One commentator asked me how I passed beyond the narrowness of the ways of my youth. The honest answer would be that I haven’t. I have probably just exchanged one form of narrowness for another, the last more acceptable to our society. That does not make my last situation necessarily better than my first – however much I would like to assert the opposite.
I somehow managed to get through University without my thoughts on these matters changing. It was a time when Northern Ireland was much in the news. My fellows at University took, as most folk seemed to, a low view of the Protestants, and tended to back the IRA; that would not have helped open me to their views on other matters. The Baptists there were far from such views, and it was then that the mild Methodism of my mother gave way to more rigorous ways; we’d not have anything to do with the Christian Union – crowd of ecumenical traitors to Christ, was, I think, the prevailing view.
Quite how any of that coexisted with research on the early Church I don’t know – it just did. The rather dry theological debates of the fifth century appealed. I recognised in them an urgency which matched what I knew from home, but not from University. For the men of the early Church the exact nature of what to believe was a matter of life and death, as it was for my family and friends; for the Dons these things were ideas to to be pushed around, examined and fitted into their narratives of doubt. There was real life and there was the University; the two things existed like two hypostases; I was the place they met, but with no intermingling.
It was only when I went into teaching that I got to talking to a young man (slightly older than me) who started at my first school on the day I did, that things began to change. We were thrown together, as castaways on the same island tend to be. I needed to find lodgings swiftly, he had found rooms and there were spare ones in the same house, so we shared.
It only struck me when we were having tea one afternoon that this man was a Catholic. I noticed on his bookshelves works by Ronald Knox, as well as what seemed to be a bookcase of things by Chesterton. He also had a collection of the Latin Fathers, and an edition of Newman’s works. Knowing of my interest in the Latin Fathers, he offered me the use of his shelves – an offer I took up.
Inevitably, given our interests, we struck up conversations about our faith, and the radio news of an evening often sparked a discussion, full, as it usually was, of news from Ulster. But my new friend was no zealot, neither was there a trace of bigotry in him. He listened to my rantings, and one evening, after I had said something particularly offensive about idolatry, he asked if I’d read ‘this’ – and handed me a collection of Newman’s writings on the Virgin Mary. I hadn’t, but then I’d never spoken to a Catholic about what they actually held – after all I knew that.
I read the book in an evening. It was not at all what I had imagined. I realised that my new friend had never once challenged my righteous assertions about idols and the like – but he had put me in the way of doing something I had not done – examining my own presuppositions – and prejudices.