Tuesday, 12 June 2018

A response to Peter Hitchens' Article on the past 500 years of English Church History

Peter Hitchens (Latimer and Ridley are Forgotten, FIRST THINGS June/July 2018) is to be commended for examining the history of English Christianity over the past 500 years with a view to understanding the present. 

The 1,000 years previous to Henry VIII in Christian Britain have only recently been given perspective by Eamon Duffy who, along with other contemporary historians, has also challenged and essentially exploded the ‘Black Legend’ i.e. that Catholics since the sixteenth century were continental traitors to the English nation. 


Mr. Hitchens rightly notes that Catholics vehemently opposed the rule of those who had broken the thousand-year bond of unity which shaped the morals, ethics, law and governance of the Western World. He is not, however, immune to the English cultural misanthropy which all too often finds its mark in individuals who chose to be witnesses to Catholic unity for the good of their nation. 

The belief that Christian unity may only be found, nurtured and preserved in a relationship with the Holy See shaped the Catholic political response to Henrician greed and its decimation of the monasteries and the established popular piety of the Church in England. Prof. Duffy has eloquently shown that the restoration of Christian unity with Rome under Mary was popular with the English people who preferred the ‘Old Faith’ to continental Protestantism (Fires of Faith, 2009).  


Under Henry and increasingly under Edward, revolutionary Protestantism was enforced in a top-down spiritual coup, plotted by the elite members of the English King’s court. This powerful Calvinist political lobby and its draconian laws, more than any popular preaching, gradually outlawed and killed off the practice of popular Catholicism in large swathes of Britain.  

It was not, then, Catholicism that had been “so preoccupied with asserting its power,” as Mr. Hitchens claims. It was, in fact, the likes of Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer and Cromwell who were, while Henry continued his outward observances of Mass in Latin and Catholic devotions, dismantling the Church from within. Henry was not a Roman Catholic as stated in the Hitchens article. He foreswore his allegiance to the See of Peter while deluding himself that he practised the Old Faith. Essential to being Catholic is true allegiance to the Holy Father, the successor of Peter, the seat of unity.

The now rapid disintegration of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion is directly due to the fact that without the Petrine Office the centre will not hold.  When unity with the See of Peter is systematically undermined and secular priorities increasingly dictate, what Newman referred to as a “paper church” continues to divide into factions, declines, fragments and fails.


Ironically, for Mr. Hitchens and others, the place where the essentials of classical English Christianity (including Anglican liturgy and music) are now preserved and fostered is in communion once again with Rome. This is seen in the Ordinariate communities whose clergy have not “defected” as Mr. Hitchens claims, but rather have come home to the welcome of the universal Church thanks to the foresight of the Newman devotee, Pope Benedict XVI, who has welcomed the prodigal home.

Let us pray that after the almost 500 year hiatus Christians in England may return to the unity of Peter which was the particular mark of English Christianity during its first millennium. 

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