Clandestine closets and hidden passageways are the stuff of legend in English castles and country homes. But the two "priest holes" at Ingatestone Hall, the Petre family's 470-year-old manor house outside London, are special. They vividly recall the days when Roman Catholics were forced undercover during the English Reformation. One hideout, just 25 inches wide and built into a stairway, was big enough to conceal a priest. The other, much smaller and built into a bookcase, was probably a surreptitious tabernacle in which miniaturized chalices and other priestly instruments could be hidden. On Sundays and feast days, scores of Recusant (meaning hidden) Catholics would arrive from the nearby village for secret masses.
Priest hideaways evoke a terrible chapter in Catholic life in 16th- and 17th-century England. Hundreds of Englishmen and -women on the wrong side of a religious divide were executed by the crown, murdered or tortured to death. The Petre family was itself swept up in the recrimination of the time. The fourth Lord Petre died in the Tower of London, having been accused of complicity in the fictitious but widely believed "Popish Plot" to assassinate King Charles II in 1678.
But there is no need for Catholics to worship in the shadows these days. Catholic history may be hidden, but not Catholics. At Ingatestone, they walk casually past the hall on their way to mass at St. John the Evangelist and St. Erconwald Catholic Church. "We feel lucky because Catholicism is a belief so firmly rooted in the history of this area," said Anne Holmes as she put out tarts and breads to sell in the church parking lot after the Palm Sunday service. "We're not so frightened to say we're Catholic anymore."
It is a historic change. When Hugo Young, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, was the student of Benedictine monks in the 1950s, the "formative message" from his teachers was that he was "an outsider," he says. No longer. In a country where entire centuries were shaped by wars and rivalries between Catholics who followed the pope and Anglicans who followed the crown, Catholics have reassumed their natural place of importance. In the past decade in particular, many prominent Britons, including close relatives of the queen, converted to Catholicism. Catholics head two of Britain's three main political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Tony Blair is an Anglican, but he attends mass with his Catholic wife and their four Catholic children. At great newspapers and distinguished universities that once shunned "papists," Catholics hold positions of power. The queen herself, the titular head of the Church of England, was so taken with Catholic Cardinal Basil Hume, who died in 1999, that she called him "my cardinal." "Catholics have become full partners in grown-up British life, and not just members of some sect," says Charles Moore, a Catholic convert who is the editor of the Daily Telegraph, the country's biggest non-tabloid daily newspaper.
In purely religious terms, Catholicism has begun to outshine the established national church, the Church of England. Even though Anglican Britons outnumber Catholics four to one, there are many more Catholics in church on any given Sunday. A wave of Anglican conversions during the 1990s suggests that Catholicism is benefiting in Britain from the very same doctrinal uniformity that has caused it problems in other parts of the world. Some critics of the modernized Church of England argue that its "broad church" approach to religion has left many of its adherents yearning for tradition.
If Anglicanism is "the Catholic Church in England," as T. S. Eliot wrote, then many converts seem to prefer the original. John Patten is one of them. He was a cabinet minister in the Thatcher and Major governments. "Sadly," says Lord Patten, "the Anglican Church has lost a following because it has manifested the inability to give clear guidance on spiritual issues. If you ask an Anglican bishop what his view is on something, he will say, 'Well, on the one hand I feel this and on the other hand I feel that.' I say give me a one-handed bishop any day."
Catholicism appealed to many British Anglicans in much the same way. Ann Widdecombe, a feisty Tory MP, also found Catholicism preferable to Anglicanism. She converted in 1993. For her, the "last straw" was the Church of England's decision a year earlier to ordain women priests. "It seemed to me that [the Anglican Church] was always sacrificing faith to fashion, creed to compromise, doctrine to doubt. Well, my view is that the church leads, it doesn't follow."
In the wake of the ordination decision, says a senior Catholic figure, more than 1,000 clergy left the Church of England; about half of them were subsequently ordained as Catholic priests. In addition, he says, 250,000 lay Anglicans left their church, of whom about 150,000 became Catholics. He argues, as some Anglican critics also do, that because of its links to the state, the Church of England is drowning in political correctness: "The more PC the Parliament gets, the more PC the Church of England feels it must be."
