From Anglo-Catholic to Catholic

CHAPTER 7 – From Anglo-Catholic to Catholic 1962-66

Becoming Anglo-Catholics

We both decided that Simon ought to be baptised. There was no main reason except a will by both of us for Simon to have a normal childhood. We searched again for churches to attend. Finally, we did as many do: reported to the local C of E. Holy Trinity, Avonside was our closest Anglican church. The local curate in charge of new members was Fr Jack Witbrock, a impressive young married man with a growing young family, a wine-maker, a lover of Beethoven, but more importantly for us, someone who took us seriously and met us on our very shaky religious preconceptions. He was proudly Anglo-Catholic and absolutely immersed in theology with a first class honours degree in history and German.

He would not baptise Simon without our being practising Christians: he treated baptism with all the seriousness of the sacrament it is. So, he approached my so-called Buddhism, by appealing to the mystical nature of Christianity. He explained the Incarnation with force and explicated the Creed. My eyes opened. My mind took a enthralling leap. This was so good, so clear, so astounding and so simple that all the rest of the practise of Sacramental Traditional Christianity followed as day follows night. We were fostered by Fr Jack and his wife, Julia, for next two years. He duly baptised Simon, blessed our marriage, arranged for us to have Christmas parish poor relief, and trained me as a server. Aubynne and I loved Holy Eucharist at Holy Trinity. We rested into its solid middle-class respectability and its solid support of a kind of traditional life now lost to much of this world.

Yet, I started to feel uncomfortable at other Anglican churches. They didn’t cross themselves, didn’t genuflect or bow, there was no seeming respect for the sacredness of the sacristy or the Sacrament Itself. Fr Jack would quell my fears and send me to St Michael’s – the staunch Anglo-Catholic centre of New Zealand. He would get me to serve the Sarum Rite at the Anglican nun’s community. He would give me church history books to read and good orthodox essays from Anglo-Catholics and Catholics (I was to say “Roman” Catholics). Although I was so young and so immature emotionally and morally, intellectually I became a new man. Christianity gave me a whole new overriding viewpoint for all history, for all things, all in all. It gave direction to everything I could possibly imagine. Even music. Fr Jack introduced me to Bach and to Bach I keep returning. I bought my first LPs – Bach fugues, and the Swingle Singers. And I started writing poetry. Although following the right direction in my personal life has become a life-long effort, I had a huge kick in the pants by my newly-found Faith. I yearned to go back to university, and Aubynne encouraged me to enrol for Pure Maths I in 1963.

Crisis and Discovery

A series of problems started to rise at the end of 1964 and which dominated the next two years testing who and what I was.

Firstly, my enthusiasm for all things Anglo-Catholic got a hammering at work. I met up with Peter O’Brien in the Reading Room. He was of the O’Brien’s shoe family – a brand famous for Rugby boots, he lived with his mother in Christchurch, he attended Christ’s College, and was a very learned Catholic indeed. Over two years he put all my Anglican beliefs to the test. Here I was running back to Fr Witbrock looking for answers to Peter’s confrontational solid logic. As time went by, Peter’s relentless attack took its toll on what had become the foundations of our comfortable life-style as young enthusiastic Anglicans. My certainties as an Anglican dissipated.

Secondly, at about the same time, after Dominic was born in October, 1964, Aubynne became quite ill with post-natal depression. Her depression raised all sorts of issues about her childhood, and about who and where we were heading. For the next year, our marriage and our faith was tested.

And in mid-1965, I had a motorbike accident, lost my patella, and was laid me up in hospital for six weeks, Aubynne and the kids having to struggle as best they could. (In those days, they kept one in hospital for patella injuries: nowadays, one is out within a few days.)

Where is Truth?

While all this was happening I had tried to study Pure Math II again. Impossible. The Maths department had had shifted to Ilam from the city but what was totally unexpected by me was the shift in Maths. In the previous year, Maths was still grounded on the old Euclidean geometries and on calculus using the old-style notation, which I was familiar with from school. It was just my luck that in 1965, the New Maths notation, structures, concepts, and content, all replaced the Old Maths. I was left floundering. No certainties left: even here in Maths. The motorbike accident put paid to any further studies that year.

