Up until that moment, I was a little bit bored by the music the Christian rock band was playing. But then, one of the musicians — lads scarcely any older than my seventeen-year-old self — stepped forward on the stage and started to talk. I was mesmerized, not because he was particularly eloquent but because of what he said. To put it simply, he talked confidently about his personal relationship with Jesus. He affirmed that anyone could have this relationship; all you had to do was to go to Jesus in penitence for your sins and ask Him to come into your life and take it over. From the moment you did this, you must base your life on Bible principles and make time to be with Jesus every day; then your life would be invaded by the Holy Spirit and changed forever.
This hit me right between the eyes because of how I was feeling at the time. I had been brought up in the Church of England and sang in a church choir, but I suffered from a deep inward tension. On the one hand, I found church rituals very tedious and church people very unappetizing — I was always pleased to escape at the end of the service. But on the other hand, the Gospels were speaking to me, and I was wanting to find a way to respond to this astonishingly powerful Figure who taught with such incredible wisdom, spread such joy and healing, and yet ended up crucified despite all the beauty of His character. I knew He was calling me, but the trouble was that I couldn’t face church as I knew it. This lad up there on the stage was offering me a way forward, for he confidently announced that we didn’t need to worry about church, since we could find Jesus in prayer and Bible study, and He would send the Holy Spirit to fill us and transform us with His divine power and grace. All we would need then would be to hitch up to a “Bible-believing church” that would nurture and sustain our growth in faith.
Then something happened that really blew my mind; not just the one, not just two, but each of the four musicians took it in turns to step forward on the stage at different stages of the evening and repeat a similar testimony. Four young lads, all in love with God and wanting to share the Gospel! I was deeply moved. At the end of the concert, I made the decision to surrender my life to Jesus.
As I look back now, after forty years as a Catholic, I can see how God, in His mercy, has honored this offering that I made as a schoolboy at the prompting of evangelical Protestant musicians — but not at all in the way that I had anticipated. At that time nothing could have been further from my thoughts than the Catholic Church, about which I was entirely ignorant. My father — a devout, committed, and highly intelligent Oxford- educated Anglican, a pupil of C.S. Lewis and a writer on theological matters — held the view that the Church of England was the true successor to the pre-Reformation Church in Britain.
I had been sensing and fearing a call to ordained ministry for some years, all the time suffering inner torment on account of my lack of interest in church as I knew it. Now I felt that a way had opened up. I didn’t need to love the church, I just needed to love the Bible and look for Jesus there and in my private prayer. The rest could take care of itself. Because the Church of England was so central to English life — with its great cathedrals and parish churches, chaplaincies to the elite boarding schools and the hospitals and the armed forces, its claim to be in succession from the medieval church in our country — why not seek ordination there?
I did not, however, yet have the courage to face the ordination trail, so I opted to study languages (French and Latin) at Oxford when the time came, rather than theology. I threw myself into evangelical student activities and derived huge inspiration from some of the excellent preachers and Bible expositors of the day. I particularly remember a man named David Watson, famous for having taken over a small church in York that was to be declared redundant, which he then turned into a local evangelical Mecca, reputedly attended by 900 on a Sunday. I vividly recall him preaching a week-long mission to university students; he could hold 400 of them spellbound. Nothing spectacular, no pizzazz, no showmanship; just a huge sense of quietly joyful conviction about the power of God and everyone’s need for Him, delivered by someone skilled at the exploitation of rhetorical arts like variation in tone of voice, dramatic pauses, the use of anecdotes and illustrations, touches of humor — all perfectly legitimate parts of the preacher’s craft.
Symptomatic of my state of mind at the time was the fact that, although as part of my degree I spent a year in France, I never went near the Catholic churches of the town, preferring to frequent a small Pentecostal assembly, where the preacher was something of a ranter. But it was a “Bible” church, and that sufficed. Upon completion of my degree course, I began theology studies at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford — named after the rebellious fourteenth-century cleric John Wycliffe. Because of his emphasis on the Bible, Evangelicals consider him to be a harbinger of the Reformation. Oddly, nobody told us anything about him in our studies and his name was rarely mentioned. We thought of the nineteenth century as the great age of Evangelicalism and liked to dwell on the lives of famous missionaries like the Baptist John Carey (India), the Free Churchman Hudson Taylor (China), the Anglican Temple Gairdner (Egypt). Eric Liddell — the missionary athlete at the centre of the film Chariots of Fire — was the kind of person I venerated at this time.
