The Catholic Church in England

The Catholic Church in England

It is, perhaps, a temptation to view the Catholic Church in England as a product of the counter-reformation and reduce its scope to a history of some 450 years. However, to do so, is to do injury to the vast influence of English Catholicism’s cultural, intellectual and devotional influence, not only within the confines of these Isles but far beyond. For a real appreciation of the English Church we must gaze further back than that. Many would date the founding of the Church in England to the official Gregorian Mission of 596AD. Pope Gregory the Great entrusted Augustine of Canterbury to head a delegation to these shores with the object of converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, however, as St Bede shows us in his Historia Ecclesiastica, English Christianity can be traced back until at least the second century, surviving the departure of the Roman forces and remaining until the arrival of Augustine. Indeed, it is clearly recorded that Romano-British bishops, such as Restitutus, attended the Council of Arles in 314. It would seem that the Church in England was an influential body from its very early days.

It was, however, the Gregorian Mission, pursued as it was with vigour, that really gained ground in winning converts and in fostering a greater unity between England and Rome. Much of the work of closer integration and expansion was made possible by the Benedictine missionaries whose continental Rule, became over time, closely imbedded in English culture. The English Church, not without difficulty and dispute, went from strength to strength and by the early middle ages was not only a prominent feature of society but imbued every aspect of it and was intertwined with the daily life of kings and paupers alike. England boasted a remarkable number of convents and monasteries and with the rise of the new religious orders in the 12th and 13th centuries this extended still further. The rise of the schools ensured the intellectual development of Church in England, whose influence spread far abroad, but other aspects of Christian society were no less notable, such as welfare for the sick and poor through the provision of hospices and infirmaries connected to the religious institutions. Art, architecture, music, literature – all flourished and bore the distinctive imprint of English Catholicism. By the late 15th century the English Church was a vibrant and powerful force, deeply aware of its past, and of how firmly it was imbedded in the Latin Church, which it could not fail to see as Universal. Above all, it was a Church whose doctrine of the communion of saints, deep prayer and devotional life for both the living and the dead, and awareness of the sacramental economy permeating daily life, could not easily be swept away by the subsequent Reformation and successive persecutions that followed.

Whilst it would be foolish to see the English Reformation as anything less than a thoroughgoing dismantling of the institutions of the Catholic Church, and its impact as nothing less than devastating, we must be aware that throughout the see-sawing of the religious landscape of the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary, a significant proportion of the population continued to stand for the faith and to practice whether in public or private. Although by Elizabeth’s reign the Catholic population, repressed and denied its legitimacy, could only be said to be a minority it could not be wholly expunged. A new era had begun and one in which the bravery and steadfastness of those who held to the faith would become legendary under penal conditions. English Catholicism adapted to its new and hostile circumstances by going largely underground and re-establishing its organisational centres abroad from which missionary activity ceaselessly flowed.

The Stuart era was marked with an increasing tolerance towards Catholics, albeit interspersed with occasional and deadly purges, and the accession of the Catholic King, James II in 1685, brought with it a renewed hope for English Catholicism, in at least that an era of religious tolerance had begun. However, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 deposed James and the Protestant reign of William and Mary began. Though not entirely invisible, English Catholicism in the period 1688 until the early 19th Century was at a distinctly low ebb. Politically and culturally it was far from view save for some notable exceptions such as Alexander Pope and the great recusant family the Howards, Dukes of Norfolk. Though legislation against Catholics became more lenient in this period it was not until 1829, when Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act, that almost equal civil rights were granted, including the right to vote and to hold most public offices.
This Act together with significant demographic changes in England, such as mass immigration from Ireland in the 1840’s and 1850’s, dramatically changed the nature of the Church in England; indeed, some would see the latter half of the nineteenth century as a ‘second spring’ for English Catholicism. Multiple factors were at work here; a new found freedom from repression; a wave of catholic immigration; the subsequent Restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy by Rome; a renewed interest in Catholic theology and philosophy (with all its manifold implications) courtesy of the Anglican Oxford Movement; a steady stream of converts from Protestantism, not least Blessed John Henry Newman. In fact the stream of intellectual and artistic converts in the late 19th and early 20th century is considerable. A few of their names make for a distinguished roll-call; Augustus Pugin, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Graham Sutherland, G.K Chesterton, Hiliare Belloc, Ronald Knox, Siegfried Sassoon, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell, Muriel Spark, Graham Greene, Edward Elgar, and J.R.R Tolkien.
The first half of the twentieth century was undoubtedly one of renewed confidence for the Church in England. The number of clergy rose sharply from the beginning of the century from just under 3000 to a peak of 7,500 in 1971, but this in turn had decreased to 4,400 by 2010. An aging clerical population has brought with it many challenges and many parishes have been affected by this across the 22 dioceses of England & Wales. Though annual vocation rates have been variable in recent years there would seem again to be a strong sense of confidence in the English Church, not least among the young. The Papal Visit of 2010 bore strong witness to this, and though English Church will undoubtedly face many challenges to its beliefs and institutions in the coming years the sense of hope is strong. There are currently just over 4 million Catholics in England & Wales, and if there is one thing that history teaches us, it is that English Catholicism runs deep in this land and it will not easily be trampled or ignored. Our Lady’s Dowry remains; it is now for every Catholic to play their part in continuing to perpetuate and grow England’s devotional, cultural, and intellectual Catholic heritage, for the ages to come.

Graham Hunt OP