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My Path to Rome

Fr. Trevor Nicholls October 24, 2011 2 Comments

I owe an immense debt of gratitude to my conservative Evangelical background. I was privileged to belong for many years to a fellowship which of its sort was, I am convinced, without peer in the Anglican Church. Within that fellowship, I was given many opportunities for Christian witness and service and to this day, I thank God for them.

Inevitably, however, in those pre-ecumenical days, I grew up with the Evangelicals’ traditional suspicion of the Roman Church. Part of it, of course, was the Englishman’s well-documented “Gunpowder, Treason and Plot” antipathy to Rome to which in due course my Evangelicalism added a theological framework. My knowledge of Catholicism was, in fact, mere garnishing to a massive ignorance although such ignorance seldom if ever proved a bar to criticism of the Church of Rome. In truth, mine was a small and highly insulated-ecclesiastical world; I knew very few Catholics personally and viewed those I did with rather more curiosity than genuine interest.

At first glance, it seems that my University days served only to reinforce this state of affairs. My membership of the Evangelical Christian Union, a growing interest in Reformed (i.e., Calvinistic) theology and always, as a background, my continuing happy connection with my home parish, deepened my attachment to conservative Evangelicalism while adding to my anti-Roman sentiments. It was during this time that my parish priest challenged me to consider the possibility of ordination within the Church of England. The wheels turned and at the beginning of my final year at University I was recommended for training by the church’s Advisory Board for ordained ministry. My decision to seek holy orders was taken in good faith and thereafter, obviously, it became an increasingly important part of the framework of my life.

At the same time, however, changes were taking place in my way of thinking, under a variety of influences. My degree studies in History were giving me a much wider perspective on the Church. Moreover, simply by being at University meant that I was encountering other traditions both within and outside the Church of England. Thus long talks with the warden of my Hall of Residence, himself a very High Churchman, forced me increasingly to re-examine the basic presuppositions of my theology. Above all, I discovered at first hand some official Catholic teaching (in a book on the Council of Trent) regarding a subject dear to the hearts of all Evangelicals, namely, the authority and trustworthiness of the Holy Scriptures. Finding their statements on the Bible virtually indistinguishable from those contained in the most highly approved Evangelical doctrinal handbook was akin to discovering that a person whom you had always considered to be a rotter and a cad wasn’t such a bad fellow after all; pleasing but also slightly unnerving.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, by the time I left University, my thinking on matters theological had about it a certain schizoid quality. On the one hand, my attachment to conservative Evangelicalism remained firm; indeed, perhaps ironically, my discovery of common ground with Roman Catholicism had, after the initial shock, served to strengthen it. At the same time, however, and hardly unsurprisingly, I was being led to question the very nature of the Evangelicalism I knew so well. In the year following graduation from University I began to wonder whether Evangelical views on human nature and the working of God’s grace in human lives were not just a little too simple; in particular, I turned my attention to the conversion experience upon which Evangelicals place so much emphasis.

From the age of about eleven I had been taught that being baptized did not make one a Christian, nor did Christian parents or a Christian home, not even regular attendance at church. What was necessary was a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ, to accept Him as Lord and Savior, “to invite Him into your heart,” to commit one’s life to Him. The result of this teaching was that many of us grew up in an atmosphere where ninety-nine sermons out of a hundred were in essence calls to this initial commitment and preachers and teachers would tend to treat life-long worshippers as if they were heathens fresh off the streets.

Now, I could see, as I still can, the value of preaching for decision. Indeed, bearing in mind the state of society today, the value of this approach may be said to have increased rather than the opposite. Yet leaving aside for a moment the disparagement of Baptism and the other Sacraments, certain things just didn’t add up. For example, many of those who made ‘decisions’ did not seem to maintain their discipleship for very long while in any case, the perfervid atmosphere in which much evangelistic work took place created its own problems. Conversely, a little thought and observation soon revealed that the steadiest members of any congregation or fellowship enjoyed the advantage of a positively Christian home or else, at the very least, the encouragement of parents sympathetic to the church.

