Paul Griffin on the real meaning of the word and the fact that our faith is not a purely national one

I have recently read and written about famous converts: Sibthorp, Newman, Ronald Knox. Yet I have been conscious all the time of how confusing a word ‘conversion’ is. We talk of Paul seeing the light on the Damascus road. This was a swing from unbelief in Jesus Christ as Saviour to Christian belief, not to be compared with fiddling about between Christian Churches, which deserves a lesser term, but from a love of hyperbole generally does not receive it.

For all this, we do sometimes have a sense that our immortal soul is genuinely menaced by remaining in one Church, and the change may seem as important and great as that produced by one’s original conversion.

Longing for the familiar

When we lived in Cambridge, we would long for the wide open spaces, and would strike out on a Sunday along the lovely path that runs along the top of the Gog Magog hills. After an hour or two, we would trudge tiredly back towards the skyline of spires and towers and flour mills, longing for home. In the same way, most of us feel a similar need to get away from ecclesiastical quarrels and look for something different.

It maybe apowerful andreal experience, like our longing for hills and fields, but when the relief is past, there is an immense tension pulling us back to the familiar home. If this is just the equivalent of patriotism, it is not enough, for patriotism was the father of the worst of the Reformation. The tension we feel is that of familiar things: stories in Sunday School, good friends, good hymns, a faithful parent or grandparent, sermons and services that have moved us, all the make-up of our lives. These familiar things catch us and pull us back, and may make up a good proportion of our traditionalism; but I hope not all, because our faith is not a purely English faith, but an English version of a faith for all humanity.

Long ago, after a continuous four-and-a-half years in Asia, serving in wild places with Hindu troops, with no Christian services or chaplain, I lost any habit of attending church. Then at last, I was posted to a town where some British troops were stationed. One evening I passed an Anglican church, and heard the strains of “The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’ The force of my feelings carried me back to worship.

Dragged in two directions

Worship is not specifically English or American or Italian; but as Pope Benedict has now acknowledged it is sufficiently national to justify a certain Englishness about our worship. This has to be limited, otherwise we are in the position of our American Episcopal cousins, steaming away from the rest of the fleet to the rocks. Anyway, this Englishness is not what holds us back from full communion with Rome, except in so far as Rome wants us to acknowledge that it has taken us into errors in the past. In other words, we return to the old sticking place, the validity of orders.

While this barrier may prove insuperable, the substantial gleam of hope means that we are dragged in two directions as once Luther was dragged. Here at the moment we stand like Luther, and can do no other. It is not a comfortable state, but, to revert to the nautical metaphor, explorers are seldom comfortable -just very much alive.

What is certain is that liberal Anglicans will be unwilling to transfer. They may see this new situation as a blessed opportunity to be rid of us, or they may be prodded into an awareness of our importance to them. I just hope that no one will use the word ‘conversion’; because that at least is not an issue.