Converting England with two buns and a banana

I found on a shelf a yellowing and stippled volume inherited from the library of my old friend Gerry Brine. It is a “recollection” by the founder of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, published in 1928. Gerry was a lifelong “Ransomer”; the guild provided devotional, cultural and social enrichment for him. But like so many similar Catholic guilds, it is now moribund.

Fr Philip Fletcher’s book sets out the objectives with which he founded the guild in 1879: “To revive old Catholic customs in England such as pilgrimages and processions of Our Lady; to keep the memory of our martyrs ever before our people and to promote devotion to these glorious heroes; to urge Catholicism in sermons and addresses; to pray for the conversion of England.”

The guild’s name derives from a medieval order whose members used to beg alms to ransom those enslaved by Islam. If they couldn’t raise the money they would offer themselves in place of the captives. Fr Fletcher’s guild desired to rescue souls in danger of heresy or apostasy, or forgotten in purgatory.

Fr Fletcher’s zeal for the conversion of England owed its energy to the fact that he had previously been an Anglican who, after a brilliant Oxford career, took orders in the Church of England. Like John Henry Newman and many other Tractarians, he was once convinced of the catholicity of the Church of England, but eventually saw that this putative catholicity of a faction of Anglicans itself impelled itself towards a unity which could never be realised collectively but only individually.

For Fletcher, the idea that “what we have in common is greater than what divides us” cannot surmount an essential obstacle. He says starkly that the would-be Catholic faces the same choice as did John Fisher and Thomas More, that is: “The choice between Caesar, the Monarch of England and the Vicar of Christ. For the Royal Supremacy, in all causes ecclesiastical as well as civil, is a patent fact to those who dispassionately study the Anglican Church.” That Church’s final court of appeal is not the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops or the synod, but the Crown.

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