I began to be troubled by certain things about Anglicanism during my theological studies. It increasingly bothered me that the Reformation had broken us away from the rest of Europe. The Catholic Faith was clearly a universal faith — it was believed and practiced all over the world. Although the Anglican Church claimed to be universal and had branches in many countries, I could not help noticing that they were predominantly in countries which England had colonized; the faith had simply followed the flag to places like Australia, New Zealand, North America, and the former African colonies. This seemed to me to be a problem even with Evangelicalism. I noticed that the Evangelical culture with which I was familiar was (in those days, at any rate) predominantly English-speaking. If I went the few miles across the Channel to France or Spain or Austria, there was nowhere for me, as an Anglican, to worship, unless I happened to be near a Chaplaincy for ex-patriots, and this seemed to me to cast doubt on the idea that our faith was truly universal.
In 1973, I took up the position of Assistant Curate in a London parish, and in the same year I married Trudi, a charming and delightful Belfast Protestant girl (who was to depart this life, sadly, in 2009). Though I was deeply attached to her personally and happy in her companionship, I found Northern Ireland Protestantism in general a real eye-opener. Evangelicalism was very strong over there, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was something hard-edged and even aggressive about their deeply entrenched anti-Catholic view of the world. Some of my English friends just threw up their hands and disowned any connection with their fellow Evangelicals in Ulster — but how could we do that? They had the same beliefs that we had and belonged to the same spiritual movement. It seemed to me that we were being delusional if we tried to pretend that they had got it wrong. Perhaps it was they who had it right and we who were too weak and gutless in our faith. After all, their understanding of Evangelicalism would have made sense to our Victorian forefathers, whose missionary exploits and rousing faith we so admired.
One thing emphasized in my training was that good preaching and reading went together. Books would provide the arsenal of anecdotes and illustrations that the regular preacher needed; it made sense to focus on biographies and memoirs. I had a particular reason for being interested in the life stories of great men. I wanted to know how I myself could become a great man. Very simply, I wanted to leave my mark, to be remembered for my spiritual achievements, but I really didn’t know how to go about it. Anyway, I didn’t have much money, so I tended to look for the cheapest volumes on the bookstore shelves. Among them, I found the occasional story of a Catholic saint or heroic figure, often one I had never heard of. I was always particularly interested in French books, because I had resolved when I finished my degree in languages that I would not lose that skill, but cultivate it and make sure I retained my fluency; the only way to do that was to keep on reading books in French. But inevitably, spiritual writings in French were Catholic.
Among the memorable Catholic books I was coming across at this time, one of those that stand out in my memory told the life of Father Damien, “the leper priest” (now St. Damien de Veuster). Having been ordained in Belgium, he chose to go to Hawaii to minister to a colony of leprosy sufferers. Predictably, he ended up dying of the disease himself. Why would such a man throw his life away like that? After all, he could have remained in Belgium as a parish priest and served his people heroically in the manner of a St. Jean Vianney. Surely he would have done much more good that way. But as I pondered his life, I couldn’t help thinking of the saying of St. Paul, that we are called to be “fools for Christ.” Yes, Fr. Damien’s “crazy love” led him to throw his life away for Jesus — but wasn’t that an illustration of what St. Paul meant? I, on the other hand, wanted to love Jesus, but I wanted my love to be reasonable. Yet, as I meditated more on the nature of love, I thought about the crazy lengths to which people in love would go for the loved one — a theme of so many stories. Sometimes even for the sake of strangers — people jumping into the sea to help drowning persons or going into fires to help folk escape, only to die themselves. True love couldn’t remain within reasonable bounds, and Jesus warned us about this in the Gospels. What He wanted was followers who would commit themselves wholly to Him, as the multitude of martyrs for the faith had done. I realized that I had domesticated my idea of discipleship; a comfortable home with a good dose of charitable and spiritual activity as my service to the Lord. Now I could see the beauty of the Catholic priesthood — which had already begun to come home to me through a reading of the Diary of a Country Priest by the French Catholic Georges Bernanos. The priests were celibate, not because there was anything wrong with marriage — far from it — but because they wanted to put Jesus above absolutely everything else, including many things that were actually good in themselves. I had always focused on giving up the bad things for the sake of Jesus, but according to the Gospels, Jesus invited His followers to give up even good things out of love for Him. After all, fishing was a good and useful and indeed necessary activity. But He called them away from it.
