St. Thomas More, Severance, and “God’s First”

Introducing my new column by way of A Man for All Seasons, a recent and extraordinary trip to England, and a new Apple+ show.


Welcome to the maiden voyage of God’s First, where I will endeavor to share regular commentary on the Church and the world from my vantage point as a former Anglican cleric and current movie-watcher, Europhile, adopted Texan, husband, dad, wine-bibber, and late Gen-X conservative-ish inquisitor.

In all seriousness, I pray this column will be edifying for me to write and for you to read.

“God’s first” is the end of the famous quip from the patron saint of this column, one of my heroes, Thomas More: “I die his majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” Or anyway, that’s the way Robert Bolt wrote it for Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons. More’s life, epitomized by his parting words, resonates with me for so many reasons. As the greatest English statesman and humanist of his age, More’s faith was anything but escapist and his temperament anything but rigidly doctrinaire. He was a wise man of the world, who had his dream job (until he didn’t), and his Catholic faith rested on what his countryman John Henry Newman would later immortalize on the cusp of modernity – namely, the priority of a well-formed conscience. There was no such thing as a split between his private religious identity and public workplace persona. More was willing to lose his head to maintain his one integrated self, and when it came right down to it, he knew what he was about, come what may: God’s first.

“God’s first” has been particularly on my mind in the aftermath of a life-changing trip to England that I recently had the privilege to take. I was accompanying my then-boss, Bishop Robert Barron of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries (more anon), and along with various others, we planted a new flag for the Kingdom of Heaven in old London. I had not been back since I lived there in 2003-2004, when I was very much an Anglican, and very much a young Romantic; so part of me was a little worried that my impressions of Blighty would be a little disappointing through the steely convert eyes I have today. Not so.

Bishop Barron celebrated and preached at Westminster Cathedral, gave a speech on the terrace at the Houses of Parliament, re-enacted the Beatles’ walk across Abbey Road, and toured the National Gallery with me and a band of other staffers in tow; but the most impressive event of all was a private visit to St. Thomas More’s cell at the Tower of London, where the lusty tyrant Henry VIII sent his Chancellor in 1534 upon the occasion of his refusal to swear allegiance to the Act of Succession, which effectively abolished Catholicism in the realm for over two hundred years. In More’s cell – the very place where I stood – he responded to his fate by writing A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, which is something of a fictitious pre-amble to the profound quip he uttered before lowering his neck to the chopping block.

After eight extraordinary days in London that felt more like a retreat than work, it was time to come home, and as a parting gift, my friends at Catholic Voices U.K. gave us beautiful prayer cards with – mirabile dictu! – an image of More and “God’s First” emblazoned at the top. I keep mine in my Daily Office book and I look at it twice a day to keep my priorities straight.

But let me back up.

Something else was happening in me during this inspirational England trip that explains why I am here now, writing to you at Catholic World Report instead of Word on Fire. You see, shortly before the trip, I was presented with a dilemma – a matter that taxed my conscience, although not on anything like the scale More faced. I don’t want to get into either the micro or macro here, but it ultimately came down to this: uproot my family northbound or move on from the ministry more or less immediately. These things happen, and no sour grapes here; but it was a tough situation, and for a variety of reasons, it was right to call it a day at Word on Fire and step out into unknown waters, which so far have been perfectly hospitable, thanks be to God.

Anyway, for each of eight nights in a luxurious hotel on the South Bank of the Thames, weary from miles of walking to and from deeply enriching experiences during the day, I was feeling a little blue about my future. Maybe in time my agony will turn out to be the strongest theme in my “God’s first” London symphony, but right now it’s a little bit of a jarring refrain, but perhaps one that may resonate with you, dear readers, in your own joy and sorrow.

Well, as I boarded the plane for London and my last hurrah at Word on Fire began, I turned my mind to the mundane matter of what my in-flight entertainment options would be, even though – I know – I already had every option I could ever want in the little device I carried in my back pocket. Nonetheless, I settled down and starting pawing at the insensitive touchscreen to little effect, when I finally discovered the Apple+ show Severance, which I had been meaning to watch for months, but finally decided to dive into, probably because of the proximity of its name to my upcoming post-employment arrangements. I watched the three episodes available to me in the air, and then over the next few nights in my fancy bed, I burned through the rest with great interest. In the end, I discovered a strong “God’s first” theme that brought me once again to More.

Severance has drawn a lot of attention from people interested in metaphysics, psychology, futurism, and post-humanism but it’s really just good-old fashioned sci-fi. I expect one day there will be a book in the bargain rack at Barnes and Noble filled with contributions by PhDs that finally get around to the analysis already happening on YouTube by “amateurs,” who pick apart the episodes and break down the philosophical and theological themes. Consider this my contribution to the discussion, especially as I fear the show may one day go the way of Lost and I will lose all interest. Anyway, for my part, the first and still only season of the show spoke to me in my own turmoil about my identity as it relates to my work.

