Summer is here and the tourists are arriving in London. Americans are often a bit disappointed when they find that England isn’t like the World War II movies: there are no clipped voices and trimly-dressed people with formal manners and wry humour. The noise in our towns and cities is of roaring traffic and, especially on summer nights, too often of drunken young people shouting, fighting, and vomiting, with police and medical services arriving. Our reputation in the rest of Europe today tends to be connected with stag nights of astonishing vulgarity and of football hooliganism.
Catholic Americans who come to explore our country’s rich and poignant Catholic history are, on the other hand, usually not disappointed: there is much to see and much to study. There are stories of saints and heroes, from a bishop martyred by the Vikings (St Elphege on the banks of the Thames at Greenwich) to priests tortured in dungeons (St Edmund Campion further along the Thames at the Tower of London). There are churches and cathedrals that have echoed with Christian worship for centuries, and ruined abbeys destroyed under Henry VIII that are now scenes of exquisite and haunting beauty in our countryside.
The history is there to relish, and in lots of ways it is getting easier and easier to discover. There is a lot that is messy and disagreeable about modern Britain, but in terms of hotel accommodation, food, and general creature-comforts, things are more luxurious than they have ever been. Don’t expect formal manners and Afternoon Tea—it’s all a mix of international cuisine plus all-night supermarkets and takeaway pizzas. You may, alas, hunt in vain for traditional fish-and-chips—possible to obtain but now rivalled by Chinese meals, Indian meals, and more.
And there are some myths that Catholics also need to dispel. As one who regularly leads Catholic History walks around London, and who relishes welcoming visitors to share this rich heritage, may I give a few pointers for this summer’s pilgrims?
First: a general point—some Catholics from the U.S. seem to have the idea that the persecution of past centuries is still with us today, and that Britain is a land soaked in the need for bloodstained secrecy with regard to the Catholic Faith. Discussing the Tower of London, an American commented “I guess St Thomas More’s cell is off-limits to any Catholic visitors, right? The authorities don’t want us there?” Well, no. Catholic groups are allowed to have Mass there from time to time. You can fit six or eight people into the room without much difficulty, and more with a bit of care. But regular access for visitors is certainly restricted, for the simple reason that it is a very old part of a very old building in the Tower of London (the Tower itself is a collection of buildings spanning several centuries). Tearing down a wall or two, creating a good staircase, making the necessary arrangements for crowds and for emergency exits in case of fire, would of course destroy St Thomas More’s cell. History is real: old buildings are, well, old. Restricted access in this instance is not anti-Catholicism; it’s simply the reality of an old prison cell.
Similarly, the two kindly American tourists who asked in a low voice “Could you possibly tell us if there is a Catholic church near here?” in a country hotel were surprised to be given information and directions with goodwill to a large church where in due course they joined a good-sized congregation. They laughed at themselves a bit later as they told the story to me, admitting that they had somehow thought that being Catholic was vaguely still a semi-secret thing in England, and then realised that the situation is rather different. Churchgoing in general in Britain is very much a minority thing, but in many (or most?) towns there are more Catholics at church on a Sunday than there are Anglicans or Methodists or Baptists. And our towns have many Catholic Poles, Indians, and Africans among others.
We face many problems in the Catholic Church in Britain, but these days they are largely of our own making. We have too few priests, churches that too often offer poor liturgy with dreadful music, and people who are poorly instructed thanks to decades of confusion on religious education. It is true that we face pressures from outside too: a crude and vulgarised culture, publicly-funded campaigns promoting same-sex “marriage”, systematic campaigns distributing contraceptives to teenagers, and more. But these are problems also faced by Catholics in America, and indeed across the Western world.
Britain’s history has rolled on from the years of persecution under King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. The great Catholic revival of the 19th century gave us gothic architecture – including our Houses of Parliament, a world-famous landmark that owes its style to the Catholic architect Augustus Welby Pugin. It also gave us Catholic bishops and cathedrals, as well as Catholic schools that are now hugely popular and over-subscribed, with parents going to all sorts of lengths to try to get their children into them.
Finally: the fastest-growing religion in Britain is that of the followers of Mohammed. His name is now among the most popular for baby boys born each year. The reality of today’s Britain is not the reality of the black-and-white movies of the middle of the 20th century, or the grim persecution of Catholics in the 16th and 17th. We face a new era with new challenges. When Catholic visitors come, their prayers will help us to face these new challenges with the faith and hope and love that sustained the Church in this land for centuries.