““Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia” were the words written in the comments column of the visitors book. I had just spent the previous half hour wandering around one of London’s most beautiful Anglican churches, All Saints, Margaret Street. My school Latin was good enough to translate: “Where Peter is there is the Church.” It was a short phrase but the words came as a bullet into my soul. In one sense it brought a sense of exhilaration, but at the other extreme it was part of a nightmare which I seemed embarked upon. The quotation from Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the fourth century, was a bit to close to the truth for my liking.
Conversion has been described as a dying process, and no one wants to die. In that Latin phrase were the claims of the Catholic Church firmly set before me, and it was just not convenient. It interfered with my future plans and contradicted what I thought would be a vocation to the Anglican ministry. But why couldn’t I just bury those claims forever? Had not some of my friends warned me of their own disillusionment with the Catholicism of their childhood? Had I not seen through the wishy-washy nature of what passed itself off as post Vatican II Catholicism? Anyway, how could an archetypal anti-Catholic be driving himself quietly crazy over Catholicism?
The root cause of this disquiet was undoubtedly the Holy Spirit working on a personality that since childhood was inquisitive and determined to get to the bottom of the matter. The Anglican claim to comprehensiveness never appealed to my mind. The idea that Anglicanism was a middle way (via media) never attracted me. People who walk in the middle of the road invariably get knocked down! However I was to discover gradually and painfully that Anglicanism was not a reformed Catholicism, but Protestanism pure and simple.
While some proclaim Anglicanism as a bridge between extreme Protestantism and Rome, I found it by contrast to be a side track, which for years kept me from facing the issues of the historical claims of the Catholic Church and the issue of authority. Anti-Catholicism can come in many guises. With many Fundamentalists it is based on stereotypes and ignorance. Within Anglicanism, there exists much anti-Catholicism of a refined and subtle nature. First we have the “intellectuals,” who are basically freethinkers in clerical garb. They might wear cope and miter, but their theology runs into rationalist waters. They object to the dogmatism of the Pope, his “oppression” of women and refusal to ordain them. His totally “unliberated” view of human sexuality and his “rebuff” to the divorced and the homosexual.
Then there were the old-fashioned Evangelicals, still breathing the fire of the Reformation, supporting missions to Catholics whether they be in South America or Ireland. An example of this is the Anglican Irish Church Missions to Roman Catholics. Under the patronage of the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Evangelicals like these are firmly loyal to the Reformation and all it stood for, and deeply suspicious of ecumenical dialogue with the Church of Rome.
Out of this group has emerged more “tolerant” Evangelicals, accommodating of women’s ordination and divorce. They are prepared to enter into dialogue, and I well remember George Carey (the present (1998) Archbishop of Canterbury and member of this group) preaching in my former theological college about the Catholics having to clear their attic of junk. Subsequent statements by Carey on Catholics and birth control have been equally insensitive.
It was the inherent confusion within Anglicanism that led me to examine the claims of the Catholic Church. When I sought counsel on this confusion, I was told that the Anglican Church was comprehensive. As one shrewd Catholic author observed, “Comprehensive of men and not of Catholic truth and doctrine.” I was told that the differences between Anglicans were “tensions” and that in essentials Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics were agreed. I learned from my own experience that this was false.
I attended a lively Anglican Evangelical Church in Newcastle upon Tyne. The vicar, David Holloway, is one of the leading hard-line Evangelicals in the Church of England. There were about 500 people in the congregation, and Communion as the main service was celebrated twice a month. After one such service, I went into the church kitchen for a glass of water and saw the verger’s wife pouring the leftover Communion wine down the sink and putting the bread in the bin. This I later discovered was standard practice among Evangelical Anglicans, and I even knew of ministers who threw the crumbs to the birds in the churchyards. The distressing side to all this is that in the same Church there are Anglicans who believe that Christ is present in the sacrament and reserve the same communion elements for worship! To someone who had been exposed to the naked Protestantism of Anglicanism, this never rang true. I could not delude myself that the Reformation had been simply schismatic and that Cranmer and his cronies had not changed the Catholic teaching of the English Church.
Indeed at the time of my visit to the Anglican church in London that I describe at the beginning of this account, I had just visited the adjoining parish of All Souls, Langham Place. A thriving church of the Evangelical school, the curate there had informed me that because of the size of the congregation the bread and wine leftovers were thrown away. It seemed incongruous to me that the AngloCatholic Parish of All Saints had a tabernacle to reserve the sacrament, and less than a mile away it was molding away in a dust bin!
The logic and coherence of the Catholic position appealed to me. It seemed to stand as a rock in a stormy sea—just as our Lord predicted. Yes, there were dissenting voices in the Catholic Church, but they could not capture the castle. The gates were locked by the keys given to Peter by our Lord. All I could see within Anglicanism and “mainline” Protestantism was a nightmare world of doctrinal change. This change was not only the monopoly of the liberal, as even some Evangelicals were advocating the remarriage of the divorced, contraception, and the ordination of women. In parts of the Anglican communion, the debate was moving to the acceptance of “faithful gay” relationships and lay celebration of the Eucharist.
Even a conservative Evangelical such as John Stott manifested this subjective nature, when he decided to reject the idea of eternal punishment and substitute for it annihilation. Yet the same John Stott (clearly going against the tide of close on two thousand years of Christian exegesis and interpretation, which has affirmed the punishment of the wicked in hell) would turn in disdain to the gay lobby, which has “discovered” new meaning to the words of Paul on homosexuality! Such is the eclectic nature of the Protestant mind. John Stott and others may not realize it, but subjectivism and private judgment (the real hallmark of the Reformers) are ultimately the origin of theological liberalism. . . .
My one remaining obstacle was the role of the Virgin Mary. Why were Catholics, so orthodox in everything else, seemingly obsessed with her? When I heard Catholics reciting the rosary and endlessly invoking her name, it struck me as weird. I remember visiting the Catholic shrine at Walsingham and also visiting the church that some AngloCatholics had established in honor of Mary (it is regularly picketed by Anglican Evangelicals protesting idolatry!) and being left totally bemused. I can remember being close to conversion and entering a Catholic church where there was a shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I can remember reading the prayers to Mary and feeling inwardly repulsed. As an Anglican I knew very little of the communion of saints. As an Anglican I never had been taught that Mary was my mother. In fact I had been taught that to ask the saints for their prayers to God was unbiblical superstition and contrary to the teachings of the “reformed” Church of England. The Protestant in me took a long time to die.
A conversion can be an intellectual exercise up to a certain point, but then the supernatural element must take its course. There must be a submission of will and a becoming like a child. Questions still troubled me, but there was a growing conviction of inner peace that I had to convert and give it a try at the very least. So on Easter Sunday 1991 I was received into the Catholic Church. I decided I wanted to be in the Church of Christ, so clearly indicated by the presence of the successor of Peter. It was a marvelous occasion and the reception of my first Holy Communion a most wonderful and precious moment.
While there were many things within Anglicanism that I loved, such as the fine tradition of choral music and my family associations, I realized that I must not be like the rich young man who placed his wealth before total commitment to Christ. If a person remains within Anglicanism because of sentimentality toward a building or outward forms, he is in effect repeating the mistake of the rich young man. It is in reality a form of idolatry. The spiritual forces of wickedness will do all to prevent entry into the Catholic Church, and my appeal to all sincere Anglicans is to pray ultimately for the grace of God. At the end of the day, all true conversions can be accomplished only by that supernatural and unexplainable power.”