disorientated. It was we who needed conversion, not just England. Catholicism itself became the central subject of the new agenda: liturgy, theology, ministry, attitudes to other Christians and other faiths. The Church of England was suddenly turned from the old, if now amiably crumbling, enemy into a ‘sister Church’ with whom we shared a common task of internal conversion as well as external witness.

At the same time, for reasons related and unrelated, the steady statistical growth of the English Catholic Church up to the mid 1960s was reversed and we were faced with figures indicating a massive decline which undermined the whole traditional strategy, presupposing slow but steady growth. This was undoubtedly linked to the social homogenisation of Catholics with the population at large, the disappearance of the old semi-ghettos, the raising of standards of education and income among ordinary Catholics, and the fact that the great majority of Catholic marriages were now ‘mixed’.

Widespread clerical failure to comprehend these social and educational changes could only make matters worse, but the closure of so many institutions - convent and monastic schools, seminaries, religious houses of every sort - has now produced a radically different institutional situation from that of thirty years ago. In institutional terms that cannot be reversed, and appeals back to the agenda of forty years ago can only be gravely misleading.

Foreignness disappearing

Yet there was a third, no less significant, development. Up to the 1950s Catholics had been an important minority but well off centre stage nationally. Now, quite quickly, Catholicism moved into a far more central position. Suspicions faded away, a change famously symbolised by the way in which Basil Hume was accepted nationally as an almost ideal representative of English Christianity. The accusation of foreignness had disappeared. But the old agenda had disappeared too. The immediate new one might seem obvious enough: activate the letter and spirit of Vatican II in a thoroughly ecumenical way, though only ten years after the end of the Council did that become possible. The old leadership headed by Heenan and Dwyer proved unable to adapt to so different an aim. What is striking is that Derek Worlock, by his background quintessentially someone of the preconciliar guard, the man who had been secretary to Griffin, Godfrey and Heenan, could take this on so whole-heartedly, but he was not alone. Bishops like John Brewer in Shrewsbury and Lancaster, Mervyn Alexander in Clifton, were no less committed.

The new agenda was crystallised at the Liverpool Pastoral Congress of 1980, the joint product of Worlock and Hume. By that time, however, John Paul II had arrived on the scene with a rather different agenda of his own, though he canonised the transformed relationship with the Church of England by his historic visit to Canterbury Cathedral in 1982 and his quite frequent meetings with Archbishops Runcie and Carey. Nevertheless, the Pastoral Congress resolutions were, mostly, put into cold storage though attempts to impose more reactionary policies, so evident elsewhere, made little progress in this country, at least outside the Archdiocese of Birmingham. But no more did anything else. Meanwhile almost every statistic got worse and worse.

Where will we go?

Hume and Worlock have died. Pope John Paul is very near the end of his immensely long pontificate. We have several new archbishops and a new century. Where will we go? Where should we go? The answer could be anywhere - either escalating decline or a new, inclusive and creative existence. The Catholic Church in England and Wales remains an extremely considerable institution with great vitality and human reserves. Without much public fuss it has in fact been laicised to an astonishing degree since Vatican II and is today in part transformed in the spirit of its members according to the guidelines of the Council if also carrying a great deal of dead wood unaffected by any significant injection of its spirit. It stands shoulder to shoulder with other Christian Churches and in a sort of special alliance with the Church of England, stimulated by the long discussions of ARCIC and most recently by the remarkable recommendations of the Toronto meeting of Anglican and Catholic bishops convened by Archbishop Carey and Cardinal Cassidy in May of this year. It stands also in a position of considerable strength vis-à-vis the national community, actually in a healthier relationship than that of the established Church just because it is not established and yet emphatically, if mysteriously, part of the establishment. It has greater freedom to manoeuvre but no less weight.