On a different tack, I began to take a greater interest in the Evangelical obsession with the Church of the Apostolic Age, the feeling that if only we could somehow recreate or at least recapture its spirit, then all would be well. It is a beguiling prospect, entirely to be expected, given the Evangelical attitude to the Scriptures and at one time or another the majority of Evangelicals, myself included, succumb to its allure. When, much later, I read Monsignor Ronald Knox’s superb Enthusiasm, I saw that men have been fascinated by the Church of the first century since the second. For some – perhaps the majority – it is a question of trying to form a ‘pure’ church; for others, a quest for what appears as the power and success of the New Testament communities. History reveals, however, in ways painful for their clarity, that sooner or later the quest ends in failure.

These and similar considerations were reinforced in my mind from what at that time was a most unlikely source. One day I stumbled across an article by Mr. Malcolm Muggeridge (himself a subsequent convert to Catholicism but at that time known as an agnostic and left-leaning journalist, broadcaster and social commentator) in the New Statesman. This brief piece reminded me and other readers that the life-span of many Protestant sects had been relatively short, while the Church of Rome, whose demise had for centuries been regularly forecast and in some quarters devoutly wished for, had nonetheless survived to witness the collapse, metaphorical and literal, of countless ‘Bethels’ and ‘Shilohs’. The same article had some rather unflattering things to say about the state of the Church of England but at the time I overlooked these.

By the time I reached Theological College to begin my proximate studies prior to Ordination, I was becoming increasingly interested in the Church of Rome but still in a rather detached way. A book by the Principal, for example, entitled What is Man? gave me what I would now call a truly Catholic view of human personality. It rescued me form a certain incipient rationalism and helped me to understand not just the evil within man (of which my early teaching and personal experience had left me in no doubt anyway) but also illuminated humankind’s wonderful powers and potential. Reading it, I recalled one of the many late-night conversations with the aforementioned Hall Warden during which he reminded me, rather sharply I recall, that the Bible does not begin at the third chapter of Genesis. Directly and indirectly, What is Man? showed me the meaning of the phrase ‘image of God’ and thereby added a new dimension to my thinking.

At the same time, the lectures I attended on the New Testament, the finest I heard on any subject during my student days, also made me take a fresh and much more critical look at evangelical assumptions about Christian life, belief and behaviour. Looking at the Scriptures over a period of time it struck me that from our point of view there were a number of significant ‘loose ends’ – verses, phrases, attitudes, and actions – which just could not be tied in with the Evangelical picture of Christian life that had been painted for me.

The linchpin of our position was the simple equation that conservative Evangelicalism equals Apostolic Christianity. Yet the more I read the New Testament the more I realized that this equation did not balance. I saw, for instance, that on the subject of grace it was necessary not only to take in the lessons of Ephesians 2 but also those provided by our Lord’s spittle, St. Paul’s handkerchief, or even St. Peter’s shadow. Or again, it was one thing to preach strong sermons on the Epistle to the Galatians and another thing altogether to reconcile (within a traditional Evangelical schema) the Apostle’s action in Acts 16.3. The battle cry ‘unscriptural’ that I had often used in theological argument began to take on the appearance of a two-edged weapon.

My ordination and entry into parish life obviously brought their own immediate concerns, although as it happened, there was to be little respite from the type of theological questioning that had exercised me with increasing force over the previous few years.

Before elucidating further, however, I think it is worthwhile to summarize my views vis-à-vis the Church of Rome as they existed at this time. I had by then a fair knowledge of Catholicism and had long since passed the stage when I regarded the Bishop of Rome to be the Anti-Christ. It struck me as morally and intellectually indefensible to label as evil something which was manifestly good. At the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress held in April 1967, I sought out the official Catholic observer, Fr. Bernard Leeming, and quietly spent as much time as possible in his company. A month later I was at Heythrop College near Oxford, then the center of Jesuit academic life in England, where I spent a week attending worship and lectures and meeting the Jesuit fathers. I glimpsed there something quite beyond anything I had experienced before; it was, quite literally, a glimpse into another world.

Yet for all this, my reading and study of Catholicism, the first-hand knowledge I now possessed of Roman theology and practice, it all remained something of an enigma to me. My knowledge was by turns interesting, even fascinating but puzzling and occasionally worrying and formed no coherent pattern in my mind. It was still Evangelicalism which, in spite of all the blows I had dealt it, remained a system to which I gave assent, though with hindsight I am disposed to think that my assent was more emotional than intellectual.

