Well that didn’t take long. I finished reading John Fleming’s new little book “Convinced by Truth” in almost one sitting (not quite). It is a thin volume of collected bits and pieces coming in at 124 pages, falling roughly into three parts.
I read the last part first. Not because I wanted to find out “who-dunnit” (!), but because I was very interested in the topic of the last chapter, jointly authored by Fr John and Archbishop John Hepworth, the Primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion. This chapter tells “the real history” of Anglicanorum Coetibus. There’s juicy stuff here, and if it were reported by a third party, I would probably dismiss it all as hear-say. Even if John himself were the sole author, I would probably think (unfairly) that he was overestimating his part in the whole picture. But Archb. Hepworth corroborates Fleming’s account, and there seems no reason to doubt that this is really what happened. I do find it astounding to think that at the same time I and a couple of other Lutheran pastors were turning to John for his advice on how to enter full communion with the Catholic Church, the entire TAC was turning to him for an answer to the same question. The advice in both cases was very good. In my case, he introduced me to Fr Gregory Pritchard and Fr Anthony Fisher, who expertly and pastorally saw both me and my friend Peter into the fold. Fleming’s advice to the TAC was equally on the money, and has born much greater fruit.
Then I turned to the first section. Again this was of personal interest to me. Chapter One is a letter which John wrote to his daughters to explain the reason and history of his decision to enter the Catholic Church. One day I will have to write just such an account for my own daughters, who were were of a similar age and similarly had no idea of the chaos and heartache going on around them. So thanks for the style tip, Fr John! In this story I saw many other cross overs with my own experiences, all the more so because I knew John at the time before, during and after his conversion. He mentions Dr Daniel Overduin on page 17. The late, great Dr Danny of Blessed Memory was a close friend of my aunt, and I often would hear him hold forth after dinner over several glasses of red wine. It was through him that I got to know John. One day in 1984, myself and group of other Lutheran Seminary students turned up for the Sunday Sung Eucharist at his Anglican Parish. This experience was a complete eye-opener for me, and resulted in what I now call my “first catholic conversion”. Ironically, it was John who after this event urged me not to act impulsively and join the Catholic Church straight away, but to seek to be “catholic” as a Lutheran. At that time, I had no idea how much John had staked on a similar attempt to be “catholic” as an Anglican. Also, reflecting on that time, I find it odd that I was not attracted by the service at Good Shepherd Anglican Church to join the Anglicans, but the Catholics. Very odd, but true.
Other things he mentions in this letter strike a chord. Like me, John had a two-step conversion to the Catholic faith: first to the idea of “catholicity” and only many years later to the reality of the Catholic Church. Just as his wife Alison played a crucial role in his conversion, so did my own wife – although Cathy did not do so as a convert herself. Like John, I frequented St Mary Magdelene’s in Moore Street; I developed on ongoing friendship with the priest there, who was himself later to leave to become a priest of the Continuing Anglicans. Like John, my conversion was aided by meeting sympathetic Catholic priests who actually helped with the process. As with John, we too had a birth in the family in the middle of the turmoil.
There were differences, of course, especially in our reading which led us along the way. I was surprised to discover in “Convinced by Truth” that I had actually read Newman’s Apologia before John had . I read it in 1984 as a part of my “first Catholic conversion” in order to understand what was going on in my own heart; whereas John avoided reading it during his period of trying to balance Catholicism and Anglicanism because he feared that it might be too confronting. He read Aquinas – I still, to this day, have not made Aquinas much of a focus in my faith or teaching (do I hear gasps of horror from some readers?). I note that Ratzinger didn’t play a role in his faith journey – perhaps because of the fifteen year gap in our respective journeys; how much Ratzinger was available in English in the mid 1980s?
I still have a cut out of the story of John’s conversion from The Advertiser which he mentions on page 31. It is tucked into the back of my copy of the Apologia. I will have to get it out and stick it in the back of this book now. John’s descriptions of the feelings at the time of his conversion are almost word for word what I wrote in my conversion diary. These sentiments are especially familiar:
But I needed a job, a house in which we could live, and an alternative career there being no guarantee that the Catholic Church would ever agree to my being ordained a Catholic priest. The future was very uncertain and I was afraid….
I suffered from a loss of identity and the need to rebuild a new career… Conversion is not a road for the faint-hearted, particulary if you have been a minister of a Protestant ecclesial community, and it is just as well you cannot foresee all of the practical problems or you would never make the move…
[But] God is good.
John continued to be an influence in my conversion even after we had lost contact in the intervening years. In January 2000 a friend gave me a recorded talk in which John outlined his reasons for conversion, most notably that which he repeats on page 24 of the present book:
I could be quite wrong about womens’ ordination. If I am wrong, rom whom would I take correction? The Anglican Church? Absolutely not! Then from whom? I answered, “The Pope and the Catholic Church”. The absurdity of this answer struck me with great force.
I too wished to seek communion with the Bishop of Rome – my “second conversion” had begun, even if there was a long way to go.
The middle section of the book consists of two chapters addressed to a prospective convert on the matters of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence. I recall John saying to me back in the mid ’80’s that “Lutherans don’t understand the Sacrifice of the Mass because they don’t understand the Letter to the Hebrews”. In the present book, I found these two chapters to be of the least interest – probably because for me they were not great issues in my conversion. The chapters are good concise statements of and defences of the Catholic doctrines, but I wonder if John might not have fleshed the book out a little more by looking at other doctrines that converts might also struggle with, such as prayer to the Saints, Purgatory, and (above all) the question of Justification. But the latter was probably more my issue than John’s. The doctrine of Justification never played a great part in Anglican theology (other than among Evangelicals anyway).
All in all, this book has “something for everyone”. It is a bit of a mixed bag, but you will enjoy reading it. I hope we can expect more publications of this sort from John in the future. He has many good things to offer the Church beyond his specific area of expertise in bioethics.