My baptismal certificate gives the time and place – as an infant, in the mid-20th century, in a parish of the Church of England, at the hands of the vicar. But how was I to understand this baptism? I could think of it as baptism into the established church of a particular state and nation. Or because it was a baptism into Christ, I could think of it as being into a Church that is universal, and that has no essential connection either to England or to the British state. What did the fact of being English or being British have to do with my being Christian?
The question had long been in the background. My mother, though not a Catholic, had been educated at a convent school run by Catholic nuns, of the Sacred Heart. She never shared their religion, but deeply respected them and their very different allegiance from her own. As a child I had also heard of Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More, and of the judicial violence to which they were subjected by the very state of which I was a citizen and subject. This, I could already sense, was an attack on the very idea of Christianity as involving another allegiance than to that state. But it was only later, when I was an older schoolboy, that the question became pressing. It was made pressing through what lay at the heart of the Anglicanism in which I was brought up – its mode of worship.
The school chapel was a vast memorial to the military dead of the Great War, with walls of names from that conflict and those that followed flanking as you entered, the sanctuary at the far end dominated by what almost seemed a tomb above the altar, on which stood two mourning angels. Christianity there came to me as a state Anglicanism, mainly Protestant in the reflective spirit of CS Lewis, with hymns and sermons, and the Creed on Sunday. The more devout might frequent the Christian Union, run by a classics master, to find personal conversion through the Bible.
Many of our parents had served in war, and in the chapel war was also given living witness. The senior chaplain had been a prisoner of the Japanese, and once told us of a real martyr among his captors – a Japanese who, a Christian, was discovered organising communion services for his prisoners and was beheaded.
What was a communion service? Not the Catholic Mass. That the chaplain made very clear. He once warned me that the doctrine of transubstantiation was quite incredible, and belief in it only encouraged destructive scruples in minister and communicant alike. We were obviously consuming bread and wine, nothing else, in a commemorative meal. To celebrate this the chaplain would wear a plain surplice and a stole, and communion during the week took place in another older, smaller chapel, by cloisters commemorating the Boer Wars, early in the morning. I attended only seldom, driven into this less usual form of piety by fear of approaching A-levels.
Some of those who taught us were open agnostics. Among the believing Anglicans some, like the classics master and my own housemaster, were evangelicals. Others adhered to a broad Anglicanism, according to which the call of Christ to benevolence had been corrupted by Christians themselves, and especially by the obsessions of St Paul. Such corruptions were at their most damaging regarding sexual teaching, and other less enlightened forms of Christianity – most obviously Roman Catholicism – were still in thrall to these.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection