of England' The Realm by Aidan Nichols OP, Family Publications £8.95 The title of this work might sound a little antiquated but there is nothing antiquated about Fr Aidan Nichols's new book. At only 160 pages, it fizzes with vigorous ideas. The subtitle states it plainly: An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England. This is a courageous theme, for it is definitely very unfashionable to speak of the conversion of England in times like these, when Catholics are enjoined to be ecumenical towards their fellow Christians and the Establishment views all religion as irrational or irrelevant.
Nichols is unrepentant about this lapse in good manners. He puts it disarmingly in his preface: "As a Catholic Christian and a patriotic Englishman (and, within that context, Briton), I wish my countrymen/women to share the blessings I have received. What could be more (super) natural?"
He has no illusions about the task in hand, quoting the writer Daniel Johnson on the current state of the Church: "...afflicted by dissension, apathy, too few vocations and an ageing congregation". Apathy rather than dissent is, in Nichols's view, the dominant mood.
The book builds on Nichols's Christendom Awake. It is here that he sets out his comprehensive blueprint: reviving beauty of liturgy; reclaiming the Bible; rethinking ecumenism and re-launching Christian philosophy and doctrinal orthodoxy.
Along with chapters on the pro-life movement, family life, the priesthood and religious life, it provides a spirited appeal to the Church in this country to transform itself. Now he turns to the task of bringing a renewed faith to the nation — the "realm".
What concerns Nichols is nationhood and, specifically, how the English nation was formed during the 1,000 years of Catholic Christianity that preceded the Reformation; a slow process of the development of law, the Crown and Parliament, all deeply permeated and fertilised by the influence of the Church. Where do we get the virtues that we hold in respect, Nichols asks, such as the English sense of "fair play"? They flow from our Catholic heritage for "in the crucial formative phase of its development, England is in fact inseparable from Catholicism". He contends that this heritage can provide the only coherent leaven for the future.
Drawing on the scholarship of revisionist historians such as Eamon Duffy, Christopher Haigh and JJ Scarisbrick, Nichols argues that the Church on the eve of the Reformation was not the corrupt body that later historians have made it out to be; though requiring reform it actively nourished the culture and spiritual life of its people.
Reflecting on 20thcentury writers such as T S Eliot, David Jones, G K Chesterton, Tollcien and Belloc, he argues for a Christian intelligentsia that actively influences the surrounding culture — the "clerisy" first articulated by Coleridge. Some of this ground has been covered by Roger Scruton in his A Political Philosophy. But Nichols, unlike Sermon, is no romantic, nostalgic for 17th-century Anglicanism; evangelisation includes squaring up to the "modem, intolerant, lobbydriven, issue-obsessed cultural liberalism" and confronting the state "with the abiding objectivity of the natural moral law". No aesthetic ivory tower here.
The learned arguments of this book and its author's wide reading are not an academic exercise; by returning to the sources of the Christian civilisation that has shaped the "realm" of England and drawing attention to the writers who have kept its memory alive, Nichols demonstrates the great tradition behind the work of conversion. What is necessary now is an "integral evangelisation", for "only a co-ordinated advance on a whole host of issues... really meets the needs of the hour".
It is natural to the faith to shape a civilisation and not just be something for our private lives, he asserts; the aim must be "to communicate our faith to others as what made England once and can remake it again". The Catholic faith is not another ideology, competing in the marketplace of modem Britain; it is "the most wonderful epiphany of goodness, truth and beauty humanity can ever know".
perhaps the small weakness of Nichols's book is, as he admits, "too many ideas for its own good". Yet he is a man of palpable and infectious vision.
His name has been put forward as a possible future Archbishop of Westminster Some think he is too scholarly for such a public position, a man of the pen rather than of the people. What is certain is that without a daring and imaginative choice, one that transcends the conventional bureaucratic channels, the Church in this country is likely to move from a languishing condition to a terminal one.