As I began to make these new discoveries, I was losing faith in my own creed. I had accepted the idea of sola Scriptura — the Bible as the sole means of finding out the truth about God and the sole source of revelation — because it had enabled me to solve my own problem, that of wanting to serve Jesus but disliking church. Unfortunately, I was having to face the hard fact that sola Scriptura led to endless fragmentation. New denominations were constantly appearing — simply because Scripture did not, in reality, speak for itself, as we liked to suggest — since people were actually forever squabbling about how it was to be interpreted. This wasn’t just a matter of history; it was going on now, and it showed no sign of diminishing. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help noticing that the Catholic Church was actually one — with one Catechism and one Code of Canon Law and one Mass and one head in Rome. We Evangelicals always professed to enjoy a mysterious inner spiritual unity that underlay all our (often bitter) external disagreements, but I was having to face the fact that this was a delusion. The harsh truth was that we were competing among ourselves on the ground of filling our pews. This was all too obvious to me as a cleric much concerned with attendance figures.
This loss of my Evangelical moorings was devastating. The only alternative to faith in the sole authority of the Scriptures seemed to be to make myself believe in the authority of the Church of England. But by then I had awakened to the deeply damaging consequences of the Reformation and seen that our claim to be in continuity with the pre-Reformation Church was hollow. Much later, I discovered a particularly powerful illustration of this, when I learned that, in some churches during the Reformation, the altar was actually ripped out and placed at the entrance to be trodden on as the threshold. How could the desire for a complete break with the past be demonstrated more powerfully? Not to mention the destruction of the monastic orders and the state plunder of endowments given by donors, not to the state but to God?
I had seriously considered going out as a missionary to Africa (and my wife would have been sympathetic to that, for — unlike me — she had actually been to Africa). But I visualized a married missionary turning up in an African village with Western trappings and luggage and expecting a comfortable home; and I compared it in my mind to the idea of a Franciscan turning up with his staff and his sandals and his bundle. I would be like an alien from another planet, whereas the Franciscan would be one of them. I know this is probably something of a travesty of the actual reality on the ground, but it was the principle that troubled me. I had learned of the incredible things done in Asia by St. Francis Xavier and others like him, and I saw that they could only do all this because they were celibates and could live simply and travel light.
I recall reading a biography of David Livingstone, the famous missionary and explorer, which described how he dragged his pregnant wife around Africa with him in an ox cart. This seemed to illustrate my point, and it had a particular resonance for me because my wife’s grandfather had been a Presbyterian minister in David Livingstone’s home town of Blantyre in Scotland.
The celibacy of the priesthood may seem like a minor issue, but actually, for me, as a cleric myself, it had been one of the “crazy” stumbling blocks in the Catholic Church that I had never been able to understand. I was now learning more and more about the Church, and her teachings began to make more and more sense. I had to face the fact that, whereas the Church was built on the back of the sacrifices of the priests and religious, clergy in our denomination lived off the church and made a career out of it. One had only to look at the enormous old vicarages in so many Anglican parishes. They were being sold off in my day, and clergy were living much more modestly, their salaries had greatly diminished, but the approach remained the same. For myself, I had a working wife, and we lived comfortably. Where was the sacrifice? The Catholic priest led from the front, he showed by his example that you could confront the pains of ordinary life like loneliness and solitude, and triumph over them with the help of divine grace. The fact that some priests suffered burnout and found clerical life too difficult made no difference. It was the ideal and the model that counted, and many Catholic priests had succeeded in living heroic lives throughout the centuries.
I became increasingly fearful for my salvation. I was accustomed to speaking in my sermons about giving up everything for Christ, but what was I giving up myself? I even flirted briefly with the idea of leaving my beloved wife and going into a monastery — though without the least attraction to monastic life — as an act of pure penitence. At that time I was reading about saints of earlier times who for the love of Jesus had left marriages in order to enter the cloister.
I was becoming increasingly drawn towards the Catholic Church, but in the late 70s, the “convert cleric” was a rarity, and I knew no one who had taken such a drastic step. I took a high view of the promises I had made at my ordination, and the idea of turning back after putting my hand to the plough seemed disgraceful. Nonetheless, my mind was telling me — on the basis of my recent years of study and thinking — that the claims of the Catholic Church were true.
