Fisher Dinner 2009 Speech

This speech was given by Professor Eamon Duffy at the Fisher Dinner in 2009.

It’s the end of the academic year, the time of laughter and roses,
And May Balls and chilled champagne and summer cottons and posies.
Tripos is done. For some it went well, you’ll know them by their grin,
And some left revision far too late, and must pay the price of sin.

But whichever group you belong to, whether you’re saint or sinner,
Just for tonight forget your fright, you’re safe at the Fisher dinner
Despite the messing about of the date to everybody’s fury
Computer blip or clerical slip, or proverbial pis-sup in brewery.

Still, here are you, a motley crew, united by belief
Making the most of the company, and hoping for light relief
From the speech by the elderly gent in the tux, whose face is a bit of a mystery.
Don’t hope too far, my instructions are to give you a lesson in history.

About Fisher House and the chaplaincy, and how it came to be
That Catholics got to Cambridge at all: the story of you and me.
Geography’s maps, and history’s chaps, as everybody knows
And you can’t have a history lesson in verse, so at this point I’ll switch to prose.

Two things kept Catholics out of Victorian Cambridge. The Church of England, and the Catholic bishops. Of the two, the biggest barrier was the Catholic bishops. In fact, in the early 19th century coming to Cambridge wasn’t really a problem for catholics at all, provided they had plenty of money and didn’t need a degree: Cambridge students didn’t have to sign up to the 39 articles till they graduated, whereas at Oxford you had to sign the 39 articles before you could matriculate as a member of the University. As a rule, the landed gentry thought of the universities only as a sort of finishing school, and most well-off students didn’t bother to take degrees anyway. So the Cambridge arrangements meant that Catholics could have all the normal benefits of university attendance. In the later eighteenth century, the sons of some of the grander Catholic families came up to Cambridge to study and learn to gamble and ride horses alongside their Protestant social equals. The University itself was fairly relaxed about all this: in 1819, when the future Cardinal Acton followed his brother Richard up to Magalene, his tutor not only told him that as a Catholic nobleman he was excused attendance at chapel: he also warned him against going to lectures, on the grounds that gentlemen didn’t bother with that sort of thing anyway.

But that easy-going religious tolerance didn’t survive Catholic emancipation, and the increasingly high profile of Catholics in English society. A generation later, when Sir John Acton, the future Lord Acton, the great historian, tried to follow his uncles to Magdalene, he was rebuffed by the College because of his religion.

Things changed again in the mid 1850s, when Oxford and Cambridge were forced to open degrees to Catholics and non-conformists. And it was at this point that the Catholic bishops began to worry. The bishops believed that education was a moral matter, and so ALL education, including tertiary, must be in the hands of the church. But just then they were coping with a huge Victorian expansion of the Catholic population, desperate to provide schooling for the new Catholics. Oxford and Cambridge stood for the Protestant establishment, and were seen by the bishops as centres of a corrosive moral and intellectual scepticism which would destroy the faith of Catholic students. So the idea of permitting much less encouraging Catholics to go to Oxbridge was anathema. They were convinced that only the very rich wanted this anyway. The bishop of Leeds, with some of the worst industrial slums in England in his diocese, declared, “We are trying to build poor schools: we cannot be called upon to give money to help aristocrats and snobs on the high road to hell.”

Not everyone thought like this. John Henry Newman believed that the bishops’ opposition sprang from a narrow clericalism, and that they should trust lay people to keep the faith and to make mature decisions of their own about their children’s education. He lamented this “dreadful jealousy of the laity” and insisted that “Nothing great or living can be done except when men are self-governed and independent”. He wanted to found an Oratory at Oxford and felt the aspirations of the educated laity to integrate themselves into a wider society, including the universities, was healthy and would have to be met. “Our only hope,” he wrote, “is in the laity knowing their own strength and exerting themselves”.

In 1866 Rome ruled “that it is next to impossible to find circumstances in which non-Catholic Universities could be frequented without mortal sin”, because of “the inconstancy and instability of young men, the false opinions which are inhaled with the atmosphere of such institutions, the very great influence which human respect and the ridicule of companions brings to bear on the young”.

Despite this ban, some independently minded lay people sent their sons to Oxbridge anyway: and by the 1890s, a growing number of Catholic scholars, some of course converts from Anglicanism, had established themselves as fellows of Colleges.