Ironically, it was only days after my ordination to the diaconate that I began to see in vague outline the answer to my problem. One Saturday morning I received a visit from a young man who came to clean the windows of the clergy house where I was living. He was a Jehovah’s Witness and once his work was done he and I would share a pot of tea and some theological discussion. Not surprisingly given his religious affiliation, our discussion focused upon the Holy Trinity and in the light of our conversations certain facts of significance emerged.

First, the fact that two people both claim the authority of Scripture (as he and I did) gives by itself no guarantee that they will reach the same conclusions in questions of doctrine. Looking beyond the problems arising from the use of different Bible translations, what will really count is the theological key they employ to unlock the Scriptures, the doctrinal framework which they have already formed (or inherited) which colors their views of the sacred text.

Thus, my Jehovah’s Witness friend, with his prior view that our Lord is a created being could furnish the texts necessary to support his beliefs. I for my part was able to provide to my satisfaction although not his, the scriptural evidence for the traditional position while accommodating to orthodoxy those texts – the basis of his arguments – which prima facie seemed to tell against it.

As I increasingly came to see, there were two problems involved. The first concerned the interpretation of Scripture, the second (and linked to it) was the process by which Christian doctrine had taken shape in history. Already in my discussion with the Jehovah’s Witness I had been obliged to fall back on such statements as “but this is what the vast majority of Christians have always believed,” a perfectly accurate and valid statement but hardly the Evangelical’s traditional riposte “the Bible says”. What I had done – and I realized the fact at once – was to shift the debate on to quite different ground. Newman’s words in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua came to mind, namely, that the sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine but only to prove it and that if we would learn doctrine, we must have recourse to the formularies of the Church, especially the Creeds.

Naturally, this line of thought raised questions about the Creeds themselves; whether they are merely man-made constructions that can be set aside more or less at will, or, rather, formulations which although couched in human language with all its limitations, should nonetheless enshrine truth, sacred and eternal. Within Anglicanism, both points of view were held; Evangelicals regarded the Creeds as very much secondary to the Scriptures although in the event none to my knowledge would deny creedal statements pertaining to the Godhead. Phrases such as ‘one baptism for the forgiveness of sins’ they would, however, interpret according to their own theological principles. In my own case, talking with the Jehovah’s Witness, I found that ideas of Creeds, if not always the language, came across quite adequately. It was hardly necessary to dwell upon “Eternally Begotten of the Father” to be reminded that my friend held that there had been a time when the Son had not existed. Some years later, when I read Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, I met his famous dictum that doctrine is never defined until it is violated. In those Saturday morning discussions, I could gain some faint inkling of how doctrine had been formed in the struggles of the Church with heterodox opinions.

A move to another parish brought to an abrupt end my theological debates with the Arian brother but they left a deep impression upon me. Over the course of those few weeks I had come to see that all mainline Christians live under a vast umbrella of Catholic doctrine, including, of course, the Trinitarian but extending far beyond it, and which like the air we breathe, we simply took for granted. Moreover, it could not truthfully be said that much of that doctrine lay on the surface of Scripture. “Obvious once stated,” to borrow another phrase from Newman, but I had failed to see how significant was the entire process that had led to their initial statement by the Church.

As I intimated much earlier, Evangelicalism is simply not large enough to cope with the world as it is; its vision of reality is fatally flawed. My experience as both Anglican layman and cleric revealed that this fundamental flaw inevitable forces most Evangelicals into adopting one of two positions. Either they retain a nominal adherence to Evangelical theological and moral principles while in practice pursuing a far less rigidly Evangelical path, or, they cling fiercely (and sincerely) to strict Evangelical principles, turning a blind eye to the anomalies and thereby creating fellowships whose members are bound together as much by psychology as theology.

About the time that I commenced my second assignment, in west London, I realized that I now stood outside the Evangelical mainstream. My links with it were now almost solely through times, places and people who remained dear to me; my intellectual commitment had well-nigh gone. Within a short time it was to disappear altogether.

