Wednesday 10 July 2013

Second Centenary Lecture: Judge Michael Yelton - The Quest for Unity: 100 Years of the Catholic League

The Quest for Unity: 100 Years of the Catholic League

Judge Michael Yelton, 6th July 2013. St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge

May I first of all say how honoured I am to have been asked to deliver this short address to mark the Centenary of the Catholic League, which was for many years the most important group within the Church of England supporting the cause of reunion with Rome and in later years has transformed itself into an ecumenical grouping, albeit one with the same aims. Regrettably I am neither a Doctor nor a QC, as the initial flier would have you believe, nor indeed the President of the Anglo-Catholic History Society, but I do know, I hope, a considerable amount about ecclesiastical thought in the period we are dealing with.

I well recall some 40 years ago attending a Catholic League mass in St. Mary Elms, Ipswich, at which Leslie Gray Fisher, the long time secretary and one of those responsible for the survival of the Society through difficult times, proclaimed the well worn words: “Rome is the rock from which we were hewn and the Mother to whom we will return” which is and was an appropriate slogan for the League.

It is important however since we are today marking the Centenary to look back at the beginnings of the Society. I shall concentrate on the early years as they may be less familiar to those listening, and also because I have no wish to enter into controversies involving those still with us. The First 50 Years were chronicled in a pamphlet of the same name by Brian Doolan, which was produced by the Crux Press, run by Father Clive Beresford, the then Priest Director, from his somewhat decrepit vicarage in Newborough. It did not appear until 1966 because Father Beresford intended to write it himself but then found he did not have the time to do so. The 75th Anniversary was marked by a rewriting of that history by Father Robert Farmer, whose account is shorter but still includes some additional information. Both have been very helpful to me.  

We can date with some precision the commencement of what came to be known as Anglican Papalism, a movement which was embodied in the Catholic League. In 1900 a series of addresses was delivered under the auspices of the Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom, which had begun as a meeting place for Anglicans and Romans but from which Romans had been barred by order of Cardinal Manning. On the Feast of St. Peter at St. Matthew, Westminster, Father Spencer Jones, a country clergyman and relative of Keble, delivered one such address in which he strongly advocated reunion with Rome. Among the congregation was Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton, then still a layman, who was both impressed and affected by what he heard. Following the delivery of the address both he and Lord Halifax, who had also been present, urged the speaker to publish it. In 1902 a rewritten and extended version of Father Jones’ address appeared as England and the Holy See. This formed one of the basic documents on which the later leaders of the Catholic League relied. A new body, the Western Church Association, usually known as the Association of St. Thomas of Canterbury, was formed, which was to have annual lectures delivered alternately by an Anglican and a Roman. 

In November 1907 Father Jones, in correspondence with an Episcopalian priest in the United States, Father Paul James Wattson, suggested the celebration of an Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, running from the Feast of St. Peter’s Chair in Rome (18 January ) to the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (25). This began in 1908 and was another important backdrop to the Catholic League.

Father Fynes-Clinton was ordained priest in 1902 and in 1906 moved to be curate of St. Stephen, Lewisham. He was an inveterate founder of organisations, some of which had a short life, others much longer: he found it much easier to be involved with societies he ran than with those run by others. Both he and the Revd R.L. Langford-James, then vicar of St. Mark, Bush Hill Park, were members of the Guild of the Love of God, one of many Anglo-Catholic  groups then in existence and after attempting to urge that a more definite line being taken by the Guild in relation to reunion, they led a secession. The two of them, with others, set up the proposed constitution of the Catholic League, and invited Father Arnold Biddulph-Pinchard, a well known priest then in Birmingham, to become the Superior General. In the event he turned down the request. Father Langford-James was then elected as Superior General and Father Fynes-Clinton as his Assistant.  

A meeting was then held at the Holborn Restaurant on Wednesday 2 July 1913 at which the League came formally into existence.  This was a huge establishment on the corner of High Holborn and what is now Kingsway.

On Saturday 5 July 1913 the League was ceremonially inaugurated at the church of St. Mary, Corringham, Essex: it seems unlikely that this venue was chosen at that late stage and much more probable that it had been suggested in advance: this is reinforced by the attendance of John Kensit junior, the well known Protestant ranter. The location was at the instigation of a founder member, A. Clifton Kelway, who was a well known writer and was a lay reader at Corringham. He wrote a book describing the work of the Society of the Divine Compassion, which had a house in nearby Stanford-le-Hope. 

