A Conversion Story
A lot hangs on the word. One can have a conversion within one's own faith, within one's own place in that faith. Or one can make a move. A move I prefer to think of, in my case, as Being Received Into The Catholic Church. For that is what happened, and it wasn't just me that did it. The Church did it too. She was there with her arms open, ready to receive me if I wanted to come. And with the help of others, many others over quite a time, I did. But it wasn't a leap from nowhere.
I was brought up in what I suppose was a fairly typical English family as far as religion or faith was concerned. Nominally Church of England but of that sort where a private interpretation had been made by each individual and attendance at any form of church service was rare, I did however receive a formal religious education both at school and, oddly enough, at home. I would describe my parents as Christian for they lived Christian lives. At a time when an older brother was wanting to become a scientist and thought that incompatible with faith, and liked to say so, I remember I asked my father about that. He said he did not agree; on the contrary, discovery and learning only increased his wonder at the work of God. And loafing about as a trying teenager myself I had many lovely conversations with my mother about her faith and gained great strength from them. But she had been educated at a very strict Anglican Convent where she said she had suffered from Religious Indigestion. Few, it seems benefit from having anything crammed down their throats. My father, who had been educated at Clifton, a fairly liberal public school, was trying to provide for a family in the years of austerity before, during and after World War Two, in which he had fought and been captured, and had found his life too full for there to be time for the formalities of religion and anyway by the time I was ten the village we lived in in West Somerset was half dead on that front anyway. Before that my parents had owned and run a boarding school in Devonshire. The girls there had received a conventional education for girls at the time, aimed mainly at their making good wives. A study of their religion had been part of this and each Sunday they were bused off to a beautiful church some miles away for Matins.
My mother had a problem with Catholics which was passed on. It was for a specific reason but I don't think, however, it was particularly unusual for that class of English man or women to have a problem with Catholics whatever the reason, or none. The cause, it was said, was that her half uncle, a lovely man who I just remember, had been an Anglican priest and engaged to be married when he called the wedding off and became a Catholic. He then became a Catholic priest and in fact became quite well known in his time for the work he did in poor parishes in London, becoming a Monsignor. There were jokes in slightly bad taste about miracles and one was left to understand that Uncle Harry (John Henry interestingly) might just have seen Catholicism as a way out of a difficulty.
At eight I was sent off to boarding school in Gloucestershire. Both my brothers had been there, one still was, and we had a reputation for having passable singing voices so fairly soon I was in the choir. The School was in a Victorian big house next to the village church which was much older. I enjoyed singing in the choir but I cannot really remember how much I connected with what I was singing about or what was being said by the parson who was old and not really very inspiring, nor by those reading the lessons. However I did learn to read those myself and that I enjoyed and on returning home for the holidays would ask to read to the three old ladies and a gentleman who made up the congregation in our local, and huge, church. So my mother would get to church on those days!
Scripture, as the academic pursuit of the subject was called at that school, was taught by more than one teacher but one had a huge effect on the understanding, belief and faith of, I suspect, a large number of us. He was also the Latin master and I never excelled at that subject so what he was teaching must have had a bearing on how receptive I was to it. Just being a good teacher would not have been enough. He was, I think it would have been said by opinionated Anglicans of the old school of the time, from the Low Church despite having been educated at a good public school and Oxford. Whatever his background he taught a religion of Salvation. We were encouraged to believe that Christ died for us, not that God would be angry if we failed to live up to certain standards. It was a most attractive faith. Musical, he also had a hand in the school's music though the choir was run by a most extraordinarily attractive woman. Even at my tender age I could see that.
The headmaster, a man who I later found had been both generous and compassionate toward families that struggled to keep up with fees and had really given his life over to his work, was tolerant, but no more, of Catholics as they required special provision on Sundays. There was one family I remember and I remember too being curious about them and asking one of their number about what he believed and how it might differ from my own belief. I do remember that being interesting in a way that was not just rebellious and it must have been at this time that I sent off for, and started to receive, a commentary on the Scriptures distributed by a Catholic Organisation whose name I cannot remember.
