Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday 31 March 2020

Fifteen Years On

Today, March 31, is the fifteenth anniversary of my reception into full peace and communion with the Catholic Church and this seems an appropriate time to reflect on the reasons that led to my decision and on my subsequent journey.

It was Thursday in the Octave of Easter 2005, and chosen because it enabled friends and relatives who would not have been able to attend at the Easter Vigil to be present and, in one case, to be my sponsor.

I took as my confirmation name Philip - not only the name of the founder of the Oratory and of an Apostle, but also my father's first name and one that I had always liked. So John Robert became John Robert Philip. I subsequently went to the not inconsiderable expense of adding the name by deed poll, so I can insist on officialdom recognising my spiritual journey.

As it happened, by being received when I was, I thereby became one of the very last Catholics anywhere to be received into the Church in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II - I feel I squeezed through the door of history in that respect. There are those who used to describe themselves as "John Paul II Catholics" or similar phrases. I am, by historic fact and by sympathy a "Benedict XVI Catholic", but, and it is a very important "but", I am a Catholic first - Popes inevitably come and go. That said I consider it an enormous good fortune for the Church and, for me as an individual member of it, to have had Pope Benedict occupying the Chair of Peter. His pontificate has been a great blessing for the whole church.

Having made my decision to seek reception - and that is a long and complex story in itself going back forty one years ( yes, I take my time...) which I will leave for another day - I codified my ideas into nine categories or groups. St Edmund Campion had his Decem Rationes which he placed so provocatively in St Mary's Church in Oxford in 1581. Mine are more personal perhaps, but, in that they may interest others, here are my Novem Rationes of 2005:

1. I believed all that the Catholic Church believed - so why was I not in full communion with it? I read the Catechism through and found nothing from which to dissent within it.

2. In particular I accepted the claims of the Papacy and its necessity in order to maintain orthodoxy and unity.

3. As a historian I appreciated the Catholic case for the nature of the Church and the Papacy, and the fact of its historical continuity - Walter Ullman's point that the Papacy is the one institution that links the Apostolic age to the Atomic age reverberates in my mind.

4. The call to Unity - not only the principal of Ut unum sint but also the specific claims to expressing that unity with all other Catholics through the Holy See as described by the Fathers.

5. The Catholic Church was seen to act on issues contingent upon Christian belief - Life issues might be the most obvious, but there were others, and with an authentic response being made.

6. I realised that my historic sympathies were with Catholicism - which side would I have been on, or at least believed I would have been on or wanted to be on in say, the Reformation? Well it was clear. My heart lay with the Catholic cause.

7. The state of Anglicanism was not encouraging. For Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics the situation was one of increasing isolation, and the sense that a Third Province would not be granted.

8. Much as I loved my Anglican places of worship - Pusey House and St Thomas in Oxford - I felt that I was called to move on. I was at an age when I still could make a change, but that there was not time to delay. If this was the time, then so be it.

9. I thought that many of my Anglican friends were moving or would move into full communion with Rome. Those friendships, based and rooted in a shared spiritual life, were very important to my own spiritual development, and they were pointing all in the same direction.

Looking back from this point, fifteen years later, I have never had cause to regret my decision. There was to be no "seven year itch" and I see it all as a logical consequence of my life hitherto

I still endorse those nine sets of ideas.

The last three invite some additional comments and then some further reflections.

The Church of England has continued on its way, and has failed to have the generosity to provide for Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics. The issue of women bishops has been resolved, of course in their favour, but the underlying ecclesiology looks even more worm eaten.

Anglicanorum Coetibus has been issued - I pray it will be successful in extending the unity of the Church to others of like faith and mind outside its formal bounds. Since 2011 we have witnessed the establishment of Ordinariates first in England, then in the USA and in Australia. I was able to help to support those joining it by acting as a pro-sponsor in two cases, or simply by turning up to support Masses, and, of course, by praying for it.

Summorum Pontificum reasserted the legal right to celebrate traditional forms of the liturgy and it has been followed by a strong and positive response, and that needs to be continued - as has been stated, what was sacred once is sacred now. 

I am still on excellent terms with friends from Pusey House and St Thomas’s. I continue to have a happy and thankful remembrance of those places and people and the part they played in my life. It has been good to see all that is happening at both institutions for the Catholic cause. It was very good for my humility that they could manage and survive without me. I retain enormously happy memories of my time at both places and at the churches I worshipped at in Yorkshire before I came to Oxford.

Nonetheless I increasingly find it difficult to see why more people in the Anglo-Catholic tradition are not availing themselves of all - and it is so much - that is offered by the Catholic Church or by the Ordinariate. That is all they have ever said they wanted or indeed hoped for - bar, possibly, taking their church buildings with them, and though there I can sympathise to a very great extent, but not to the exclusion of what ultimately matters.