By the end of 1965, I was seriously considering becoming a convert to the Catholic Church. Fr Jack was ordained as an Anglican priest by an Old Catholic schismatic bishop to ensure that he had the traditional sacramental powers, which he doubted in the Anglican bishops. So, how could I in truth rely on Anglican sacraments. It all seemed a game of playing one interpretation history against another – Orthodox or Anglican. Aubynne and I would have to choose which Anglican church to go to to ensure we could have full communion. The sacrament of Confession was also like a game: the local Anglican vicar did not consider Confession except for very serious issues – it was not a normal part of everyday Anglican life. And there was the plain straight logic of the Catholic claim to be that Church which was truly Catholic – not stuck in some ethnic, historical timewarp as the Orthodox were, a Church which could not respond to history throughout history. To accept the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church would be an act of obedience and an act of total Faith. There was no wiggle room. Fr Jack demanded that I write my intentions down with all the arguments I could produce. He then proceeded to answer each point. but I had heard them all before – but his arguments demanded one straight answer: on what authority does one interpret history, doctrine, faith? As a historian he was locked into endless historical interpretations: I wanted certainties.

A Real Catholic at Last

So, I approached a Marist priest at St Mary’s Church, Manchester St, for admission to the Church. Within a few weeks I was confirmed, my baptism accepted, and I had my first Catholic confession and communion. It was so consoling and yet the consequences were very hard! My friendship with Fr Jack ended forthwith. All my friends – all non-Catholics and not practising any sort of religion – saw me as quite a different light. My enthusiasm as an Anglo-Catholic was acceptable to them – it was not a threat: being a Catholic on the other hand, was right out of left field – I mean, this religious stuff is far too serious. Look where it gets you. Aubynne was confused at first, but then so was everyone else. Going to Mass was a challenge: no beautiful hymns, no psalms to sing, no High Eucharist, no incense, ugly church building, and few respectable middle-class English laity. Low Mass was quiet and devout. All the priests were Irish working-class as were the laity. And yet, I would glance at the gaze of those at the Elevation of the Host and there was real adoration and worship of God made flesh. Here was quiet, humble devotion of which I was just a beginner, a novice, down at the bottom of the hill of real Tradition that my heart had yearned for over the years. Meanwhile, within a few years, Fr Jack had left the Anglican church to become an Orthodox priest in Dunedin. He was to spend the rest of his life as an exile from that same society from which he was bred, serving lowly Lebanese Orthodox, teaching at Catholic schools to support his family, and ministering to small numbers of Orthodox in New Zealand: a martyr to the true Sacramental Life of Christ for which he yearned.

Aubynne soon became a convert as well. Her sister, Lesley, had quietly and secretly become a Catholic the previous year. Her family could not understand such a breach of custom: Methodists just don’t become Catholics.

We then both started to see Catholics everywhere. At Christmas Midnight Mass at the Cathedral, all were there, the drunks, the smokers, the sinners were all there. It is the Church of, and for, the sinners. We just did not realise how big the Catholic Church was. I renewed my friendship with Brian Grouden, my only Catholic friend, he was my sponsor at Confirmation. Eventually I became his Best Man. To Brian it was a miracle that one of the Napier Boys should become one of his kind!

My reading widened. Chesterton, Belloc, Knox, Lunn, and all Catholic converts. Then Christopher Dawson’s wonderful The Making of Europe. Then Aristotle and Aquinas and Thomism. Then the wide and deep fields of Catholic theology, philosophy, Catholic literature, and Medieval history. I would borrow and consume books and journals from Catholic libraries. My thirst for studying history and culture increased till one day I would return to University and complete an Arts degree in History, English and Religious Studies.

And to my delight, Richard Rudd, an art school student and friend, working in the Reading Room, lent me a hard-cover, early edition of the Lord of the Rings – a book still recommended quietly to select friends, a relatively unknown work. Tolkein was also a devout Catholic.

By the end of 1966, things started to look up: Aubynne was well again and determined that we should buy a new house; I had become an experienced proof-reader and now settled into my work; and we had a established now a good group of reliable friends. Things were looking up.

One thought on “From Anglo-Catholic to Catholic”

  1. Of course, Fr Jack himself left the Anglican Communion some seven years later and was received into the Catholich Church (i.e., The Orthodox Church – not the Latin Church!) and was a presbyter for 41 years before his repose 3 November 2013.

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