At thirteen I went, as a day boy, to a Woodard School in Taunton. The Woodard Corporation has very High Anglican origins though I wonder if the word High would be recognised today when there would be a preference for Canon Woodard's belief in an education based on "Sound principle and sound knowledge, firmly grounded in the Christian faith". Whatever, it was while there that I learned the expression the "biretta tendency" to describe a kind of clericalism and "bells and smells" in the Anglican Church which aped Victorian Catholicism in England. I think it sharpened up my desire to sort out which way truth lay. Was it in the form of worship or in the belief behind it? Remember this was the sixties; no room for any romanticism, think of the buildings of the time -
During a summer vacation I got a job on a Bristol building site as a labourer. One of the people I worked with was an older man called David who was Irish. The particular job we were doing left us with quite a bit of time to talk and I found myself frequently asking David about his Catholic faith. He wasn't an educated man in the sense that he had complicated ways of looking at simple things but he had clearly had an excellent religious education at some stage in his life and he was very easy to listen to. If I had to boil his Catholicism down to a few words it was a creed of morality though he never resorted to memories of fearful teaching to make any of his points. Somehow what he said made me think that just perhaps I might again be missing something. Should I perhaps look? Again I think I let the question go.
Later I joined the army, but by some miracle of the Ministry of Defence's approach to reorganisation I ended up in a battalion many of whose officers were Catholics. (For some wags the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry had become the Pope's Own). The unguided process of thinking about my faith became again influenced by personal and immediate considerations. These were people I liked and whose approach to life, to their responsibilities, seemed to me to be based on something other than mere education. It wasn't said but it was there. It was daily, it was secular, it was human, it was not intellectual or mannered, it was warm and decent.
Travelling by train from Bristol Temple Meads to London to catch a connection to Ashford in Kent where I was attending an army intelligence course I found that at Chippenham there were no seats left but that two young women were getting on, one of whom was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. Making the best decision of my life I offered my seat to the other and attempted to engage in polite conversation with the lady who had caught my eye. She was, and is, a Catholic. We were married in 1971.
One might think that any sensible person would have given up at this stage but in fact I stubbornly held out till 1994 by which time I was not only married to a Catholic but the father of four of them. Those years are tough in any marriage however happy. There are children to be brought up, fed and watered and the strains of making ends meet and satisfying often opposing wishes and ambitions can be demanding. I was extraordinarily lucky in who I had married and we managed well but there were not a great many moments for discussing really important things and my wife was very kind in not putting any pressure on me to consider my position. However her family, their friends and others who were Catholic, again made me wonder whether I should not take my curiosity to a higher level of enquiry and so I did. My wife's uncle was a priest and had married us and simply by watching him I came under a strong influence. His was a life of absolute dedication to God but although we spoke of related things I don't think I ever spoke to him about my own situation. Many other priests passed through our lives as friends and they, increasingly, found themselves interrogated until one day I wrote to a priest I really didn't know and put my dilemma before him. His answer was brief and fairly blunt. He was not sure what I should do, how I should decide, he said, but I should not go on dithering much longer. I should make my mind up!
It must have been about this time that I met Leonard Cheshire, the Second World War Bomber pilot and VC. I had joined the committee of the local Cheshire Home and later became its Chairman. I remember his visiting once and going into the (C of E) chapel, kneeling down and praying. I had never seen such an unostentatious display of faith. He was a convert to Catholicism I knew and later, after his death, when I worked as International Director of his organisation I came to learn more about that. It was a simple story in which he, a much celebrated hero at the height of his fame had been put in his place when he answered a little surely about what it meant to be a Christian. He spoke of a code of morals and was told by a young woman that he was wrong and that he knew he was. To be a Christian is to know that Jesus died for you. There are many stories of his conversion but I like the simplicity of this, as I liked his simplicity in conversation. And now I think of it, was that not what I was taught at my prep school by that "low church" master all those years ago, and isn't that the truth? What that might do for the way you behave or understand things follows on from that basic understanding.
I was received into the Church in 1994 the year I joined Leonard Cheshire's organisation full time. I was received by Fr Graham at the Easter Vigil in St Francis after a period of instruction with a member of the Parish to whom I will always be grateful. I was allowed no escape from facing up to those difficult Protestant hurdles; I was given every help in understanding them and accepting them. I have never doubted my decision and in the Year of Mercy in particular, have had it impressed upon me that however you dress it up there can be no greater mercy shown to me than for another man to lay down his life for me, and thereby save me. With that at the centre of the Catholic Church's teachings and her Sacraments, how could I not have asked to be received?
31 December 2016