Matters came to a head in 1893, the Episcopal Golden Jubilee of Pope Leo XIII. The then Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vaughan, led a delegation of 500 English pilgrims to Rome to congratulate the Holy Father. One of those who went along was the Cambridge-based Anglo-Austrian ethnologist, Baron Anatole Von Hugel. He was, as they say, brother of the more famous Friedrich, the great leader and organiser of the Modernist movement. Anatole was the first curator of the Cambridge University Archaeological and Anthropological Museum, and he was passionately committed both to the church and to the University. When he got wind of Vaughan’s pilgrimage, Von Hugel organised a subscription from the dozen or so Catholic undergraduates in residence in the university. He had a set of Willis and Clark’s Architectural History of the University of Cambridge luxuriously bound in leather embossed with the pope’s arms on the front and the university’s arms on the back. On the night before their audience with the pope, Von Hugel revealed that he had prepared a Latin address to the pope on behalf of the Catholic members of the University of Cambridge. Now there weren’t supposed to BE any Catholic members of the University, and Vaughan was appalled. He was a protégé of Cardinal Manning, and though he was a member of the Catholic gentry himself (duckshooting and rosary) he had fully shared Manning’s opposition to Catholics going to Oxford and Cambridge: he once said that Newman should be kept out of Oxford at all costs, if necessary with a pitchfork. Vaughan was petrified that the Roman authorities would be enraged if they discovered that the 1866 prohibition was being flouted. Von Hugel made matters worse by revealing that he proposed to attend the audience wearing his Cambridge gown and hood. The horrified Archbishop eventually promised that if Von Hugel knelt and presented the book without saying anything, he, the Archbishop, would do the talking. In the event, Vaughan said nothing at all, so the bewildered pope was confronted with an odd-looking bearded cove in academic robes kneeling and holding up a heavy leather-bound tome, without any explanation as to who he was or what he was there for. The pope’s secretary, Merry del Val, who had been educated in England, later assured Von Hugel that this ludicrous incident had brought home to the pope that there were in fact Catholics at English universities, and that something ought to be done to regularise their position. With this encouragement, Von Hugel and his allies organised a petition signed by 450 people, including a cross section of the Catholic aristocracy, Norfolk, the Marquis of Bute, the Marquess of Ripon, the Earl of Denbigh, Lord Clifford and many others, asking for the ban to be lifted. There were also over eighty clergy signatories who were graduates of Oxbridge, most of them of course converts from Anglicanism.

Reluctantly, the bishops gave way, and in April 1895 Rome lifted the ban. The permission was hedged round with qualifications; Catholic boys might attend Oxford or Cambridge, provided they were carefully prepared beforehand to resist temptation, and provided a course of lectures was provided for them by Catholic lecturers (the document called them professors, but in the Italian sense of the word, which more or less means anyone who can read or write).

Notice that the Vatican permission said nothing about chaplains: it simply stipulated that the evil influences of the University should be offset by the provision of Catholic lectures for the undergraduates: nobody specified how undergraduates were to be made to attend such lectures, nor how they were to be provided.

In June 1895 the bishops established a committee to work put how to implement the Vatican permission. The Universities Catholic Education Board in due course would become the Oxford and Cambridge Catholic Education Board, which still functions. Within a year, the Board had bought a house in Oxford and appointed a chaplain there, whose duties would include giving one lecture a term to offset the poisonous teaching of the university, at an annual salary of £200.

Things were a lot more complicated in Cambridge. The parish priest, Canon Scott, had eagerly supported the lifting of the ban, but he was opposed to a separate chaplaincy: with his magnificent new church and rectory, he believed all the spiritual needs of the undergraduates could be met at OLEM. Von Hugel thought that the ideal solution would be to persuade Downside to establish a priory here in Cambridge, to act as a chaplaincy and intellectual and spiritual centre, and not least, a social centre with the right kind of cache: some members of the board thought that the simplest thing would be for Downside to take over OLEM and the parish altogether. The Benedictines did eventually establish a house in Cambridge, sadly now defunct, and Dom Cuthbert Butler, the great historian of Vatican I, was to serve for years as one of the statutory lectures to the Cambridge Catholic undergraduates.

But the first chaplain was not a monk at all, but a secular priest, a Mayo-man named Fr Edmund Nolan, Vice-Rector of the seminary at St Edmund’s, Ware. St Edmunds liked the idea of sending all their priests for a year or two to Cambridge to benefit from the library and lectures here, and to acquire a bit of social polish so Nolan approached the Board to suggest that two birds could be killed with one stone if he were to combine being chaplain to the undergraduates with being warden of a house of seminarians and priests. So in January 1896 it was agreed to buy a house and establish a chaplain at a yearly stipend of £150. In addition, a lecturer was to be appointed who would give a lecture every Sunday in full term. Nolan became chaplain, and Dom Cuthbert Butler was appointed first lecturer. The seeds of St Edmund’s House and of Fisher House had been planted.