Thus it was that a substantial group met for an early mass at St. Margaret Lothbury and then travelled, presumably by train to Corringham, where they joined the patronal festivities presided over by the rector, Father John Greatheed: Corringham was a family living.

There was a procession in which the participants sang the Litany of Our Lady and the Salve Regina, in Latin, and then at the high altar in the small church the League was dedicated and the Foundation Deed was signed by Fathers Langford-James and Fynes-Clinton and 95 others. The League was placed under the patronage of Our Lady of Victory, of St. Joseph and of St. Nicholas of Myra. The Deed hung in Father Beresford’s study in later years and I saw it about 1972, but regrettably did not photocopy it: it has since been lost. Later Solemn Vespers of Our Lady were sung before the pilgrims returned to London. 

At that time, Essex was in the Diocese of St. Albans. The Bishop, Edgar Jacob, came to hear of what had happened and inhibited the Superior and his Assistant from officiating in his Diocese. He then threatened disciplinary action against Father Langford-James unless he resigned his office and indeed his membership, which he did. Father Fynes-Clinton was certainly forced to step down, although whether he was made to resign his membership is not clear and if he did it was only temporarily. Clifton Kelway’s licence was withdrawn.

In place of those forced to resign, the League elected as its Superior General Father Edward Secker Maltby, who had with his own resources erected his church of St. Mary, Bermondsey, now covered by the Millwall football ground.

On 25 October 1913 the League’s first annual festa was held at the long-since disappeared church of St. Michael, Bingfield Street, Islington at which the preacher was the brilliant Father Ronald Knox, soon to leave on the Rome Express. The parish priest of St. Michael, Father J.H. Boudier, was a member of the League and in later years he had an audience with the Pope in which he seems to have given the impression that the entire Church of England was ready and willing to accede to the Vatican’s control. Would that it had been so.

It was one of Father Fynes-Clinton’s characteristics that he not only founded many organisations, but founded them as offshoots of others. Thus with the Catholic League. On 17 February 1914 he and Father Maltby set up the Sodality of the Precious Blood, under the patronage of St Charles Borromeo. Membership was restricted to celibate priests without connection to freemasonry and who were prepared to say the Latin Breviary daily. These requirements excluded many prominent Papalists who were married and some, such as Father Hope Patten, who had no command of Latin, probably because he was dyslexic.

The Sodality reflected Fynes-Clinton’s essential view, which was also reflected in the League. He believed that the Church of England was truly part of the Catholic Church, and that reunion should be corporate and should be effected by an internal revolution within the Anglican Communion, so that all its priests subscribed to Roman doctrinal and liturgical ideas. In her penetrating book on the Benedictines of Nashdom, Dr. Peta Dunstan remarks that Abbot Martin Collett's insistence never to deviate from the Roman way of doing things was "a profound sharing- not, as his critics would have it, a slavish mimicry. It was an ecumenical deed more powerful than pages of words".

Father Maltby did not have the time available to run the League and soon resigned, to be replaced by the then retired Father W.J. Scott, who had set up the first Back to Baroque altar in his church at Sunbury Common and was an authority on railways. Father Maltby remained Director of the Solidarity and Father Fynes-Clinton was secretary.

No member of the League had ever been consecrated to the episcopate, although in 1914 Father G. Bown, the Principal of St. Stephen’s House, was appointed as Bishop of Nassau. However he died before being consecrated.

In 1913 a monthly magazine known as “The Catholic” began: this ceased at the outbreak of the War but from 1915 the “Messenger” took its place.

In late 1914 Father Fynes-Clinton moved to be curate of St. Michael, Shoreditch. He regarded the move as releasing him from the earlier inhibition and was reappointed as Assistant Superior. He almost immediately set up a new community for women, which was also integrated with the work of the League. This was the Community of Our Lady of Victory. This was not to prove his most successful venture, and, after a period of wandering, in 1928 the two sisters who persisted had a bungalow built in the grounds of the convent of St. Mary of Nazareth at Edgware. It ceased to exist with the death of the original sister, Mother Mary St. John Watson, in 1961.

The COLV was responsible for the Apostleship of Prayer, which involved daily decades of the Rosary known as the Living Crown of Our Lady of Victory. It also organised the Tabernacle Treasury to raise funds for the provision of monstrances for poor churches.

Father Scott resigned in 1916 and was replaced by an anonymous group, from which Father Fynes shortly emerged as sole Priest Director. The League was thereafter run for many years essentially in accordance with his views.

