It is perhaps by spirit of provocation that I adopt the title Northern Catholicism which is the title of a book published in 1933, Northern Catholicism, centenary studies in the Oxford and parallel movements, edited by N.P. Williams and Charles Harris, London SPCK. The book did not go without criticism, whether from Roman Catholics or Anglicans of the Anglo-Papalist tendency like Dom Gregory Dix.
I have already written two articles on this theme:
Since coming to live on the European Continent in 1982, I have seen many very interesting manifestations of Catholic revival in Europe’s Churches of the Reformation. I was impressed on visiting a Lutheran church near Dortmund in northern Germany, and finding that it was a pre-reformation church with medieval statues, a stone altar in its original place, and even a Sacramentshaus with a depiction of a medieval Mass on its tabernacle door. In Switzerland, I visited Zwinglian and Calvinist churches in the French and German speaking parts – and found stone altars, stained glass windows, icons and sober statues of the Mother of God and the Saints. These additions to those Reformation churches dated mostly from the 1930’s and 40’s. The community of Taizé in France is a Catholic-revival Protestant initiative and has had a key role to play in the World Council of Churches and the Ecumenical Movement.
In all this, I could discern not only a restoration of Catholic practices in Protestant churches, but also a rediscovery of many aspects of medieval Catholic Christianity that survived especially in the Lutheran and Anglican traditions. Added to that is the Old Catholic tradition with its roots in Conciliarism, Jansenism and the Dutch Church, and its survival to our days in the Union of Scranton and the Polish National Catholic Church in the USA and its growing diaspora.
Northern Catholicism is a Catholicism which is neither Roman nor Byzantine, non-Papal and western in its outlook and temperament. At the same time, it seeks to promote Christian unity via a renewal of ecclesiology in the Roman and Byzantine Churches. In much of the twentieth century, under the aegis of the ecumenical movement, the “high church” movements in most European Protestant communities paralleled that of Anglicanism.
Many things have changed since 1933 and ecumenism has been confused with syncretism and indifferentism, with liberalism and the reduction of each Church to a lowest common denominator. Such tendencies have caused traditionalist reactions and an appeal to the old Roman Catholic status quo of saying that the only way for schismatics and heretics is conversion to the true Church. Everything that was good and true in the old movement needs to be rediscovered and revived, like the spirit of the French and German liturgical movement up to World War II.
I have lived in southern France and Italy. The Latin world has its charm, and there are many cultural treasures in those countries. My wife and I went to Venice for our honeymoon – and we went on boat trips on the Vaporetto and visited churches and monasteries. The less touristy places were conducive to quiet contemplation and a few moments of prayer in the midst of baroque treasures. In my seminary in the Tuscany hills in the old Villa Martelli near Florence and Pontassieve, I bathed in the spirit of the Italian baroque. We often went to Rome, and once a year, we had Mass in honour of a miracle by St Philip Neri in the Massimo family chapel opposite San Andrea della Valle. There was something profoundly masculine and wholesome about the Counter-Reformation in its love of art, culture, literature, philosophy and science. But we northerners remain northern. We can never be really part of that Italian culture we admire.
Something I have always felt in myself, as a convert to Roman Catholicism for a little over fifteen years, is that I was never really rooted in that Church. However much I tried to convince myself that I was simply assenting to the Truth and sacrificing my own fickle tastes, something simply would not move. I cannot ascribe that purely to my ethnical origins, because many northern Englishmen make very good and convinced Roman Catholics, as do Norwegians, Germans and Scotsmen. But there is definitely a temperament that is fundamentally incompatible with the mind of the Roman Catholic Church. I am not alone, and it is certainly something that explained the difficulties Blessed John Henry Newman had as a convert to Rome in spite of the “cushy” option he had as an Oratorian. In terms of thought, the northern temperament would be characteristic of the Ressourcement theologians of northern France and Germany like Bouyer, De Lubac and Ratzinger.
In purely religious terms, our temperament favours the primacy of Tradition and intrinsic truth over authority and magisterium. We tend not to go overboard with exuberant devotions and shows of piety. We enter our rooms and close the door, so that others may not know the degree of our prayer or spiritual intimacy with Christ. I am one who prefers a few days in the guest house of a monastery to a pilgrimage to Fatima or Lourdes. I have been to the grotto of Lourdes to pray for the sick and spiritual healing, but I felt a stranger among people I failed to understand.