As to my friends - well, I was the second of our group to make the move, and three more followed in the next two years. In subsequent years two more married couples, one with three children, from that set of friends have made that same move. Four of the men have been ordained, including my sponsor who is now an Oratorian priest.

Along the way I have made many other new friends amongst those converting, and I have been made very welcome in my new spiritual home. I am extremely lucky to have the Oratory and also SS Gregory and Augustine and Blackfriars as places in which to worship regularly here in Oxford.

I have had the very real privilege of getting to know many fine Catholic priests - even now a Bishop - and particularly to see excellent young men coming forward to the priesthood in the secular clergy and communities like the Oratorians, Dominicans and the Conventual Franciscans.

Through the Oratory and being in Oxford I have participated in so many wonderful celebrations of the Faith that I could never have expected, not least being present at Birmingham on the never to be forgotten occasion of the Beatification of John Henry Newman by Pope Benedict. I could not get to Rome for the canonisation last year but I was able to celebrate here. 

I was received during the Year of the Eucharist and there has been continued growth since then of liturgical Exposition, Benediction and related devotions centred on prayer before the Eucharist and Tabernacle.

The rededication of England as the Dowry of Mary is another sign of the recovery of the Catholic heritage of the country.

There have been personal losses of new Catholic friends who have died since my meeting them and, above all, of Fr Jerome Bertram C.O. who died last autumn. He instructed and received me, and became a valued friend, not least from our shared antiquarian enthusiasms.

Of course there have been in the wider Church the seemingly increasing hostility of the militantly secular World, the decline in numbers attending, the dreadful scandal of the abuse crisis, evils such as the continuing horror of abortion, and the social disintegration of which it is but one symptom.

However I am a historian and we have lived through bad times before. The Church has always faced threats and challenges, was told by its Founder indeed to expect nothing less. It has not always come up with the correct response, but it has survived. There have always, always, been problems, serious problems, in the Ecclesia Populi Dei and always will be. However there is much to give cause for realistic hope, but not for sentimental iptimisn, provided we hold firm to the deposit of Faith and tradition. The barque of Peter may be in stormy seas, but it is in the care of Christ.  

Once set unequivocally in the path to Rome I did not turn back. Yes, I looked back during the process of reception because I had genuine concerns about being really sure I was right in what I was doing and about the people and places I was leaving behind. Being the person I am I gave myself no small amount of anxiety and worry, but my hand had been set to the plough. I had to do it, and I did.

A friend and I once likened the process of conversion and reception not to swimming the Tiber, but to paddling across - when we reached the opposite bank we found friends waiting in the deck-chairs to hand one a towel to dry one's feet and then to hand you a missal or breviary to read as you sat down to watch who would be next to come over.

Deo Gratias!

Monday 30 March 2020

Prof Richard Sharpe

I was deeply shocked and deeply saddened to hear this evening of the very sudden death, apparently from a heart attack, on March 22nd of Richard Sharpe, the Professor of Diplomatic in the University of Oxford at the early age of barely 66.

I met him in my first week of study here in Michaelmas 1993 when he was tasked with teaching diplomatic and palaeography to the new intake of graduate historians. He was Dr Sharpe as he then was was sharp, very sharp, by intellect and occasionally, but with a twinkle in his eye, by tongue. After our classes a group of us used to repair to the adjoining tea room in the History Faculty looking down Broad Street and he would join us. On one occasion a new friend and I were having, as one does, a profound discussion as to whether there actually were green galeros worn by medieval bishops, as opposed to the heraldic ones. "Are you two really interested in that or are you just talking?" When weassured him that we were genuinely interested in the question we realised we had his respect. 

Other years often found him rather formidable or forbidding but most of us found him friendly and supportive. He wanted us to find the deep delight he obviously found in the obscurities of the Middle Ages. I recall his enthusiasm in showing me texts he was choosing for a primer on readind medieval sources during my first summer in Oxford, or on another occasion at a formal dinner in Oriel expounding the correct Old English pronunciation of Latin - speak it as English teasing out the syllables.

He was clearly highly intelligent and accomplished in the intricacies of things linguistic and diplomatic. His mind appeared constantly to be roving over the many academic fields in which he had an interest, expertise and knowledge. He is a great loss to the academic community not only in Oxford but across the whole sphere of medieval studies.

At my first meeting him he was a City Councillor and told us one morning that he was off to inspect the city wall at New College. This went back to the agreement between William of Wykeham and the then town of Oxford when the Bishop founded New College late in the fourteenth century. An hour or so later we saw him retuning from this, with his fellow Councillors in ceremonial robes and cocked hats. Very Oxford.

He was always friendly and supportive and I shall miss seeing him around the Bodleian and Wadhsm where his Fellowship was based, or in a restaurant we both patronised.

