Review: Catholics Britain’s Largest Minority by Dennis Sewell



This absorbing and insightful book opens with a provocative anecdote:

When I was sent away to the Jesuits at the age of eight, my paternal grandmother plotted to have me abducted. Family legend has it that her co-conspirator was Great Aunt Mary, a strict Presbyterian with a booming voice and a developed propensity to meddle. The plan was carefully laid. A car and driver were hired. Rooms were taken at a boarding house in Blackpool, where no one would think to look. Once the hue and cry had died down I would be transported to a farm outside Kilmamock to undergo a process of ‘deprogramming’ – though that word was not yet in general circulation in 1965.

I have often asked myself what life might have been like had the scheme not unraveled in farce and had my father’s family succeeded in having me raised in the Protestant tradition. Would I be more thrifty and hard-working? Given to fantalistic pessimism,  glassy-eyed and evangelical. Or, would I,  so many of my generation, have come to regard religion with indifference, even hostility?

For sure, I would have been essentially somebody else, for Catholicism has always been to me an important ingredient of personal identity.

It commands an allegiance that geography cannot.

Indeed. And the book goes on to explore that last idea in depth, as well as the often hostile cultural milieu Catholic experience in countries, like Britain, where that allegiance is, for the most part, not shared.

Here is a volume I would encourage British Catholics to read, at least if their grasp of the recent history of Catholicism in Britain is thin, like mine was prior to reading Sewell’s work.

For although I am English myself, most of my years as a Catholic convert have been spent outside England, living in various parts of once-Catholic Europe.

And yet, for a short while, I returned to England and I found this an excellent overview of British Catholic culture, as it has developed since the Nineteenth Century after the 1829 Catholic Emancipation and the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy.

And if one is a Catholic in Britain and cares about the future of the Faith in this country, one really needs I think the kind of historical background that Sewell lays out here in an engaging and accessible way.

Thus I commend the author for admirably sketching English Catholic identity as it has developed over the last 150 years and highlighting those who have made the greatest contributions to British Catholicism – figures such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Sewell also identifies those who represent (or at least did back in 2002 when the book was published) what the book’s blurb describes as:

the Catholic community in the public mind – figures like Paul Johnson, Charles Moore, Cristina Odone, Ann Widdecombe and Mark Lawson.

Rather than give an extensive review, I only want to make a brief commendation here of a fine effort from Sewell. British Catholics will not only be enriched by understanding of their roots, but also see where possibilities for new growth and new development lie in the future.

The author is a journalist and his approach is light, impressionistic – and often witty – rather than comprehensive and profoundly weighty.

Nonetheless, there is a great, great deal of perceptive insight here. And for those, like myself, interested in the great Chesterbelloc – that magnificent dual literary phenomenon of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, the book will serve to illumine both the Protestant world they were born into and the Catholic world they then helped to forge

Some of my readers may want to know traditional Sewell is. I found him hard to pin down, but he is hardly a liberal. I would call the author at least somewhat traditional in many of his liturgical and aesthetic concerns, although rather less traditional elsewhere.

Nonetheless this is certainly no progressive Catholic apologia; the author is broadly sympathetic to a wide range of Catholic thought.


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