. . . two kindly American tourists who asked in a low voice “Could you possibly tell us if there is a Catholic church near here?” in a country hotel were surprised to be given information and directions with goodwill to a large church where in due course they joined a good-sized congregation. They laughed at themselves a bit later as they told the story to me, admitting that they had somehow thought that being Catholic was vaguely still a semi-secret thing in England, and then realised that the situation is rather different. Churchgoing in general in Britain is very much a minority thing, but in many (or most?) towns there are more Catholics at church on a Sunday than there are Anglicans or Methodists or Baptists. And our towns have many Catholic Poles, Indians, and Africans among others.
We face many problems in the Catholic Church in Britain, but these days they are largely of our own making. We have too few priests, churches that too often offer poor liturgy with dreadful music, and people who are poorly instructed thanks to decades of confusion on religious education. It is true that we face pressures from outside too: a crude and vulgarised culture, publicly-funded campaigns promoting same-sex “marriage”, systematic campaigns distributing contraceptives to teenagers, and more. But these are problems also faced by Catholics in America, and indeed across the Western world.
Britain’s history has rolled on from the years of persecution under King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. The great Catholic revival of the 19th century gave us gothic architecture – including our Houses of Parliament, a world-famous landmark that owes its style to the Catholic architect Augustus Welby Pugin. It also gave us Catholic bishops and cathedrals, as well as Catholic schools that are now hugely popular and over-subscribed, with parents going to all sorts of lengths to try to get their children into them.
Finally: the fastest-growing religion in Britain is that of the followers of Mohammed. His name is now among the most popular for baby boys born each year. The reality of today’s Britain is not the reality of the black-and-white movies of the middle of the 20th century, or the grim persecution of Catholics in the 16th and 17th. We face a new era with new challenges. When Catholic visitors come, their prayers will help us to face these new challenges with the faith and hope and love that sustained the Church in this land for centuries.
TA Pascoe picks up on some of those themes in an opinion piece for The Catholic Herald:
Today we find ourselves at a critical juncture in British history. For 70 years we have broken with tradition and dispensed with the idea of the nation as a single social unit with collective interests in exchange for the chaos of rampant individualism and economic maximisation. Many do not like the country we have become; they feel lost in a world in which everything is relative and fluid and long for a unity which the Church can provide. They are a huge constituency which the Church must speak to, and yet at the moment they are being lost.
What does speaking to them involve? I think this is reasonably simple. The Church must realise that a non-believer encounters it far too rarely. Everything it does must be orientated towards reaching as many as possible, as frequently as possible, and telling the truth.
This means finding half a dozen priests of personal integrity in whom the Holy Spirit visibly moves. It means doing whatever is possible to get these half-dozen on television as frequently as possible. It means not wasting those few occasions when the agnostic encounters the Church by allowing them to find the Church mumbling to itself “you know, there’s a really meaningful debate to be had about female deacons” or some other detail of internal politics, when it should be preaching the Gospel of Christ’s love or showing it in action by talking about the works of Catholic charities in this country.
Catholics must fight the alien notion that faith should not inform the public lives of its rulers. From the abolition of the slave trade to the foundations of the welfare state under the Liberal Party, sincere Christianity in public life has delivered far more for the people of this country than the modern cult of power worship disguised as pragmatism. . . .