Geoffrey wrote well on Damian Thompson’s article in this week’s Spectator magazine. There is no doubt that the statistics do not look good. I have spent much of the week dealing with even worse statistics. In the seven thousand square miles of the Diocese of Northampton, which was created in 1850 and which contained more than a million people, about 10,000 were Catholics. About 2000 of those lived in three cities in the diocese, so a man would travel a long way without encountering a Catholic. There were 26 priests and about 86 churches or chapels. Those were pretty grim numbers. By the turn of the century there were half as many Catholics again, and by the mid-twentieth century, there were getting on for 50,000. Lots of numbers there, and moving in the right direction, but I am not quite sure what to make of them.
What does Church attendance signify? In the 1820s in England, for example, it had only recently become legal to publicly attend Catholic Churches, and those that existed tended to be off the beaten track, down side streets, and they did not advertise their existence for fear of attracting the attention of Protestant mobs. Those who remained Catholic, or who became Catholic, were, then, making a real commitment; it was both simpler, safer and easier, to be a Protestant or an Anglican. So those very small numbers in 1850 look as though they represent a real commitment. But just as I was tentatively committing myself to such a view, some letters from an ecclesiastical visitor to one of the larger missions crossed my path, and they record a falling congregation which was arguing with a rather unsatisfactory priest, so much so that they cut his stipend in half in a bid to get rid of him. It could just be, as I suspect it was, that two of the leading figures of the parish had recently died, and with them went both their drive and their money, and that some families moved away; or it could be the fault of the priest. But either way, the pretty picture in my head of progress and faithful Catholics suffering all for their faith, needs rethinking.
I am putting together a chapter for a history of the Catholic Church in East Anglia. I was asked to do the period between the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 and the end of Victoria’s reign. In the 1890s Cardinal Manning called Northampton (of which East Anglia was then part) the ‘dead diocese’ – and I soon found out why. The numbers do rise, and by 1901 about 50 more mission stations/churches/chapels had been established. Much of this was due to the drive of the third Bishop, Arthur Riddell, who made church-planting his great mission. He took Jesus’ words that ‘where two or three are gathered together’ very seriously. Wherever a few local Catholics were willing to put their hands in their pockets, Riddell was willing to send a missioner. Rooms in houses were used as Mass centres, then, if it stuck, so to say, there would be attempts made to fund raise to build a small church – usually the nave of what could become a larger building. Some communities grew, some failed. It would be good to be able to get behind these stories, but in six thousand words, that is not easy and, in any event, the written record as it exists, will allow but little of that.
It was, however, a reminder that Catholicism in England has survived something a good deal more terrible than a few atheists and a hostile media. The individual stories that I cannot quite get to, burst through their anonymity in the form of mission stations, chapels and churches, and they coalesce around the formation of parishes which have endured, and which, despite the problems Damian Thompson outlines, will continue to as long as there are individuals willing to work for the faith of their fathers (and mothers).
As I am writing about the Catholic diocese, these thoughts naturally centre around it – but they are as valid for others too.