One final memos is of him giving the best academic put-down to a friend of his and distinguished academic from another prestigious University, whose entire seminar paper hinged on one word in an early twelfth century text. In his first question Richard Sharpe queried whether ‘violentia’ should be in fact read as ‘volentia’. The whole edifice of the seminar fell about its deliverer who gamely said something on the lines of "Well yes, yes, you’d know better than me..." I have no doubt but that Richard Sharpe was indeed right on that and many other things.

May he rest in peace - but maybe now he can catch up with scores of medieval scribes and find out exactly what they meant.

Sunday 29 March 2020

Rededication of England as the Dowry of Mary

"This is your Dowry, O Holy Virgin, therefore, do thou rule in it."  King Richard II in 1382

At noon today in their respective cathedral churches the English Bishops formally rededicated the realm as the Dowry of Mary. This solemnly renewed the original formal donation by King Richard II in 1382, fulfilling a vow he had apparently made the previous June when the Peasants Revolt of 1381 was at its height.

Parishes up and down country joined in, even if not as they and the organisers had planned. I tuned in to the livestream from the Bournemouth Oratory - never mind that neither the Oratory nor the Church of the Sacred Heart, but Bournemouth itself did not exist in 1382. Late afternoon I watched Benediction from Bournemouth which included the reading of a highly pertinent passage from Newman’s great "Second Spring" sermon of 1852.

"The contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation has drawn all Christian nations to venerate her from whom came the first beginnings of our redemption. But we English, being the servants of her special inheritance and her own dowry, as we are commonly called, ought to surpass others in the fervour of our praises and devotions"

Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury writing early to his suffragens in 1400.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Medieval Life - Fact and Fiction

Here is another post about medieval life which challenges popular myths about the past which may inform - though I assume regular readers are aware of not a few of these falsehoods - and may even entertain during this time of personal seclusion. The link is:


More on Medieval Hygiene 

Following my recent post on medieval hygiene, such being the nature of things, I promptly came upon a similar post with a similar revisionist stance to correct modern misapprehensions, and similar intrusive and irritating advertisements. It can be viewed at the following link:


Unfortunately due to the present situation I do not have access to more sophisticated computer technologies that will allow me to post live links such as is needed here, or photographs. When - whenever that may be - the situation improves I will edit the post accordingly. Until then copy, paste and hopefully appreciate the link!

1208 Revisited

Some people have already commented that the closure of churches and the cessation of celebrations of the Mass or other liturgies is the first such formal suspension by the episcopate since Pope Innocent III imposed his Interdict in 1208. Today a priest friend shared with me this post from the Magna Carta Project  blog six years ago that gives a good account of the episode. Interestingly it commenced on March 23rd, just where we are now and it seems particularly apposite to post a link to it now at: http://magnacartaresearch.blogspot.com/2014/03/23-march-1208-interdict-is-laid-on.html

King John was relatively unperturbed and the Interdict continued until July 2nd 1214. Political events led the King to negotiate with the Papacy - an increasingly restive baronial elite and, nearly a month after the end of the Interdict, on July 27th the final collapse of his strategy in France when his nephew and ally the Emperor Otto IV was defeated at the battle of Bouvines by the forces of King Philip II.

Pope Innocent III was a resolute Pope at handing out such Interdicts and generally in  engaging in disputes with his contemporary monarchs, but, as I remember being taught years ago, they were equally adept at ignoring him and them. Pope Innocent might well have seen himself as Father of Kings and Princes but he had a very disobedient family.

One legacy of the Interdict and its resolution is the beginning of the self-governance of Oxford University. When the Papal Legate restored normal ecclesial life one thing he did was resolve the dispute between the scholars and Masters of Oxford and the townspeople: in 1208 two students, protesting their innocence, were hanged by the local authorities, accused of the murder of their landlady. The teachers and student body withdrew and found somewhere else to teach and learn, a county town called Cambridge. When many returned to Oxford after the Interdict ended to an institution for the first time led by a Chancellor of their own and with legal protection against the townspeople, others remained on the edge of the Fens and hence the establishment of another centre of academic life in Cambridge 

Sunday 22 March 2020

Medieval Hygiene 

With all the current concern about hand washing  and avoiding proximity to others I was interested to come across, by chance, an online article that looks at medieval practice. Setting aside the slightly jokey beginning and the irritating intrusion of advertisements it makes some good and balanced arguments that helps to reject the far too frequent, and unthinking, modern idea that everything was dirty, grimy, dull and crude in the period. 

Indeed I would add that for most of the western world not that much changed before 1900.

The article is "Medieval Hygiene: Practices Of The Middle Ages", and it can be viewed here: https://www.healthyway.com/content/medieval-hygiene-practices-of-the-middle-ages/

One book it cites is the truly enticing Ernest L. Sabine "Latrines and Cesspools of Mediaeval London"  I don’t think you could make that up, could you? Now is that not a Must Have book?