And it stands within a country which still has a strange importance in the world at large. It may be difficult to pinpoint effectively quite why Britain remains influential despite a painful decline in so many areas of national life. The myriad relationships derived from the old empire and surviving Commonwealth, the ties with the United States, other ties with western Europe, the near ubiquity of our language, all provide opportunity. It is perfectly obvious what weight both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have carried in the world - vastly beyond the personal qualities of either. British leadership, expertise, language, literature and culture remain internationally of the first importance, all the more so, perhaps, because Britain has lost its imperial role to the US, its economic dominance to many countries. The wider importance of the Catholic Church in Britain is much enhanced by all of this. Even in religious terms this is so. Probably nowhere else are Catholics in a position to relate so positively to Anglicanism, Methodism, Quakerism or, again, even to Islam or other faiths. Moreover the English Catholic Church may never have been as free as now to establish its agenda creatively and influentially, if only it has the imagination and will to do so.

Today’s agenda needs to be many-sided. First, the socio-political. In 1965 in Gaudium et spes Vatican II presented a somewhat rose-tinted picture of the contemporary world in political, economic and cultural terms. A true picture for the coming century is likely to be a lot grimmer, in terms of environmental devastation, famines, the violent migration of peoples, the clash between international capitalism and the needs of the masses. English Catholicism has already provided a remarkably lively organ in the Catholic Institute for International Relations for confronting such problems, just as the bishops produced in The Common Good an excellent pastoral for the last general election, and in The Tablet we have an incomparable and highly international organ of weekly information and discussion. There is an agenda here struggling to get out but its development will depend on the willingness of the hierarchy to co-operate far more closely and diversely with Catholic professionals in the universities and elsewhere than has hitherto been the case.


Secondly, the ecumenical and intellectual scene (the two are no longer separable). There really are remarkable possibilities open to us but they can only be realised by a thoroughly open-hearted approach to our fellow-Christians, the sort of approach that has worked so well in the Focolare movement. England does indeed need conversion. So does the world and so do we. It has always been so. But that has to be a shared task, grounded on a serious application of the Lund Principle - to do together everything which conscience does not compel us to do apart. Given the progress in true communion that has been achieved, one has to ask again and again whether a rigid resistance to shared eucharistic communion is not theologically ungrounded and, in mission and pastoral terms, increasingly disastrous. We could give a marvellous lead to the world by further transforming inter-Church relations in this country, and demonstrating what catholicity really can mean. With an archbishop who has hitherto been chairman of ARCIC that should not be impossible.

We need priests

Thirdly, the ministry and structure of the Church and its worship. Undoubtedly the process of laicisation which has already gone so far must, and will, continue, but we still do need priests. The heart of Catholic ecclesiology lies in local eucharistic celebration and the growing inability, even now, to provide priests to lead worship in many places is alarming.

Unless there is a very big change it will be far worse in ten years’ time. If the Church clings to the existing laws of priestly celibacy, it could be committing virtual suicide - not only in Britain but across most of western Europe, North and South America and elsewhere. But again, here in England, the way forward lies particularly clear. With a large number of ex-Anglican married priests doing good pastoral service our ministerial agenda should be obvious. By ordaining these men the Catholic Church in Britain has in fact admitted that you can be a good priest and be married. This being the case, it is pastorally criminal not to go further and recognise a married priesthood, full-time or part-time, as something to be welcomed and used quite apart from the accommodation of converts. Without it, due flexibility in the ministry is unattainable.

These three are not separate but mutually dependent facets of what Christianisation should mean today - the struggle for a civilisation of love extending from the heart to the international economic order. That indeed is Utopian enough, but we cannot settle for less. If it sounds like the Kingdom of God, we know that humankind alone will never create the Kingdom but is no less bound to venture everything in its service.

New agenda

If the English Catholic Church and its new leadership can summon up the courage to see a new agenda in such terms and pursue it, this could prove a truly historic moment. The hour is right. The missed opportunities of the past - and they have been many - are past but they have not incapacitated us from beginning a new millennium with a new agenda and a new hope.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shadows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat.

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