In a book-lined room in Oxford, England, Connie Oddie pours tea and serves homemade scones and jam. A small grandson giggles at cartoons on the TV. Other family members drift in, attracted by the tea tray. William Oddie—Chestertonian in size and geniality—sinks into what is evidently a favorite armchair by the window. It’s a cheery (and very English) scene.
I have come to talk to William about his conversion to Catholicism, an event that made headlines in the 1990s. That decade would see the ordination of women priests in the Anglican Communion and the conversion to Rome of five Anglican bishops, several prominent members of Parliament, a number of parish clergy, and a couple members of the royal family.
It’s history now, but the effects are still with us: The decline in Anglican church attendance and influence has continued. Meanwhile, the massive British media coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI prompted some commentators to ask, “Are we now supposed to be a Catholic country?”
Oddie was brought up in a family with no religious beliefs, but he was sent to a Congregationalist boarding school that had lengthy morning and evening prayers with Scripture readings. “It was all rather austere, and I hated it,” he said. “I gave them a lot of trouble. But something must have gone in, after all, because I acquired a huge knowledge of the Bible—great chunks of it. It becomes part of your mental furniture, and it stays with you. But at the time I didn’t believe a word of it. Or I thought I didn’t.”
Faith Was Everywhere
An adult religious awakening came while studying at Trinity College, Dublin, in the 1960s in what was then still a very Catholic Ireland.
“I found myself in the middle of a believing population. It was simply part of life. You’d be on a bus and everyone would suddenly cross themselves because they were passing a Catholic church. I asked a lady about it, and she explained that it was because of the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. No one crossed themselves when passing a Methodist church because the Real Presence wasn’t there.
“I discovered something very important: a faith that wasn’t just for the middle classes. I remember being in a pub down by the docks, full of working men drinking and talking. When the Angelus came on the TV, all the beer-mugs went down and everyone bowed their heads for the prayer. Then afterwards all the lively talk began again. For them, faith and prayer were simply normal, part of the very fabric of things. I suddenly realized that these people had something I didn’t have, something truly worthwhile. But at that stage I simply didn’t believe in the existence of God.”
Oddie’s religious experience took shape as he discovered the beauty of England’s old churches—all of which, of course, belonged to the Church of England.
“When I met Connie—she had been baptized as a Catholic but had no religion—we knew exactly where we wanted to get married: a beautiful little 800-year-old country church that we had come to love. The vicar told us that we must attend Sunday services at least to hear the banns read. So we started to attend together and came to love the traditional service of Matins, which, as I later came to discover, is based entirely on the traditional Catholic Office of Readings, in the breviary that every Catholic priest prays every day.
“That vicar was a former Army chaplain, a man of real faith. In a way, he was not unlike a medieval parson, the natural leader of the village community. If there was a fight in the pub on a Saturday night, he’d be asked along to break it up, and he was the person everyone went to when they were in distress or trouble. He preached exceptionally well. One sermon on the Resurrection is with me still.”
It’s Your Church
“As time went on, churchgoing became a regular part of our lives, and one Sunday—this was in the parish where we had settled as a married couple—the vicar asked us why we never took Communion. I explained that we were not confirmed, and in any case were unsure of our real beliefs, so he told us we should get involved. We should embark on confirmation and learn the faith.
“In a way, that was how I received a theology of Church: You are a member of the Church and you accept its authority. I understood that you had to join, accept the truths, and learn from the inside. As we studied the faith, working our way through the Creed, we found there was nothing we rejected. It all fitted together.
“In London I discovered the Grosvenor Chapel. That was my introduction to High Church Anglicanism. I found a High Mass, a priest genuflecting with altar servers attending on either side, evidently believing that what he held in his hands at the moment of the elevation was so sacred, so awesome, that he was virtually staggering beneath the reality of it.”
The High Church tradition into which Oddie later would be ordained was one in which the Real Presence was a core belief, clergy wore cassocks and birettas, there was great devotion to Mary, and the whole idea was to be a sort of “fifth column” in the Anglican communion that gradually would spread its message and unite the whole body to Rome.
“We really believed this, and it was central to our whole way of seeing things,” he explained. “And there was a tremendous spirit of vigor, crusading, and fervor. Every year we’d join together at Walsingham [England’s ancient pre-Reformation shrine, revived in the twentieth century and now welcoming large numbers of pilgrims every year], and the extreme Protestants (many from Northern Ireland) would come to heckle us, holding up large placards accusing us of b.asphemy. We relished every moment.
