From Evangelical Anglican to Catholic

January 1999By William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

One Fold, One Shepherd: The Challenge to the Post-Reformation Church.  By George Bennet. Geoffrey Chapman (125 Strand, London WC2R 0BB, England). 150 pages. £10.99..



A 1946 graduate of Cambridge, the Hon. George Arthur Grey Bennet taught physics until he began to train for the ministry of the Church of England, in which he was ordained a priest in 1970. After holding a number of benefices, he retired and subsequently, in 1994, became a Catholic.

Put thus, there is nothing startling about such a life’s path, as nearly 500 clergy of the Established Church have forsaken its communion since its General Synod approved, on November 11, 1992, a measure to permit the ordination of women to its priesthood, and it would appear that some 325 of them have entered the Catholic Church. What is unusual about Bennet is that he was an adherent of the Evangelical (“low-church”) wing of the “three-winged” English State Church rather than, as more commonly, of the Anglo-Catholic (“high-church”) one. (The third wing is sometimes termed Liberal, sometimes “broad-church,” and today is increasingly composed of members of the first two groups who have gone soft on various doctrinal and moral issues.)

In the first paragraph of the book, Bennet writes that “It is as an evangelical protestant that I enter the Catholic Church, and as an evangelical protestant that I accept its teaching and authority.” This is an arresting statement upon which the rest of the book expands. One Fold, One Shepherd is neither an autobiographical account of a conversion, in the mode of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, nor an argumentative or polemical work. It is an extended rumination on the contemporary English religious scene, based on the premise that since all that is valid about the “Reformation protest” has been accepted (if not yet internalized) by the Catholic Church at and after Vatican II, it is time for Protestants to “come home.”

While the book is in many respects clear, compelling, and winsome, it has two defects which are puzzling in themselves and which perhaps have hindered its author from making his points more forcefully. (Such is his gentleness of approach, however, that it is possible that these “defects” are the result of deliberate choice on his part.)

In the first place, he seems to be oblivious to the growth of a “revisionist” school of English Reformation historiography over the past quarter-century, of which the works of Christopher Haigh (Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire, 1975; English Reformations, 1993), J.J. Scarisbrick (The Reformation and the English People, 1984), and Eamon Duffy (The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, 1992) are prime examples.

The work of this school has been revolutionary in overturning the “official version” of the English Reformation, part of that received version of English history known as “Whig historiography” — which could be sung, no doubt, to the tune of “Rule Britannia.” The received version portrays the Reformation as part of a happy progress toward modernity and declares that the religious changes of the Tudor age were willingly accepted by the great majority of the English because of either (in “religious” history-writing) the obvious superiority of Protestant Christianity over the Catholic “perversion” or (in more secular accounts) the freedom from “ecclesiastical tyranny and dogmatism” that the Reformation effected.

Thanks to the “revisionist” historians, however, it is becoming evident how much opposition Henry VIII’s policies evoked, how popular Mary Tudor’s restoration of Catholicism was, and how much dogged resistance there was throughout Elizabeth I’s long reign (1558 to 1603) to Protestantization and the Reformers’ attack on the thoroughly Catholic religiosity of the English people, save of course among the small minority of committed Protestants (upon whom the derisory label “Puritan” was originally fixed).

If he were au courant with all this, Bennet could hardly write as he does of the English being “protestant at heart” before the Reformation in their desire for independence from foreign ecclesiastical control and for an English liturgy. Nor could he imply, as he does, that the Celtic missionary monks who in the seventh century evangelized so much of what was to become England inculcated a religious sensibility that found its fulfillment in evangelical Protestantism.

The second defect (if defect it be) is his extraordinary reserve in dramatizing, or even discussing, the various developments in the Church of England or Anglicanism generally which have persuaded many Catholics, and Anglicans also, that the Anglican Communion is in the process of defecting not only from its own traditions but even from orthodox apostolic Christianity — from what C.S. Lewis termed “mere Christianity.” A few such glaring developments are the ordination of women, the casual acceptance of repeated divorce and remarriage, the trend toward endorsing and even “blessing” sodomite relationships (same-sex “marriage”), and a tolerance of members (even bishops, like Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, New Jersey) who have effectively renounced the Christian faith.

All Bennet says about this is, “the Anglican Church has in recent years been changing the inherited pattern of its ministry, with the result that it is no longer acknowledged by many of its own members,” and “parts of the Anglican Communion are embracing a liberal Christian agenda…in order to respond to the pressure of current Anglo-Saxon thinking…and so the Anglican Communion may have set out on a path that permanently diverges from everyone else.” Alas, would that “everyone else” were in such good shape as this implies.

These reservations aside, this is an extraordinarily thought-provoking book. Everywhere there are insights into matters often taken for granted by Christian believers — as in the discussion (very “Protestant” in sensibility but not in the least un-Catholic) of the privacy of the individual’s soul and its spiritual intimacy with Christ alone. It gradually becomes clear to the reader that Bennet’s eagerness to affirm his status as an “evangelical protestant” within the Catholic Church, and his insistence that much of the Protestant protest was justified in its time, do not betoken a partial or qualified conversion to Catholicism, for in his gentle way he makes some truly devastating assertions. Let me simply quote a few:

- “The English have fashioned a Church in their own image, and so made sure that it poses no challenge to their way of life…. That is why we must have a universal church that transcends national boundaries and limitations.”

- “Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England resent being called protestants. But, if they are refusing the authority of the universal Church, protestant is the correct term to describe their position. You do not become catholic by adopting a particular style of worship and beliefs; you are a catholic by being a member of the universal Church.”

- “Protestant ministers are sprinkled, as it were, with light from the apostolic torch — even while they deny its real source in the universal Church. So there is inevitably an element of make-believe in the ministry of protestants; they are putting on a show of ministerial authority without its substance; the substance belongs elsewhere. None are better at doing this than ministers of the Church of England. But it is a sham and many of the clergy simply cannot any longer really believe in their own authority.”

- “The Catholic Faith and the Protestant Faith are two different religions.”

At times, however, there are pronouncements that readers might wish to query or dispute. For example, Bennet writes that Christians in the U.S. feel little of the ecumenical pressure drawing the churches together that has been experienced in England. His assertion of the Catholic orthodoxy of the evangelical Protestant emphasis on “assurance of salvation” for individual Christians goes against upwards of 1,500 years of Catholic sensibilities, and it is far from obvious to me that this “assurance teaching” can be reconciled with the decrees and canons of the Council of Trent that address this topic. What he writes about Protestants who are uneasy with Catholic teaching about contraception does not seem clear or straightforward, even if he prefaces his remarks by stating that “Protestants should think twice before siding with the world against a Pope who is doing nothing more than standing fearlessly for traditional Bible-based morality.”

Despite these hesitations and reservations, and a degree of skepticism about the plausibility of Bennet’s position as an evangelical Protestant inside the Catholic Church, I recommend this book to all readers of the NOR, Catholic and Protestant. I obtained my copy from England, and it appears that it is not, or not yet, available in America. Those who would like to obtain it might write to the American office of the publisher, Geoffrey Chapman, at 215 Park Avenue South, New York NY 10003, for more information.



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