Tale of a Troubled Transition
Mitre & Crook
By Bryan Houghton
Publisher: Angelico Press
Review Author: Mary Brittnacher
Catholics who experienced the enormous changes in the Church in the late 1960s would not balk at calling them “revolutionary.” At the time, the laity was in a state of shock and confusion at the changes to the Mass, the diminishing of devotions, and the reinterpretation of teachings. The author of Mitre & Crook, Bryan Houghton, was no different. But he decided to take action by resigning as pastor of Bury St. Edmunds in England and moving to southern France, where he bought a small chapel with his inheritance. There he got permission from the bishop to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, which he did until his death in 1992.
Houghton inserts himself into the storyline of Mitre & Crook as the close friend of Bishop Edmund Forester. His presence lends verisimilitude, and fictionalized facts stir the reader’s emotions throughout an otherwise intellectual narrative. The novel, originally published in 1979 and recently reprinted by Angelico Press as part of its Catholic Traditionalist Classics series, is difficult to categorize; it is a hybrid, a combination of fact and imagination, nonfiction and fiction. It reads like fact because so much of it is factual, though the story adds a personal aspect.
After 42 years a priest and 12 years a bishop, Forester determines to take a stand and do what he can to reverse the changes in the Church. In a series of letters, he includes a wealth of information on how to accomplish that, including a list of 13 items that could be used as a basic blueprint for “the reform of the reform.” Bishop Forester’s letter of January 1977 to diocesan clergy sets off “the Bomb.” The rest of the book deals with the repercussions of that explosion.
Forester’s counterrevolutionary program is extremely well thought out. In his instructions to the leaders of his diocese on how to deal with fallout from “the Bomb,” he anticipates how people will respond and alters his procedures to take such contingencies into account.
Forester puts a lifetime of wisdom, theology, and love into his correspondence. Like G.K. Chesterton, he honors and loves the common people, saying, “I know nothing more beautiful.” He believes that only the traditional piety of laypeople will save the Church from the revolutionaries. And it is the revolution that he attacks as prideful, imperious, and ungrateful. He is diplomatic yet truthful in dealing with his superiors. In a letter to the chancellor to the Apostolic Delegation, he denies that he has been “divisive” and characterizes his efforts to restore the Church to her former state as merely “scrap[ing] off a bit of the wallpaper in order to put some cement into the cracks.” One bishop accuses him of tilting at windmills for an unwinnable cause. Again, Chesterton-like, he turns it around, thanking him for the compliment.
Bishop Forester’s ideas about history admit of perpetual revolution, starting with the Garden of Eden. He knows that revolutions do succeed. But he observes that precisely when a revolution succeeds, it starts another, perhaps due to the inevitable failure of its godless ideas. Man tries to impose his law on the law of God, to no avail. Forester conveys a wonderful picture of the pre-Vatican II Church as she “appeared almost as magnificent, incomprehensible and chaotic” as God’s creation. Post-council, this was swept away in favor of a liturgy he calls understandable, logical, and dull. The laity’s response was to walk away.
Twelve priests of the diocese strongly favor the requests in Bishop Forester’s explosive letter, while eight respond ambiguously and three strongly oppose them. In a letter to a parish priest, Forester is grateful for the supportive clergy, but he forewarns about negativity from the Catholic and secular press and foresees the possibility of vehement opposition.
When a priest asks him why he waited to act until worshipers were used to the New Mass, Forester counters that the people have not gotten used to the new dispensation. He thinks resigned is a more appropriate word, and he contends that the purpose of the New Mass is to be in constant change. It is contrary to the intentions of its creators to be considered settled. Dynamism, not stasis, was their goal. “A philosophy of ‘becoming’ replaced the philosophy of ‘being,’” he says.
Forester also writes that he can rationalize his lack of reaction to the transformation, though he cannot justify it. He was a new bishop when the big changes came. He explains that his friend, Houghton, drew the line against the Novus Ordo, but he himself did not. He made some small steps and thought those would be sufficient. He accuses himself of cowardice, hypocrisy, and other moral failings in this regard. Another parish priest says he prefers the New Mass over the Old because it is a better vehicle to mediate God to the people. Forester counters that the purpose of the Mass is to mediate the people to God, and the Traditional Mass is the most fitting vehicle to perform that function.