In addition to the groups already mentioned, the structure of the League was complicated by a number of sub-groups, the product of Fynes-Clinton’s fertile brain. There was a Spiritual Treasury, the Women’s and Men’s respective Retreat Organisations, the Guard of Honour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Chantry Fund, and probably others. Some were short lived, whereas others, such as the Tabernacle Treasury, lasted for many years.

In 1920 the League for the first time held its festa at the Convent of the Paraclete at Woodside, Croydon, which had been founded by the imprisoned ritualist, Father Tooth, who after his release was unable to find a living.  During the day, Father Fynes-Clinton received the profession of a brother of the Society of St. Augustine (later the Servitors of St. Mary and St. Austin), a Community founded by him in 1911, which rather like that of the exotic Father Nugée in the Nineteenth Century, took in men who worked in the world but transformed themselves into monks when they left the office each night. It had a priory in Walthamstow for some years, but failed to prosper. In 1925 the annual function moved to Otford School, which was also a foundation associated with Father Tooth, and continued there for many years.

On 23 October 1920 yet another sub-group of the League was founded, when at Holy Trinity, Hoxton, the Rosary Confraternity was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary: the sisters of the Community of Our Lady of Victory were living in the parish at that time.

Two other significant developments in the progress of the Catholic League took place in the same year. The first was the adoption by it of the Profession of Faith of the Council of Trent. In its explanatory booklet the League said:

“Our present circumstances, then, in these two provinces of Canterbury and York, are very similar to those of the Western Church as a whole before the Council of Trent, only that it is with a very much more advanced and virulent form of the disease that we are beset...So the Catholic League adopts as its profession of faith THE CREED OF THE COUNCIL OF TRENT.”

The second such development was the formation of the Church Unity Octave Committee, which was at that stage another sub-committee of the League. From 1918 onwards the Church Unity Octave had been supported and here we see early moves by the League towards unity: it was the first organisation in the Church of England to promote the Octave. The Committee was chaired by Fynes-Clinton It then absorbed the pioneering Association for the Promotion of the Reunion of Christendom, which was apparently wound up by Athelstan Riley at a meeting on 27 January 1921, on the grounds of the absence of Roman Catholic involvement, but without, apparently, any consultation with the wider membership.

As these developments were occurring, Fynes-Clinton finally acquired a living of his own, and after his institution in 1921 St. Magnus the Martyr, Lower Thames Street, where we are today, became the centre of the League’s spiritual activities: from 1923 until the Second World War it also had an administrative centre in Finsbury from which correspondence came. In 1924 Leslie Fisher, already mentioned, became general secretary, a post he held for many decades. He was efficient and well organised although the subject of some mirth because he travelled in ladies’ underwear- as an occupation not a fetish. In 100 years, the League has only had four General Secretaries.

In 1922 Fynes-Clinton revived the Fraternity of Our Lady de Salve Regina, which dated originally from 1343, and which held devotions at midday every day, and in 1924 he aggregated it to the League, thus providing yet another associated and interlocked group.

In 1926 pilgrimages to Walsingham began and were held annually.

On All Saints’ Day 1926 a completely new body, the Confraternity of Unity, was founded by four priests at St. Mary the Virgin, New York. Its aims were similar to the Catholic League, although the emphasis was almost exclusively on reunion.

On 5 November 1928 Father T. Bowyer Campbell, one of the four, who was later to become Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, addressed the Sodality of the Precious Blood at St. Magnus, and it was agreed that a secretariat should be opened in England to promote the Confraternity. On 3 February 1929 this opened at the presbytery of the church of St. Saviour, Hoxton, with Father Basil Joblin, then a curate at the church, as its representative in this country. The Confraternity was correlated with the Catholic League.

Fynes-Clinton joined the new body, but was never very enthusiastic about organisations which he was not himself running. On the feast of St. Matthew, 1925, the Council for Observance of the Church Unity Octave was formed, with Spencer Jones as its President, and on 14 June 1926 this seems to have become transformed into the Executive Committee of the Church Unity Octave. In order to bring together the various groups, in 1930 Father Fynes-Clinton formed the Council for Promoting Catholic Unity, on which were represented the Catholic League, the Sodality of the Precious Blood, the Confraternity of Unity, the Association of St. Thomas of Canterbury and the Catholic Propaganda Society, which had been run by Father Alban Baverstock.