Here’s the premise:

A mysterious cult-like corporation pioneers a neurological implant that creates a professional consciousness (“innie”) that is split from a personal one (“outie”). As they enter their workspace, employees’ minds are emptied of all memory of their lives outside the office. When they leave the premises, they have no knowledge of what they have done on the clock for eight hours. While at work, Lumon workers are kept in small, spaced-out departments where they do not understand the significance of the tasks they perform, and their success at completion earns them bonus compensation such as novelty finger traps to play with, caricatures of themselves etched into glass paperweights, and the grand prize: waffle parties. (I’m told this sort of cluelessness about work assignments and strange joy from job-specific rewards are not far off the mark of an actual corporate office today, without the brain surgery. By God’s grace, I have not yet had such a job.)

The main character, Mark, played by Adam Scott, has given up his university teaching position and chosen to be severed after his wife’s untimely death. Working at Lumon cuts his daily grief time down by a third; but off the clock, Mark often drinks alone and begrudgingly spends time with his sister, Devon, and her husband Ricken Hale, a character that piqued my interest. Having flamed out of a journalism career, Ricken has re-invented himself as a self-help guru specializing in the way people think about themselves and their jobs. Ricken and Devon host gatherings of off-kilter people, and Ricken often presses Mark about why he chose to alter his brain.

He is proud to give Mark a copy of his latest book, The You You Are, which makes its way into Lumon headquarters, and Mark (whose “innie” has no idea he knows Ricken) sneaks away to read and commit the text to memory. Unbeknownst to Mark, his co-workers abscond with the book on their breaks too. Among the facile aphorisms that have a deep resonance with their brain-damaged readers, one of them sticks hard in Mark’s brain: “You think you need your job, but…your job needs you. Not the other way around.” Thomas More may have agreed. (He would not, however, have cared much for one of Ricken’s other gems: “They cannot crucify you if your hand is in a fist.” A stopped clock is right twice a day, etc…)

I have enjoyed every job I have had, from my first part-time teenage gig scooping ice cream at Sea World to writing full-time for a premier Catholic apostolate. I have never had to try too hard to maintain one integrated self – indeed, it was all a bit too integrated when I was an Episcopal priest, and the lines between work and everything else were almost non-existent. And yet, when Mark reads Ricken’s trite platitude and becomes emotional, I totally get it.

Although I’ve loved all the work I’ve done in my life, I have also felt a sense of freedom when the moment came to move on. Inevitably, I had become a self that pertained to that position at that time – a self that mostly unconsciously adapted certain mannerisms and speech patterns, assumed positions of dominance in some areas and subservience in others, censored himself in some ways and was effusive in others. And as a lifelong Christian, these awakenings that have happened in times of transition have often given me new insights into what St. Thomas More declared at the moment of his most mysterious and glorious transition of all – the moment he was about to become his truest self.

God’s first. That’s where I am these days.

So, welcome to this regular new adventure into a humane examination of ourselves, our world, and our faith. St. Thomas More, pray for us!

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About Andrew Petiprin 6 Articles
Andrew Petiprin is a former Episcopal priest, and is the author of the book Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself. He came into full communion with the Catholic Church with his wife and children on January 1, 2019. Andrew is a lifelong Christian, was a Marshall Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford from 2001-2003, and was a Fellow at the Word on Fire Institute for several years. Andrew and his family live in Plano, Texas.


  1. After More’s head fell, the rest of the progressive fallout included such as this:

    “…and in England six hundred and thirteen Monasteries were suppressed at the epoch of the Reformation [footnote], in addition to ninety Colleges under the are of the Religious–one hundred and ten Hospitals and two thousand three hundred and seventy-four Charities shared the fate of the Monasteries [footnote]–(“Leicester Ambrose Buckingham, “The Bible in the Middle Ages,” London, 1853).

  2. Really Mr. Petiprin?? You just dive right in with writing? Yet you tell us you are a “former Anglican cleric” but then tell us NOTHING about what brought you to the church?? We want to know!! In fact, those are my favorite kinds of stories to read. My MOST favorite is the book “Rome Sweet Home” written by former protestant theologian Scott Hahn, about his own conversion to Catholicism.I am sure I speak for many when I say we really would like you to share your story. I am in the odd position of being a life-long Catholic, but went AWOL for many years following the unexpected death of a loved one. Have been happily returned for 5 years.

    Enjoyed your article here. Looking forward to seeing more.

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