The counterpunch Forester expects doesn’t come from his brother bishops, the clergy, or the laity. It is delivered by the Catholic press — and what a blow it is! They charge that he sent the fateful letter to his priests because he is dying of cancer and, consequently, his mind is going also. The religious newspapers tell an unremittingly negative story, citing unfavorable responses from the pope down to parishioners. They understand Bishop Forester will be asked to resign because of “ill health.” This backlash astounds and appalls him; he had not told anyone of his illness except a trusted few. He had been given nine to 18 months to live, but of course the prognosis is speculative. Forester will not resign; he is determined to function as God’s instrument while he lives. He is ready to follow God, not men.
Forester writes a letter of explanation to his priests. He declares he’s glad the press reminded him that death is near, which he himself tends to forget. This gives him fresh motivation for moving his plans forward. He makes it clear that the closeness of death does not drive his proposals. He counsels his clergy to make their own decisions now and after he is gone, irrespective of what others do. They need to decide whether they will follow the timeless Church of tradition or the new and ever-changing Church.
When Forester is accused by a wavering bishop of being divisive, he maintains that the divide occurred when security and certitude were replaced, after Pope Pius XII’s death, by evolution and revolution. The gap is between the leaders of the Church and the laity. The faithful are ready to return to the Church that was, while the leaders want to continue as is. Forester sees peace and harmony in the restoration of the traditional Church.
Another salvo against his campaign comes in the form of an unsigned circular promoting the deception that Forester’s instructions to diocesan clergy are not in accordance with canon law. He easily refutes the circular by citing the general law of the Church and the authority of bishops. Forester explains why his campaign is licit, starting with arguments from the early centuries of Christianity and continuing to the 1970s. He concludes, “The Establishment is determined to crush the Old Mass: it cannot do it straight, so it will do it crooked.” To counter the criticism, he suggests that a group of priests form a secular institute, the purpose of which is to promote the Immemorial Mass.
The diocesan administrator accepts the commission to establish the new institute. In the meantime, the bishop and the rector interview applicants for the new seminary. They will join the newly formed Secular Institute of St. John Fisher and celebrate the Immemorial Mass one or more times a week and one Sunday per month.
Descriptions of the abuses and corruptions of the post-conciliar Church run through the book. Houghton describes the dismantling of beautiful old churches and the selling or repurposing of them for worldly use. The new order exists by depleting the capital of the old. Catholic schools suffer the same problems as today. Forester sees that the revolutionary religion eliminates charity because it emphasizes politics, not morality. An individual conscience determines morality, not the natural law — God’s law — which is objective.
Forester receives a letter from the archbishop stating that the pope wishes him to come to Rome to discuss his resignation. Forester’s sense of humor comes through: “It is very kind of His Holiness to suggest that I unburden myself of the care of my diocese.” However, he intends to “labor in the Lord’s vineyard to the bitter end.” He takes issue with a phrase in the papal letter, for “defiance and rebellion” do not describe one attempting preservation.
The book closes with Forester’s heroic effort to reach all 34 convents in his diocese. He credits the nuns for the astonishing growth of the Church between 1850 and 1960. The revolutionaries targeted nuns as the key to changing everything, since they were the teachers of future mothers, who then teach their children. Despite Forester’s work to renew the faith of the nuns, it seems too little, too late. They were indoctrinated by progressive teachers starting in the mid-1950s. However, Forester is blessed with positive results in the establishment of two new orders of nuns, one teaching and one contemplative, and a girls’ school to be staffed by the teaching order.
The end of the book is appropriate and satisfying. God rewards Forester’s sacrifices with immense generosity. The bishop gave all his limited reserves of energy to his great project of renewing God’s Church. He knows he once “compromised with the world,” and his cancer “is no more than the physical expression of my spiritual turmoil. But by God’s grace I again stand erect and clean before His altar…. On my death certificate cancer will doubtless be inscribed as the cause of death but in fact I shall have died of joy.”
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