If all this sounds like the "re-conversion" of England--a fifth-column subversion of a state that already has an official church--it isn't. Catholics are still a small minority in Britain: 10 percent of the population. (The Anglican community stands at 43 percent, down from 50 percent in the 1970s.) In the decades after the British Empire died a half century ago, millions of immigrants from the former colonies came to Britain, and Britain became an increasingly diverse society in which no single religion was likely to dominate. The Church of England, like the monarchy it was so linked with, also faded.
Reflecting the changing society, "the dominant ethos [of government] is a secular one," says a former Downing Street aide. The Catholic Church has firm positions on gay marriages, contraception, abortion and so forth, but these positions have little bearing on British political life. As the religion writer Clifford Longley says, there is no political "ax-grinding" on wedge issues that the Christian right and conservative politicians have latched onto in America. Blair doesn't govern as a Catholic; nor, for that matter, does he govern as an Anglican, although as prime minister he is invested with the power to choose a new Archbishop of Canterbury this year. In this mix, Catholics became what Dennis Sewell, the author of "Catholics: Britain's Largest Minority," terms "a stealth minority, undetectable by conventional social radar."
What is different, says the former Downing Street aide, is that where "once Catholicism was a minority voice viewed with suspicion, now it is an authentic voice representing a respected constituency." This marks a huge change in British perceptions of Catholicism.
Cardinal Hume presided over the Catholic Church in England and Wales from 1976 until his death. He had at his right hand perhaps the greatest door-to-door Catholicism salesman of his generation. Michael Seed, a charismatic Franciscan, was responsible for most of the high-profile conversions in London in the early 1990s--"Seedlings," as they are called. They included leading figures in the Conservative Party (Ann Widdecombe, John Gummer, and Alan Clark among them) as well as the Duchess of Kent.
And yet, in the end, Catholicism's rebirth in Britain has less to do with personalities than with history. The great impetus behind the Catholic resurgence in Britain is the church's historical closeness to the Church of England. England was a Catholic country for more than 900 years before the Reformation, and this Catholic bedrock hides in plain sight. Catholic monks gave birth to England's great universities. Most of the great cathedrals, including Canterbury and Westminster Abbey, were built by and for Catholics.
Janet Soskice lives this great historical religious pageant every day. She is a theologian, one of seven Catholics who compose a third of the faculty of divinity at Jesus College, Cambridge. There was a time when as a Catholic (and as a woman, for that matter) she would have been excluded from teaching there. Her college was once a monastery; for 400 years it was a convent for Benedictine nuns who worked and prayed and drew beer from a spigot in a niche still visible in one wall, the water being unsafe to drink. Baptized an Anglican in Canada, Soskice turned to Catholicism in large part because of the rich monastic tradition she encountered in the course of her studies. In it, she says, she saw "this storehouse of theological riches, and the possibility of combining a deep commitment to God, to aesthetics and to social action. It made quite an attractive cocktail."
Amid all this change, the Catholic Church faces relentless challenges. A shortage of priests shows no signs of abating. The religious divide that has been lowered in most of Britain continues to afflict Catholics and Protestants alike in Northern Ireland. While secularization has sped acceptance of Catholicism elsewhere in Britain, it may be bad news for institutional religions generally: the number of Britons who say they belong to any religion plummeted from 78 percent in the 1930s to 48 percent in 2000, according to the Catholic weekly The Tablet.
This is nonetheless a momentous time in the history of Catholic Britain. The church, along with other faiths, may get the opportunity to name bishops to the House of Lords (now only the Church of England has that right). Hume's successor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, says his bishops are leaning against this, convinced "our voice [is] freer, more significant and potent outside" the political process. There's also talk of abolishing the Act of Settlement, a 500-year-old law that says the heir to the throne must not be Catholic or married to one. Murphy-O'Connor says it's "ludicrous" that Prince William is free to marry "a Muslim or a Buddhist but not a Catholic." There is even talk of stripping the Church of England of its special constitutional status someday. Murphy-O'Connor would not be so cheeky as to push for disestablishment, but he believes that Anglicans would welcome it: "They'd be as free as we are." It's been a long time since English Catholics have been able to say that. Centuries, in fact.