Guy Fawkes, Margaret Roper and the apostolate of the laity

I once came across the recently departed Fr Ian Ker, in his then-parish church somewhere between Oxford and Cheltenham. The building itself was not an architectural gem, but hanging on the west wall was a striking painting of Margaret Roper (daughter of St Thomas More) recovering her father’s head from Tower Bridge, where it was displayed on a spike after his execution. “When it comes to the elevation” he explained “I lift up the host and I look at Margaret, and Margaret looks at me, and I think to myself, ‘all this ecumenism stuff, it’s a load of rubbish really isn’t it?'” 

I was reminded of this observation when I heard that the great scholar of St John Henry Newman had passed away on 5 November this year. Guy Fawkes Night is, of course, a singularly un-ecumenical event. It has become such a normal part of the culture that, today, we completely forget that it was for centuries, and in a few places remains, a rallying point for anti-Catholic sentiment. 

I was once attending a firework display in Scotland when I received a telephone call from a friend in Edinburgh who demanded to know what I was doing. When I explained, she castigated me for “celebrating the death of a good Catholic”. On the contrary, I protested, I was merely “celebrating the fact that we used to show as much commitment as the Muslims”. Hanging up, I suddenly remembered to my horror that I was standing next to a Northern-Irish Protestant for whom such quips would naturally be entirely unhumorous. 

Of course, blowing up Parliament is not being “a good Catholic” and ecumenism is not “a load of rubbish”. On the other hand, contemporary Catholics do indeed lack commitment and much (or most) of what passes for ecumenism is merely a collection of apostates from various cultural backgrounds congratulating each other on their theological emancipation. 

Is there not, however, a core of shared belief which establishes a common ground for dialogue between the representatives of different Christian traditions, which — through such dialogue — can be strengthened and expanded? Fr Ker might well have answered “no” to this question. At least that was the focus of a famous talk he gave to Oxford University’s C S Lewis Society, in which he exploded the concept of “mere Christianity” (the title of one of Lewis’s most famous works). The talk owes its fame largely to the fact that one member of the audience that day was Walter Hooper, the literary executor of C S Lewis and, at that time, an Anglican clergyman. Hooper was so struck by Ker’s arguments that he subsequently identified this moment as the turning point in his conversion to Catholicism.

What Fr Ker argued is that the idea of a common core of Christian belief that might be labelled “mere Christianity” is a mirage. This mirage is created by placing some sort of moderately conservative form of “mainline” Protestantism — the sort of Anglicanism represented by Lewis, say — next to Catholicism, and then subtracting whatever they do not have in common. But the selection of conservative Anglicanism is completely arbitrary. If one were to choose Greek Orthodoxy instead, the core would be composed of the seven Sacraments, prayer for the dead, devotion to Mary and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist (all rejected by historic Anglicans) whilst the Filioque and the indissolubility of marriage (supposedly upheld by the “Church of England”) would have to be jettisoned. 

Fr Ker argued that the concept of “mere Christianity” is pernicious because it gives the misleading impression that a degree of certainty is achievable as to the central truths of divine revelation without the necessity of an infallible teaching authority to “guarantee the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error”. In fact, the only choice is between the fullness of Christianity and no Christianity at all.

The logic of this observation is powerful and is felt powerfully and subconsciously by many to whom it has never been articulated explicitly. As the strength of inherited Christian culture dissipates, this logic becomes more and more inexorable. This was a phenomenon that Alexis de Tocqueville already noted, nearly two hundred years ago, in his famous study of the United States of America.

“America is the most democratic country on earth, while, at the same time, the country where, according to reputable reports, the Catholic religion makes the most progress. At first sight, this is surprising. Two distinctions must be made: equality persuades men to judge for themselves. On the other hand, it gives them the taste for and conception of a single simple social power which is the same for everyone. Men who live in democratic times are, therefore, predisposed to slide away from all religious authority. But if they agree to such an authority, they insist at least that it is unique and of one character, for their intelligence has a natural abhorrence of religious powers which do not emanate from the same centre and they find it almost as easy to imagine that there is no religion as several … our descendants will tend increasingly to divide into only two parts: some leaving Christianity entirely and the others embracing the Church of Rome.”

But where is this progress of the Catholic religion? There is plenty of evidence of those “leaving Christianity entirely” in the last sixty year, but the advance of the true faith seems to have been halted and reversed.

Surely Fr Ker would have pointed to the sort of muddled ecumenism he lamented as one of the key factors in blunting the progress of the gospel. He once lamented that he had received a questionnaire from the nunciature about a candidate for the episcopate and, though it asked many questions about the piety, skills and abilities of the individual in question, it nowhere inquired whether he was any good at preaching the gospel. But this, Fr Ker observed, is the chief and most essential of the tasks of a bishop.

Where is the renewal of the missionary zeal of the Church to come from? There was a time when Fr Ker would have pointed to the new ecclesial movements so favoured by St John Paul II. Whether he took this conviction with him to the grave I do not know, but one cannot help but feel that the Gamaliel-esque approach that St John Paul took to these organisations, and to the new religious communities that arose or flourished during his pontificate, has yielded mixed results. Indeed, it seems probable that one of the advantages of these “movements” was that their novel structures allowed them to circumvent the episcopal sclerosis which Fr Ker lamented, rather than that their own guiding ideas were particularly heaven-sent.

But episcopal government was instituted by Our Lord Himself, and circumventing it — to the benefit of structures not established by divine law — instead of reforming it is not a long-term solution to the Church’s ills.

There is, however, an exception to this point. While reliance upon para-ecclesial structures to discharge the essential functions of the episcopate such as evangelisation and catechesis may be a recipe for disaster, “the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives is,” as Vatican II observed, “so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others.” It is natural, therefore, that the one “ecclesial movement” that has yielded almost unalloyed good for the Church, strengthening the faith, virtues and spiritual lives of the faithful, is the pro-life movement, in which the laity perform their own proper task and in which they are rightly guided by their own prudence and inspiration independently of the hierarchy.

Fr Ian Ker once gave another talk to Oxford University’s Newman Society on the novelist Evelyn Waugh’s conception of the priest as a simple craftsman doing humble but sound and solid work for his heavenly Master. He contrasted this to the spectacular and destructive incompetence of the protagonists of Waugh’s comic novels. The priest stumps up to his workbench (the altar) accompanied by his apprentice (the altar server) and, without fuss or vanity, completes his work in silence with precision and skill. Waugh greeted with horror the idea that the priest might be eye-balling the faithful across a table, or abandon the organic and living work of centuries for “a manufacturing process … a banal on-the-spot product”.

St Thomas More was abandoned by the bishops of his day, when only one of them stood in the breach, upholding the living authority that Fr Ker rightly explained is the indispensable precondition of true Christian faith. Those bishops too were no doubt pious in their way and able administrators but, when the time came for them to bear witness, they fell away. It was More the layman who was the king’s good servant but God’s first, and all the better, a servant to the king for his prior service to God. The reason Fr Ker could see Margaret Roper is precisely because he was facing liturgical west, but her witness and that of her father points him, and us, back eastward to where our glorious High Priest is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, bidding His clergy do the job that He gave them without fuss or vanity, that the laity might be free to do theirs.