Nolan went back to St Edmund’s, Ware in 1905. His successor, “Mugger Barnes”, was an Anglican convert who soon established himself as a Cambridge figure, lecturing in Byzantine history in the Divinity school. He remained as chaplain till 1916. A wealthy man, he bought a magnificent Georgian townhouse, Llandaff House, now demolished, opposite the University Arms Hotel in St Andrew’s Street: but the war emptied Cambridge. By 1915 there were half a dozen Catholic students, most of them from India and the Empire. Barnes moved to Oxford in 1916, Llandaff House was closed, and the few Catholic students went to the parish church. After the war, J Bernard Marshall, an army chaplain who’d won the Military Cross for heroism at the front, was appointed. He was famous for setting his clothes alight by putting his pipe in his pocket and was inseparable from his dog Billy who followed him everywhere, including into church. But in 1922 Canon Scott was run over by a bus in Trafalgar Square, and Fr Marshall, became parish priest of OLEM. He was replaced as chaplain by a flamboyant convert from Anglo-Catholicism, Fr John Lopes.

Lopes was an extraordinary figure, fantastically clumsy – Dom David Knowles said he had two left hands in which every finger was a thumb: he was constantly knocking over candlesticks, chalices, lecterns, anything that wasn’t fixed to floor or altar, he was enormously fat, and had such bad feet that he always wore enormous frog-like slippers. He was an ardent ritualist, who never lost or softened his Anglo-Catholic mannerisms, addressing everyone as MY DEAR, and was often disparaging about the habits and customs of cradle Catholics – he wouldn’t for example allow the singing of hymns at mass, because Catholic hymns were so terrible – RC MUSH, my dear, MUSH. Up till now the chaplaincy had been peripatetic: no 20 Green Street had proved too small once the number of Catholics got above two dozen, and for a time the chaplaincy was based in a University hostel at 50 Bridge Street, then at number 2 Round Church Street, just by the Union, then at Llandaff House. Then in 1922, a Catholic undergraduate from Trinity evaded the proctors and was having a late night drink in the Black Swan pub, when he overheard the landlord saying he wanted to sell out. The undergraduate told the handsome, devout and pro-Fascist professor of Italian, Edward Bullough, who was treasurer of CUCA, and after a frantic campaign to raise loans in time, CUCA bought the Black Swan for £10,000.

From the start, the finances of the Cambridge chaplaincy were precarious. The chaplains had to support themselves, and Fr Lopes in fact ended up in the bankruptcy courts soon after he left Cambridge, having been hurried out by CUCA before his debts caught up with him. Lopes spent £700 of his own money, a fortune in those days, furnishing the chapel he converted from the old pub dance-hall, as if it were a basilica. He is responsible for the oak panelling in the dining room and front study – “Oak is so very Cambridge MY DEAR”. The chaplaincy opened in 1925, with a solemn mass of St John Fisher celebrated by the bishop of Northampton: Lopes characteristically tried to persuade the bishop to process in full pontificals through Cambridge in an open carriage. To his huge disappointmen the bishop turned up in a taxi in plain black clericals, and wouldn’t let him build an elaborate bell-tower. “The trouble with that man, my dear, is that he’s got bell-phobia: he’s living in penal times.” But with or without its bell-tower, Fisher House had been born.

I’m not sure what moral one should draw out of all this. Proper religious provision for Catholics in this university was established in the teeth of opposition from the bishops. It was driven to a large extent by the desire of well-to-do Catholics to send their sons to the same universities as their Protestant social equals. The bishops chose to see in that aspiration nothing but snobbery and religious indifference.

The church in this country has never really known what to do with University education. The best and holiest priest I ever met was Fr Anthony Storey, a wonderfully intelligent Yorkshireman educated at Stonyhurst and the English College in Rome, who read History at Christ’s during the second world war. Armed with a first, he was sent to his first curacy in St Joseph’s Stokesley, a huge working class industrial parish in the Middlesborough diocese. As it happened, his fellow curate was an Irishman who had read English at Oxford. At their first staff-meeting with their seasoned old Yorkshire parish priest, the Canon said, “Well now, I see the bishop’s set me a couple of bright sparks. So one of you has a first in history from Cambridge?” “Yes, Canon.” “And t’other’s got a first in English from Oxford?” “Yes, Canon.” “Champion, then you should have no bother shifting these raffle tickets.”

The days are gone when any parish has two curates, much less curates with Oxbridge firsts. No-one can predict the future, but it looks as if priestly and religious vocations are set to decline still further. If the Catholic Church is to fulfil its intellectual and moral mission in this country, it is the laity, you and me, who will have to do it. That work can’t be done in a ghetto: faith must seek understanding. We can only find worthwhile solutions to the problems and dilemmas of our society if we engage with that society, and work alongside other men and women of good will, who, like us, are trying to make sense of the complicated world we live in. That is what Universities are for. Catholicism doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth that everybody else is searching for: the church doesn’t offer cheap certainties but it does offer a reliable compass for the journey of faith seeking understanding, and the support and comfort of fellow pilgrims along the same road. Thanks to the truly Catholic openness, as well as the determined snobbery of those early pioneers of the Universities Catholic Board, in Cambridge that companionship, help and support is embodied in a real place and the community of people who make Fisher House what it is. Where would any of us be without it?

Professor Eamon Duffy