The second Sunday of Advent is kept in many Evangelical churches as “Bible Sunday’ and this is usually reflected in the sermons. At Evening Prayer on Advent II 1970, I preached a sermon on the Interpretation of Scripture, designed to complement one preached in the morning on the Authority of Scripture. (Sermon subjects were chosen early in the preceding week). I had been unable to find in any of my Evangelical books adequate answers to the questions I was asking myself and all the incipient theological problems of the previous three years came back to haunt me with a vengeance. I spent one of the most wretched half hours of my life attempting to answer on behalf of the congregation questions which were really all mine.

I left the pulpit in something approaching turmoil. That my Evangelical authorities had failed me in this particular matter was hardly surprising, since the Protestant view of the inspired text is that it is both perspicuous and sufficient. Beyond certain simple ground rules, the Christian, who possesses the Holy Spirit, needs no other guidance. Leaving aside spiritual judgments regarding the aforementioned Jehovah’s Witness for whom, as I have indicated, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity had been far from clear on the surface of the New Testament, many years of attending and leading Bible Studies had provided ample proof that even with the best will in the world, even the most sincere and godly of souls could all too easily grasp the wrong end of the theological stick when reading the sacred text. All of a sudden I felt that I had no real, certain ground for believing anything, not even that the Bible was the Word of God.

This time, I could not let the matter drop. By now I had already begun to see that the answer to my difficulties lay in a very real sense beyond the Scriptures, in a subject about which, considering the amount of time I had spent studying it, my understanding remained sorely lacking, namely, Church History. Truth to tell, anyone with an Evangelical background such as mine is likely to find himself in difficulties at this point, simply because the tenor of so much ecclesiastical history is at variance with his own theological thinking. Constrained by his principles and doctrines, the Evangelical is obliged to don theological seven-league boots in order to traverse the Christian centuries, leaping from St. Paul to St. Augustine, from St. Augustine to Luther and Calvin. With the possibility of a slight detour via St. Anselm, returning via one or two of the heretical sects of the Medieval period, the vast area remaining is virtually terra incognita.

Not that these facts bother most Evangelicals; they hardly bothered me when I studied History at University and Theological College. If one has the Scriptures (so we reasoned) what more is necessary? If certain, nay the majority, of the Fathers and later Saints did not fit into a mold recognizably Evangelical, not matter; that was their loss! In truth, I am quite certain that when pressed on this point, most of us would have been forced to concede that we shared the idea, propounded by a member of the Plymouth Brethren whom I met about this time, that when the last Apostle died, the Church began at once to drift into error. (Given that, in Newman’s words, “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant,” there is a certain mad logic in this position).

I now saw that this view of history was hopelessly, ridiculously, facile. History had obviously provided the milieu in which the great doctrines of Christianity had unfolded. The Evangelicals’ fear of ‘Tradition’ as the enemy of a pure biblical faith had blinded me to the way in which the Church had drawn out doctrines from the Bible in response to the attacks of heretics. The process is clearly visible in the development of the Trinitarian formulae and on the assumption that these doctrines are in a meaningful way ‘true’ (which, as I have already said, no Evangelical would deny) how may one logically deny the truth of other doctrines that come to us on precisely the same grounds? If one accepts the Homousion of Chalcedon, why not the Theotokos of Ephesus?

All that you have read thus far and more I laid before my Bishop not too long after the debacle of Advent II. I spent the intervening time reading as much Catholic theology as I could find and I was rapidly reaching the conclusion that, as Chesterton put it, “Rome was right.”

On the matter of the Bible and its interpretation, which remained my prime concern, I realized that it was not a question of whether the authority of God’s Word written can or cannot be limited by another authority, i.e. the Church, but, as Fr. Louis Bouyer puts it, “a question of determining in what actual conditions established by God Himself as the author of scripture, their sovereign authority can be upheld in practice.” Or again, “it is not a question of knowing if we ought or ought not to add another authority to the Word of God and so diminish the latter, but of knowing the conditions in which God who inspired the Scriptures, entrusted them to the Church.”

