There was no great epiphany which pulled me from the narrow views of my youth. I recall going to my first Catholic service with Johndc, and I have to say I hated the whole thing. It must have been in the early 1970s, and it was one of the new vernacular services. There was kind of rugby scrum for communion, some hymns best passed over in silence (and best sung in it too) and a sermon which in my place would have been clearing your throat. But there was certainly nothing there to cause even the most rabid of my fellow Baptists to protest about. What jarred most for me was the Bible used. The King James has prose of such sonorous beauty that even then it was build into my consciousness. Whatever version that church used, it sounded like addressing the milkman.
So much for my first encounter with the great beast of Babylon. As I began to meet other Catholics I discovered, surprise, that they were just like many Anglicans I knew. Compared with my fellow Baptists, none of them seemed to know their way around the Bible, and the Old Testament was foreign territory to them. I gained myself an entirely undeserved reputation as a Bible scholar by being able to recite large sections of St. Paul’s epistles by heart. Any Baptist would have done the same.
That was the real difference back then. Thanks to my friend dc I met some Catholic clergymen, and they struck me as much like other clergy I had met – a mixed bunch. Good men as they were, they, too, generally lacked the easy familiarity with the Bible I knew from home.
It was only then that it hit me that this was a general difference between the folk I’d grown up with, and the more established churches. We focussed on that Book because our eternal salvation depended on it. But try to get most of us to engage in any conversation about church history before the Reformation, and most of my lot knew nothing.
As an historian of sorts, I’d overcome that defect, but it was a serious one, I came to see. So much of what we argued about had been argued about by men long before us – and our ignorance of that seemed shaming. If the Catholics seemed untutored in the words of Scripture, they seemed better informed about Tradition and its importance.
It seemed to me then, as it has since, that in a way marvellous to behold, Providence had supplied in each what the other wanted. It was back then that I though that far from being the work of Belial as I had been taught, there was something to be said for ecumenism.
I detested, and still do, the idea that we pretend there are no differences; you get nowhere worth going like that. But the idea we have nothing to learn from each other is equally nonsensical. Yes, I know, and I have heard Orthodox and Catholics tell me they have the fullness of the Faith. Aye, well, perhaps so – but not one of the people I ever spoke, or speak to, actually has it in himself, and it seems to me we’ve learned from each other – partly by osmosis.