In the book Northern Catholicism, written at exactly the time when Hitler rose to power in Germany, I read:
The normal attitude of the free Northern races towards executive authority and its depositaries is respectful, but always potentially, and often actually, critical. The self-abasement towards an absolute despot which is natural to Orientals is not congenial to them.
I laugh and weep on reading this, and then on watching the old film footage from Nuremberg to Nuremberg, from the zillion-fold Seig Heils of hypnotised Germans worshipping their evil Führer, to the piles of emaciated corpses in Auschwitz, the flattened and devastated European cities and the tears of every family over their lost loved ones! Perhaps this little epithet might apply to General von Witzleben, Stauffenburg and the hundreds of other heroes who tried to wrench their beloved Germany back from this Antichrist! The greatest fallacy of any ethnical movement is to assume we are all the same. At the same time, I cannot apply the principle falsus in uno falsus in omnibus. There is a valid concept of Northern Catholicism, but it must be discovered and discussed with discernment.
Certainly we English tend to take things less at face value and we appreciate credentials and evidence. We are critical and detest the idea of intrinsic infallibility being attributed to one man – and particularly since the end of World War II. But these are notions we cannot push beyond the masses of English people worshipping pop celebrities and dumbed by television and commercial advertising!
I have to admit that this category Northern is one of convenience, as all names and categories are imperfect. The label covers a whole host of concepts that some of us hold dear and believe in with the same fervour as other Christians venerate their loci theologici. In spite of the glaring discrepancies and historical reproaches, there is a quality that I recognise when I find it, that of a mystical and soaring quality in austerity and simplicity. I have always found difficulty with popular and mass religion, though I have prayed sincerely in places like Lourdes and according to forms like the Rosary. I noticed in Roman Catholicism almost a kind of dualism, which weighed on me, a duality between the religion of the people on one side and the religion of priests, scholars and monks on the other.
I have seen real Protestantism, like in the church in Kendal where I was baptised. My sister fell in love with the Evangelical type of Anglicanism and married a Baptist medical student at Leeds University, who is now a general practitioner in the north of England. The whole family is strongly committed to the Baptist community, and I admire their strength of faith and their voluntary work in England and overseas. But that is not me either. When my sister was going to the Curate’s prayer group on Sunday evenings, I was singing Evensong in the other parish. We were in the same Church of England, but on different planets! Who was right and who was wrong? I think neither, because we both perceived the same unique truth in different ways and temperaments.
One thing that strikes me about my own experience of Anglicanism is the difference between the quiet Anglo-Catholicism of the north and the exuberance of London and South Coast Anglo-Papalism. I was ever attracted to the exotic and different, but the simple Prayer Book Catholic parishes were that much more real and dependable. I had never read the Thirty-nine Articles, nor did I know anything about Hooker or the Caroline Divines. I learned more about them as a Roman Catholic student at Fribourg! My way into anything like regular religious practice was through the choir and the organ and the odd book about the Church or a saint or whatever. I was more Anglican after my conversion to Roman Catholicism than before, not through any insincerity or bad intention, but sheer nostalgia and intellectual curiosity. In spite of my contact with the traditionalist world, due to my preference for traditional liturgical forms, I was always interested in the ecumenical movement and the Church’s concern for the Anglicans, the Lutherans and the Orthodox. My favourite composer, J.S. Bach, was a Lutheran. To understand the Lutheran spirit, just follow the Bach Canatas – and use a translation if you don’t read German.
Perhaps Northern Catholicism is something that is within, since it is not shared by all northern people. It is a temperament, and attitude, a spirit, and inspiration that creates all we see around us that is noble and beautiful. It relates to Southern or Latin Catholicism and the extreme austerity of Protestantism in the same way as my sister and I related after our respective Sunday evening prayers in 1976. We did not understand each other, but we worshipped the same God and believed in the same truth. That is the transcendence that alone can bring sinful man together in the Holy Spirit. Perhaps seeing things from that angle is something Northern? Who knows?