Father Fynes was also less than enthusiastic about some of those responsible for the 1933 Oxford Movement Centenary- he regarded many of them as being the contemporary equivalent of Affirming Catholicism, or in other words not being sufficiently committed to the true principles of the Catholic Revival and to reunion in particular. It was to counter what were seen as these liberal tendencies within the wider Anglo-Catholic movement that the leaders of the Papalist Movement issued their Centenary Manifesto (dated 1 October 1932) and then the League arranged for the publication of a series of Oxford Movement Centenary Tractates, entitled The Church of England and the Holy See.

The eighth was the work of Father Fynes-Clinton (Part I) and Father W.R. Corbould, vicar of Carshalton, (Part II). Entitled What are we to say? it gave an unequivocal answer, namely that the Church of England should accept the claims of Rome and move towards union as soon as possible. Father Fynes-Clinton declared confidently:

“We have to insist, against all the insular prejudices carefully fostered by an interested officialdom, that the Church of England has no legitimate existence except as part of the Catholic world and therefore dependant on the Holy See.”

The main activity of the League in 1933 was the organisation of a pilgrimage to Rome to celebrate the Holy Year. The pilgrims first went to Turin, where they attended the Solemn Exposition of the Holy Shroud, and then went on to Rome where they followed the prescribed course of visiting the four major basilicas: they then had a special audience with Pope Pius XI during which they presented him with a copy of the Tractates, elaborately bound. On 22 January 1934 there was a meeting at the Caxton Hall under the slogan: “Modernism the Enemy: Rome the Remedy.”

In 1934 Father Maltby died and was replaced as Director of the Sodality by Father Wilmot Phillips, rector of Plaxtol, but he died a year later and was replaced by Father Fynes himself.

1935 was also notable for the publication, albeit not under the auspices of the League but of yet another group, the Society for Catholic Reunion, of Catholic Reunion: an Anglican Plea for a Uniate Patriarchate and for an Anglican Ultramontanism, written by Father Clement (J.T. Plowden-Wardlaw). He argued for the recognition by Rome of an English Uniate Patriarchate, probably with a celibate priesthood, and probably also leaving behind “modernists, irreconcilable protestants, and those obsessed by the state connection.” The book is interesting in that the author, who was a prolific pamphleteer and vicar of St. Clement, Cambridge (calling his letters Clementine Tracts), envisaged that reunion with Rome might envisage a split in the Church of England, a prospect many did not feel able to contemplate. Do we see in that the beginnings of an idea which has led in more recent times to the establishment of the Ordinariate?  

In 1936 there was a further reorganisation among the reunion Societies. The Council for Promoting Catholic Unity set up the Society for Promoting Catholic Unity which thereafter published The Pilot. The SPCU was responsible also for the Council of the Church Unity Octave, which was particularly appropriate since the new Society had been set up during the Octave of 1936. Father Corbould became the President of the SPCU, the many-hatted (perhaps many-birettad?) Fynes-Clinton the Treasurer.

Although the leaders of the Catholic League had taken no direct part in the Malines Conversations in the mid 1930s the leaders of the Papalist party began to correspond with Abbé Paul Couturier in France: he was in touch with Father Jones, Father Fynes-Clinton, and Abbot Martin Collett of Nashdom. In 1936 Dom Benedict Ley, the novice master of Nashdom, visited the Abbé in Lyons and then went to Ars and to Paray-le-Mondial, the scene of the apparitions to St. Margaret Marie Alacoque; four months later Fynes-Clinton himself went over to France together with Dom Gregory Dix of Nashdom, and they were able to speak in French at various meetings they attended. The following year Couturier returned the visit, and was met in London by Fynes-Clinton, who acted as his host throughout. Fynes-Clinton asked the elderly and infirm Father Spencer Jones to lunch at St. Ermin’s, Westminster, where he lived in a service flat, and the Abbé was delighted to meet him. Couturier came again to England in 1938, and on this occasion broadened his contacts into those who were not wholly committed to the Roman cause.

These contacts appear retrospectively to be rather unimportant in the life both of the Church of England of the Roman Catholic Church but their significance is that they happened.

In 1937 the Shrine Church at Walsingham was extended. The League was short of money, as it had been throughout is existence, until left a generous legacy shortly after the War by a founder member, Miss Evelyn Few (known as “The Faithful Few”). Father Fynes-Clinton therefore suggested that the chantry chapel he was endowing should also be the chapel of the League and in turn it was decided that a statue of Our Lady of Victory, patroness of the League, be erected in it: however this did not take effect until 1949.

Bombing in the war destroyed a number of League centres and St. Magnus itself was badly damaged. However the witness of the League continued much as before, and finances were much eased by Miss Few’s legacy.