The church building in the parish where I was now working was a concrete monstrosity, but there was one thing in it I found very beautiful — a statue of Our Lady that a previous vicar had brought back from Austria. I used to spend time praying in front of her. I didn’t talk to her, because that wasn’t something we did. However, this thought kept forming in my mind as I gazed at the statue: it was as if Our Lady was saying to me, “I am here to call you to the place where I am truly honored.”
I knew where that place was.
I still had a long list of objections to Catholic teaching, but one by one, they all seemed to get answered. I still laugh at the rather spectacular way that God dealt with one of my last objections. It was this: surely the Catholic Church was in the pay of the Italians? All the Popes had been Italian for 400 years. I found the Church of England questionable, because it was too English — and middle class English at that — but wasn’t I going from the frying pan into the fire? From an exclusively English middle-class institution to an exclusively Italian one? Well, one day I found myself attending a Mass, and at the end of it the priest said: “I have an announcement to make — we have a new pope! He has taken the name John Paul II. And he is Polish!” This felt like a personal message from God, telling me not to be such an idiot and to let go of my endless objections to His Church.
It was hard to contemplate abandoning the ministry to which I had publicly pledged myself. But I found comfort in the idea that I would still be moving forward on the same path of dis- cipleship as before — just in a new and unforeseen direction. I wasn’t planning to move away from Jesus, but to follow Him more faithfully — only to a place that had never figured in my plans. I had to assume that it figured in His.
I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church on June 17, 1979 by Cardinal Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, 20 years to the day before he died. My preparation had not been auspicious. I attended an instruction course run by a young priest who subsequently died very prematurely. This dear man was mainly concerned to imbue us with enthusiasm for Vatican II. While I had no axe to grind about Vatican II, I was far more interested in learning about the wonderful riches of the millennia-old Catholic tradition than about the pronouncements of a recent Council.
I was able to find social work employment that actually provided accommodation, which was fortunate because our son was born two months before I was received. To my complete amazement, I then discovered the existence of a Catholic charity whose whole raison d’être was to help ministers of religion who became Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland — in those days known as the Converts’ Aid Society, now known as the St. Barnabas Society. They were marvelous to us at that time. Fifteen years later, I was to embark on a stint of twenty-three happy years representing them in parishes around the country and soliciting the support of the Catholic people. I must have met about 400 priests, at least, often spending the weekend with them, and it was a heartening experience. My greatest sadness at leaving the Church of England had been the loss of preaching opportunities, but now I was able to address Catholic congregations and give them a spiritual message as I shared with them something of the challenges faced by the convert cleric. I also met many of our beneficiaries and was able to offer encouragement and reassurance to them in their struggles out of my own personal experience.
I only took up the work with convert clergy because my hoped-for new career in academia had hit the brakes. After being received into the Church, I had completed an Oxford doctorate in the history of ideas with a very famous philosopher and historian by the name of Sir Isaiah Berlin. This subject remained a consuming passion with me, and I was eventually able to complete a scholarly work connected with the atheist philosopher and law reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) after three summers of research conducted in — of all places — Geneva! Later, I was commissioned to edit World Fascism: a Historical Encyclopedia, writing 70,000 words for it myself and translating contributions by many other scholars from various languages. This stimulated me to learn more about the Nazi Holocaust and to nurture the ambition to write a book on the subject. I discovered that the leaders of the National Socialist regime were, to a man, enemies of Germany’s Christian tradition, and especially of the Catholic Church. The more I studied the topic, the clearer it became that the sheer intensity of their hatred for the Jews was closely connected to their hatred for Europe’s Catholic civilization, founded and centred on the people of Israel. In this they were tapping into a long tradition of resentment of the inherited culture among European intel- lectuals and cultural figures. Surely the least we can do for the millions of Jews so brutally murdered is to understand why it happened.
In 2002, twenty-three years after I had been received into the Church, I discovered the Secular Carmelites, a movement of lay people living the spirit of Carmel, but not in community. This has been an immense blessing for me. It is one thing to become a Catholic, it is quite another thing to discover what sort of Catholic one should be. In Carmel, I have finally found my answer to this conundrum.
Dr. Blamires contributed an account of his conversion to the book Path to Rome. It was originally written for the first edition in 1999 edited by Dwight Longenecker and it also appeared in the second edition of 2010, co-edited by Fr. Dwight Longenecker and himself. This present version differs from the earlier one, but both are true and they should be regarded as complementary — like the varying accounts in the four Gospels!