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Helping the Spiritually Blind

Antony Tyler and his wife, Mary, live in a beautiful old house in Kemsing, Kent, near the shrine of St. Edith, daughter of one of England’s Saxon kings. Every year, on St. Edith’s feast day, they organize prayers at St. Edith’s Well in the village, followed by Benediction and a traditional English tea in their garden. Kemsing lies on one of the old pilgrim routes to Canterbury, and this whole corner of England is rich in fascinating history.

For the Tylers, this is home after a lifetime of travelling: They met in Australia, at Melbourne University, and spent some years serving with Britain’s Diplomatic Service, including a stint at the British Embassy in Senegal. Antony converted to the Catholic faith in 1985 and has written—under the pen name Antony Matthew—a guide for converts, Pearl of Great Price, aimed specifically at the modern convert functioning in the post-Vatican II Church. He worked for some years with the Department of the Treasury, and later the Department of Education and Employment in London, and retired in 1996, being awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire). In 1991 he and Mary—also by then a convert—founded Fisher Press with the idea of publishing classics of Christendom with authors such as John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Coventry Patmore, and Francis Thompson. Many of the books are illustrated with Mary’s beautiful pen-and-ink sketches. All are of unusual charm, the aim of Fisher Press being to produce “paperback books of hardback quality.”

If living in a quiet English village and publishing pleasant books sounds like a program for quiet serenity, then a few moments spent chatting to the Tylers swiftly dispels that impression. One is instantly conscious of a tremendous sense of energy—there are projects on the go, another scheme under way, things to be done. Antony succeeded Catholic novelist Piers Paul Read as master of the Catholic Writers’ Guild, and under his leadership the guild took on the challenge of rescuing London’s Catholic Central Library, which had been due for closure. At the specific request of Basil Cardinal Hume, then archbishop of Westminster, a team was formed to work out a future for this unique collection of books and materials that might otherwise have been lost to history. As we sit in a noisy coffeeshop in London’s busy Holborn neighborhood, traffic roaring past outside, Antony is full of news about the progress of the project, which has involved a number of people, including fellow converts such as former government minister John Gummer, MP, and Catholic writers and broadcasters such as Lord (David) Alton. Another project on the go is the annual Festival of Catholic Culture at Westminster Cathedral Hall—Antony was one of the founding team that initiated the venture, and Fisher Press always runs a successful bookstall at the event. The annual weekend conference of the writers’ guild is also a topic of conversation—this year’s was at Downside and followed successful ventures at Winchester, Canterbury, and the Isle of Wight, among other places, and now there are plans to take the group to France.

Was conversion to the Catholic faith a sudden thing, or did it emerge after years of thought and discussion?

Conversion to Catholicism brought, he says, a widening of his outlook, a sense of fulfilment and a recognition of the importance of seeing the whole of life as being of significance to God. “The Church’s message is also about loyalty, about steadfastness, not moving swiftly on to the next fad but holding on to what is true—and that’s not a message you really get from modern society,” he grins. “I also began to understand—and this is something that has grown—how wrong it is to see the Church as a sect, or to get fanatical about one.aspect of things, such as the liturgy. There is a richness, a depth, a width, in the Catholic faith. It’s open, it is meant for everyone. That’s why, too, we need—and perhaps this is especially important for converts, who may have arrived after some years of struggle and difficulty in various fields—to foster a sense of real love for the Church and not just to see things in terms of lobbying bishops about this or that, or always murmuring that something is unsatisfactory.

“Curiously, what one finds in exploring Catholicism—during that conversion experience, which can be quite long and drawn-out and involve much questioning—is the Church’s openness, the width and breadth of the Catholic faith. I discovered that Catholicism is not narrow—it’s extraordinarily wide. That makes it very welcoming, very attractive—and also very intellectually satisfying. It’s absolutely not just a narrow set of ideas or statements that you have to accept. It’s a whole vision of life, and within it there are so many different strands, so many different ways of looking at things, that it has given rise to a whole magnificent culture, including, of course, the great range of Christian literature and art.