In 1950 the Holy Year was celebrated with a pilgrimage to Rome by Fathers Fynes-Clinton and Ivan Young, accompanied by Mr. Fisher. The two priests were received in private audience by Pope Pius XII, who blessed the work of the Council for the Church Unity Octave. It is not clear how influential visits such as this were in Rome: it is however apparent that in that year there were very few other contacts with the Church of England.

It now seems clear that there was a lack of impetus behind the movement for union under the Pope in the years following 1950, and before the mood in Rome began to change. After the South India controversy, which took up a great deal of time to little avail, Anglo-Catholicism was on the back foot, responding to initiatives from others with which its adherents disagreed, but not setting forward a positive programme which would attract new support.

Father Fynes-Clinton was getting older. He resigned as director of the Sodality in 1953 in favour of Father Joblin, as director of the Apostleship of Prayer in 1955 in favour of Father Peter Sanderson of Poundstock, Cornwall, and as chairman of the Church Unity Octave Council in January 1958 in favour of Father Mervyn Pendleton of Wollaston, Northamptonshire. Then on 4 December 1959 he died: an era had ended.

Although an age had come to an end, there was an unpleasant episode shortly before that, following the death of Father Corbould and then a spat between Bishop Mervyn Stockwood of Southwark and one of the League’s longest serving members, Father Rice Alforth Evelyn Harris, whose views were such that he had never held a living in the Church of England. This embittered many.  

Father Fynes-Clinton was replaced by Father Clive Beresford, a man for whom the word eccentric seems an understatement. I am indebted to one of his successors, Father Philip Gray, for telling how when processing on a very hot day, the glue with which he had attached various decorations to his cope began to lose its hold and the ornamentation began to curl. He did however devote a great deal of time to the League (to the detriment of his parish) and in particular raised its profile outside London. He also used his printing press to great effect, starting a strongly worded newsletter entitled Crux.

By this time the Church Unity Octave, with its uncompromisingly Papalist position, was being overtaken by the much more widely-based Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which had been backed by Abbé Couturier and more surprisingly by Gregory Dix. The annual Call to Prayer for Unity, which was issued to coincide with the Octave, was made for the last time in 1964.

It is ironic however that in 1960, the year after Fynes-Clinton’s death, Pope John and Archbishop Fisher finally met face to face. The propaganda of the Catholic League had almost certainly had more effect on the former than the latter, as it was reported that the Holy Father knew all about the revival of the Walsingham pilgrimage, an interest which Fisher did not share.

In 1962 Father Beresford and 11 other priests of the League and Sodality met Pope John in private audience in 1962 then Fisher’s more sympathetic successor Michael Ramsey met the Pope in 1966, and was received warmly. In 1970 Pope Paul VI said at the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales: “There will be no seeking to lessen the legitimate prestige and usage proper to the Anglican church when the Roman able to embrace firmly her ever-loved sister in the authentic communion of the family of Christ.” Then in 1982 Pope John Paul II came to England and was received by Archbishop Runcie at Canterbury.

Those events would have seemed inconceivable to Father Fynes and those who with him had laboured so long and with so few tangible results for reunion between Rome and Canterbury. The two churches have never appeared closer than at the time of the Papal visit in 1982, but this proved to be a missed opportunity. The Anglican episcopate had a lack of vision and no willingness to take bold steps: rather their reaction was constantly to retreat into the suffocating committee structure of the Church of England.

The reform of the liturgy by Rome also left many Anglicans, including initially perhaps the League, lacking direction. In due course however the tradition of following precedents set down by the Pope prevailed in the Catholic League and the new forms were adopted after an initiative by Father Raymond Avent, who became priest director in 1974 and was one of a new generation.

I have deliberately not dealt with some of the more recent developments within the League but the most far reaching has been the transformation of the Society from an Anglican Papalist pressure group into an ecumenical group.
The League was one of many organisations which offered strong resistance to the deeply flawed proposals for union between the Anglican and Methodist churches. However once that dragon had been slain, far more worrying proposals began to be aired. The ordination of women, which was irregular by standards of orthodoxy, meant that in the foreseeable future corporate reunion of the Church of England with Rome became impossible. While the Catholic League’s witness remains, it is now only possible to do that which Father Plowden-Wardlaw suggested so many years ago: in other words to persuade only those who have continued to hold, in the face of great pressure, the historic discipline of Christianity, that the Unity of all Christians is an important, indeed vital, objective.

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