The fundamental weakness of the Evangelical approach to Roman Catholicism lies in its insistence upon terrier-like attacks on individual doctrines rather than an attempt to grasp the central core of the Catholic position, namely, that ‘the truth as it is in Christ Jesus’ has been committed to a body of responsible men, “invested” (to quote Bouyer again) “for that purpose with the very authority of their Master.” (2) The visible basis of the Roman claim is the undeniable historical continuity of the Catholic Church with the primitive Church. Insofar as Evangelicals hold the ‘drift into error’ theory of ecclesiastical history, with its frequent concomitant idea that after the Apostolic age, Gospel truth subsisted in fragments amongst the various sects that ranged themselves around and against the Catholic Church, they must surely ask the question whether it is not more reasonable to suppose (as Newman puts it) that Almighty God, having vouchsafed to Mankind a Revelation of Himself, should not have taken steps to protect it from substantial error (Essay on Development).

As I expected my Bishop proved extremely kind and sympathetic though anxious, naturally, that I should not act precipitously. In the event, I wasn’t prepared to go either. Perhaps I had reached that stage described by Chesterton, when a man who has moved so fast towards the Church finds himself for a time running away from it. In early 1972 I received the offer of a Living in the Diocese of Exeter, a position which held out the prospect of a multi-faceted freedom I much desired. I had to face the possibility that I was under a huge delusion so far as Rome was concerned; moreover, the situation in which I had spent two years as a curate was not of a sort to render calm and rational decision-making very easy. The step I was contemplating was so drastic and would involve such a dramatic break with my past, not to mention the purely logistical difficulties it would occasion for myself and my family that it only seemed sensible to proceed with the utmost caution. Moreover, I was much affected by a saying of the great Tractarian John Keble, that “if the Church of England were to fail altogether, yet it would be found in my parish.” A moment’s reflection illuminates the uncertainty reflected in that statement, but for the next three years I used it as sort of a watchword for my ministry until I could no longer continue as a member of the Established Church.

As I prepared to make my exit, I had two major concerns. The first was the effect my decision would have upon those whom I had served as a minister of Word and Sacrament, especially in the parish of which I had been the pastor. This is, I think, always a concern for someone who finds himself in a position like mine.

The second concern is even more obvious. I had to accept that a change of Communion would preclude me from a ministry to which I had felt called by God and as a Roman Catholic layman I know that my ‘original’ vocation will continue to shape my life. I have no desire to blot out my Anglican years, much less do I wish to give the impression, despite any of my comments above, that I bear malice toward the Church of England. Looking back, my wife Marion and I can thank God for a myriad of happy memories and many wonderful friendships formed during those years.

One of my memories as a child was that of the Variety (Vaudeville) or circus artist whose act consisted of spinning plates on a large number of poles. The Church is the divine plate-spinner, keeping in place the manifold truths of God, ensuring that none falls out of sight and each is in its proper place relative to all the others. It is a gigantic balancing act, performed throughout the centuries and throughout the world. No other Christian body comes anywhere near achieving this almost incredible feat.

A second image relates to an individual’s actual approach towards the moment when he makes his submission to the Catholic Church. It is of a person walking down a corridor of distorting mirrors of the sort found in fairgrounds or amusement arcades. They throw back distorted images of the person and of the world. Yet these particular mirrors distort in diminishing degrees; as the person moves from one mirror to the next, the reflections slowly become clearer, until by the time he reaches the last one, when the mirror reflects a perfect image and he sees himself and everything else with startling clarity.

When a man starts out on the road to the Catholic Church, nothing seems very clear; the images are distorted and incomplete and he cannot always relate what he sees to the present state of his knowledge. Yet the closer he moves toward the Church, the clearer everything becomes, until he reaches that final mirror when, though he will realize that there remains much for him to learn, what he can see he sees with absolute clarity.

In fact at that point, he realizes two things. The first is that all along the distortion has been not in the mirrors but in himself; the second is that the last mirror happens also to be a door, through which he must pass. For one brief moment, the reflection disappears altogether; faith replaces sight and he has to take a tiny but immensely significant step into the unknown. How that step is described and what we find when we have taken it will to some extent vary from person to person but for Marion and myself it has been like coming home.

Fr. Trevor Nicholls

Fr. Trevor Nicholls is a former Episcopal priest who was received into the Catholic Church in December 1975. Fr Nicholls was ordained a Catholic priest in 1990.

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