“This is something that Catholics do need to keep in mind, because it’s an.aspect of the Church that is often not seen or is ignored or even misrepresented. The convert is not looking to join some sort of club or lobby group. He is seeking truth—and he is also seeking to discover this great institution, the Catholic Church, which has played so large a role in history.

“I had had this sense for many years that I was in the wrong branch of Christianity. The Anglican church in which I had been brought up seemed to me an inadequate response to the greatness of the Christian calling. In making the decision about the Catholic faith, I was helped by a number of people, both Catholic and Anglican, who encouraged me to think more about religion.”

In particular, in his journey to the Church, he was helped by Fr. Hugh Thwaites, S.J., a priest who has played a part in many converts’ lives. Thwaites is himself a convert whose remarkable life has included a period as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese followed by many years’ service as a Jesuit in London and elsewhere, running an international students’ hostel and working in different parishes and with youth projects and the Legion of Mary. “He taught me a lot about the faith, especially about our Lady, and was always ready to answer questions.”

Becoming a Catholic meant making a general confession. “I had already been baptized as a child, in the Anglican church—so there was no question of that needing to be done again. But of course there was this matter of going to confession: It was a very moving experience, even a tearful one. It’s something very profound—and that is as it should be: It’s hardly something that can be taken lightly.”

In Tyler’s case his local Anglican minister was helpful and sympathetic—and some while later found his own way home to the Catholic Church. Tyler was the minister’s sponsor at his reception ceremony and was thrilled when he later went on to become a Catholic priest. By that time the Tylers—Mary followed Antony into the Catholic Church some while after his conversion—had founded Fisher Press and were becoming deeply involved in the world of publishing. The name of the press is Tyler’s own tribute to a hero of the Catholic faith.

“Bishop John Fisher was the bishop of this diocese [Southwark—the area stretching from the southern suburbs of London down to the English Channel coast in Kent], and he was martyred under Henry VIII for his refusal to accept the dissolution of the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and to recognize his second marriage to Anne Boleyn. He was a great scholarly figure, and as I live in what was once his diocese, it seemed an appropriate name. And, of course, because of the Gospel ‘fishers of men’—there is an element of apostolate in the work we do.”

Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were great influences during his conversion to the Church—and provided an alternative vision of Catholicism to any narrow and Jansenistic version of the faith that can sometimes be presented. It was this large and attractive vision of Catholicism—its joy, its richness, its culture, its sense of welcome—that prompted him to go into publishing. “Much of this has been neglected. Catholicism involved the whole of life—it’s not just going to Mass. It is challenging and demanding and also very splendid. There’s no substitute, in my view, for offering some of the great literature—it is the key to so much.”

Current publishing projects include a life of Pope Leo XII—”a much neglected figure, early nineteenth century. He succeeded a very popular pope and has often been regarded as a very strict and austere figure. But it was he who changed things in Rome—helped the poor people, stopped having expensive reserved seats at Masses, banned exploitative schemes of money-lending that brought people into debt, inspired a revival of morals after a very lax period, and instituted a magnificent Papal Jubilee Year, which everyone said would be a great flop but was a massive success and gave a whole new joyful impetus to the life of the Church.”

Antony’s enthusiasm is infectious. As we finish our talk, we have to hurry because the Catholic Writers’ Guild meeting is at St. Etheldreda’s, just down the road. He is no longer master, having handed over to a fresh team, but is still a very active member and enthusing about the forthcoming program. The guild, founded by staff on GK’s Weekly back in the 1930s, is proud of its history and conscious of the need for Catholics to be active in the media at many levels. Its talks, conferences, social events, and Masses bring together Catholics from different fields, and there is a specific need to involve young people. Its annual Catholic Young Writer of the Year Award seems to be one way of doing this. We’re still chatting away about this as we set off. It will be late tonight when Antony catches the last train out from Charing Cross to rural Kent. The next days bring a meeting at the oratory school—founded by John Henry Newman and still thriving, Antony is one of the governors—and also at Farnborough Abbey, where the new Catholic library is to be based. But Kemsing will still be waiting. “St. Edith is patron saint of the blind—did you know that? Also of the spiritually blind, helping people to open their eyes to God. I like that idea.”

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