“Quite simply, we didn’t recognize the Reformation,” he said. “We used to quote ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ and see the English church as always and irrevocably bound to Rome. Many of us used the Roman missal, and we all looked to Rome for leadership and teachings. We did not believe that the Church of England was, or should ever be, separate in any way.”
By now Oddie was becoming well-known as a writer. Although he did not reveal his High Church commitment to all readers, he became a champion of Christian orthodoxy, writing for the Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s major national newspapers.
“At that time, most of the senior staffers were devout church-going Anglicans, as were huge numbers of readers,” he said. “There was tremendous concern and distress at the unraveling of much Christian belief with the inroads of modernism. I remember I wrote a lead article about the real meaning of Easter, lamenting that many Anglican bishops didn’t seem to believe in the literal truth of the Resurrection. It was published on Maundy [Holy] Thursday—in those days the paper wasn’t published on Good Friday—and that weekend we got a huge mailbag of support. The editor was really pleased.”
Throughout the 1980s, Oddie promoted Christian orthodoxy, lecturing several times in tours across America, writing books, and tackling in particular the emerging issue of Christian feminism.
“It’s amazing how quickly it all came up. Hurtling across the strong and thriving High Church trend came this rush toward women’s ordination,” he said. It struck the High Church movement at its core: the reality of priestly identity.
For Oddie, there came a moment one day when he suddenly wondered whether the Eucharist is truly Christ, and the thought came to him that if it is not, then all that he was doing was somehow a mockery.
He went to see a friend, a former Anglican who had become a Catholic priest, who told him wryly, “Well, you’ve taken your time about it!” The Oddies had by now three children in their teens and early twenties and were anxious to tackle this matter as a family. All the children had been raised with Catholic practices—going to confession, taking Communion seriously, following the feasts and seasons of the liturgical calendar with dedication. All were received together into the Catholic Church at Easter 1991.
“There was a police band for the Easter Mass that year,” Oddie recalled, “and as they played I found myself thinking about that line from Pilgrim’s Progress: ‘So he crossed over and all the trumpets sounded on the other side.’”
Without a Doubt
He never had a moment’s doubt or regret about becoming a Catholic. “I got some letters from extreme Protestants saying I would be damned and go to hell, but I also received a lot of wonderfully welcoming mail. Of course among High Anglicans, it was all very friendly. We had been attending the celebrations of friends who had become Catholic for years. It was quite normal for a group to go along from the Anglican parish to the ceremony when someone was received as a Catholic, and there’d be friendly talk and chat with people saying, ‘You’ll be next!’ and so on.”
He had written to the Anglican bishop of Oxford to explain his position, and the bishop issued a press statement saying that Oddie was “moving into another room in the same house.”
“But when I went to see him, I told him that was simply untrue. The truth was that I had been camping out in a garden shed, some distance from the main house, and one night when the rain was pouring in and the roof leaking, I went to the main house and begged for some shelter. And they opened the door and said, ‘But of course! A room has always been ready and prepared for you. Welcome home!’ That was the reality.”
With no full-time job and his writing career as an Anglican at an end, Oddie became a freelance writer, specializing in topics concerning the protection of marriage and the family, issues on which he and Connie became vigorous campaigners. In due course, he was appointed editor of the Catholic Herald, Britain’s leading Catholic publication, which he headed for several years. He is now busy with more books and appears frequently in the media, especially on issues relating to the ordination of women or debates about doctrinal orthodoxy.
“When I became a Catholic, a feminist group called the Catholic Women’s Network published a statement in their newsletter saying I should never have been allowed into the Church,” he said, evidently enjoying the memory. He is now a fixture on the Catholic scene. He even played a minor role in the campaign to honor Pope John Paul II as “John Paul the Great.” He published a collection of essays under that title from leading Catholic writers on the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul’s accession.
As we negotiated Oxford’s notoriously horrible traffic on way back to the station, Oddie continued speaking eagerly in the swift, almost breathless prose that has become familiar to TV watchers of religious debates. Talk turned to the current state of the Church in Britain (fairly grim—falling Mass attendances, poor liturgy, inadequate response to the legalization of homosexual civil unions and to Terri Schiavo–style killings in hospitals). John Paul inspired the young and members of new movements, but now some consolidation is needed to see results. Much hope will be placed in Pope Benedict XVI.
He spoke about being part of a universal Church: “It’s not a federal collection of local churches. No former Anglican wants that. We have seen that it doesn’t work, that it cannot have been God’s plan.”
“Did you ever find the idea of the papacy a difficulty once you were a Catholic—obedience, order, discipline?” I asked.
“Good heavens, no! It’s exactly what we came over for! It’s what we wanted!”