February 14, 2010 marks the seventeenth anniversary of the death of Eric Lionel Mascall, one of the great luminaries of English Anglo-Catholicism in the Twentieth Century, a man to whom his distant kinsman through marriage, Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., dedicated his admirable book, The Panther and the Hind: A Theological History of Anglicanism in 1993 — a book of which a new edition may be in prospect — referring to Mascall in the dedication as magistro catholicae veritatis, which one might render as a “masterful teacher of catholic truth.” He would be pleased, I think, at the prospect of the “rescue mission” for elements of the “Anglican patrimony” offered in Anglicanorum Coetibus, and at the place within that patrimony which his writings will surely come to hold.
Unlike his friend Dom Gregory Dix, Mascall did not espouse an overtly “Anglo-Papalist” ecclesiological stance, but neither did he espouse an anti-papalist one such as did Austin Farrer, another one of his friends. His criticisms of some of the excesses and conundrums of a “hyper-papalist” ecclesiology in the last two chapters of his The Recovery of Unity: A Theological Approach (1958) are cogent and forceful because of their limited scope, and given his explicit acceptance of the postulates that Christ conferred a primacy over the Church and the other apostles upon St. Peter, that that primacy was transmissible to his successors, and that his successors are the Bishops of Rome. One might even claim to find in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, now happily reigning as Benedict XVI, some of the same kinds of criticisms and reservations, and one might likewise see in Vatican II the beginning of a remedy for some of these “excesses,” while the greater “excesses” of theological revisionists have underlined the need for a magisterial authority rooted in the Tradition which it both serves and defends.
Mascall has chronicled his life in charming and full detail in Saraband: The Memoirs of E. L. Mascall, which appeared in 1992, months before his death (he once told me that his preferred subtitle was “the memoirs of a senior citizen,” as he was much taken with that American term). Briefly, here — he was born December 12, 1905, read Mathematics as a Cambridge undergraduate, taught Mathematics from 1928 to 1931, then studied for ordination, and was ordained in the Church of England in 1933. Curacies followed, then in 1937 he became Sub-Warden of Lincoln Theological College, in 1945 a don at Christ Church, Oxford, and in 1962 Professor of Historical Theology at King’s College, London, from which he retired in 1973. During his years in London he lived in a suite of rooms in the top floor of the presbytery of St. Mary’s, Bourne Street, an Anglo-Catholic “shrine church” close to Sloane Square, and he continued to live there after his retirement until ill-health necessitated his retirement to a nursing home in 1987 where he passed the remaining five years of his life in some loneliness and among mostly demented fellow patients.
I had discovered the works of Mascall on my own, as a library-haunting undergraduate at Georgetown University in the early 1970s. Later, as a graduate student at Yale I happened to read in a newspaper that he was preaching the three-hour’s devotion at the Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan on Good Friday, and so I decided to go down to the service, and after it met him. He invited me to correspond with him, and when I told him that I would be leaving Yale for Cambridge in 1978 he invited me for tea with him at his flat.
That was for me the beginning of a long and valued acquaintanceship. In the years that I lived in Britain, 1978 to 1986, we tended to meet three or four times a year, and more often during the two years I lived in London. In subsequent summer stays in London I traveled to the nursing home in Sussex in which he lived to visit him, for the last time in August 1992, some six months before his death. Our conversation ranged through many areas, theological, historical and ecclesiastical. He gave me copies of many of his books and articles, and we discussed others. In his earlier years he had professed a robust Anglo-Catholicism, believing that the Church of England was a truly “Catholic church,” although unfortunately (in his view) separated from the mainstream of Western Catholicism by the self-interested actions of Tudor monarchs in the Sixteenth Century, and the subservience to them of Archbishop Cranmer (for whom he expressed to me more than once a thorough detestation), and although interested in contemporary Roman Catholic theology, had many lively and ongoing contacts with the Orthodox world through the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, of which he had been “present a the creation” in 1927 and in which he was to be active for over sixty years, but by the time that I met him his confidence in the tenability of such a view had weakened.
There were various reasons for this. One was what he saw as the remarkable “opening” of the Roman Catholic Church to ecumenical activities, discussion and hospitality — a hospitality he personally enjoyed in various Catholic venues in Rome, Europe and America from the late 1960s onwards. He had a strong admiration for Pope Paul VI, an admiration that seems to have been reciprocal, and as one who, as he told me, had always thought the 1930 Lambeth Conference’s acceptance of the practice of contraception an error, he was a strong supporter of that pope’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. Secondly, he had come to believe since around 1968 and in connection with that year’s Lambeth Conference, that the Anglican Communion was becoming more and more “unprincipled” in its ecumenical dealings with other Christian traditions, and more tolerant than was wise of heterodox theologians and their theologies. His correspondence, now in the archives of Pusey House, Oxford, contains some tense and even fraught exchanges with his old friend Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, over some of the resolutions of the 1968 Lambeth Conference, and over the Anglican-Methodist unity votes of 1969 and 1972, which the Methodists supported, as did Ramsey, but which failed to achieve the requisite majority in the Church of England’s General Synod, and which, in their final form, Mascall opposed. Thirdly, he was an “impossibilist” on the ordination of women, at least to the priesthood and episcopate (I never heard him express an opinion on the ordination of women to the diaconate) and felt that to “ordain” women destroyed the credibility of the “Catholic claims” of any church body that did so.
From the 1960s onwards his more “polemical” books, such as The Secularization of Christianity (1965), Theology and the Gospel of Christ (1977) and Whatever Happened to the Human Mind (1980) — none of which dealt solely, or even mostly, with matters of Anglican concern — reflected this concern with “things gone awry.” His final unpublished book manuscript, now in the Pusey House archives, which seems to date from about 1985 and had the title The Overarching Question: Divine Revelation or Human Invention, is, like these other works, not primarily Anglican in its focus, but has a final chapter, “And Anglicanism Whither?,” in which he attacks both the synodical structures of modern Anglican churches, in which truth is “created” by legislative-assembly-style votes, as with the “ordination” of women, and the inability of successive Lambeth Conferences to exercise the type of authority which he believed was inherent in the episcopate as understood by Catholics. In what seems to have been remnants of an earlier draft version of the book he attacked the Anglican theory of “comprehensiveness” and the related idea that it was the glory of the Church of England and Anglicanism generally that it possessed three “schools of thought,” the “catholic,” the “evangelical,” and the “liberal,” each one of which embraced a part of the truth but each of which needed the others to “complement” and “balance” it — he saw it rather as an administrative devise or plausible fiction to conceal the fact of three parties or groups “severally holding three irreconcilable views of the nature of the Christian religion” existing alongside one another in the same church; and in it he went on to criticize what he saw as a return of a form of the Anglican “Liberal Catholicism” of the 1920s and 30s, in which a “magisterium” of academic scholars would be the ultimate arbiters of Christian Truth and Church Tradition.
On my final visit to Mascall in August 1992 I found him visibly and emotionally upset in a way that I had never previously experienced. The Women’s Ordination (Priesthood) Bill was to come up for its final vote in November of that year — it squeaked by the necessary two-thirds majority by only two votes, the votes of Evangelical laymen who changed their minds (or at least their votes) in response to the emotional pleas in favor of the bill by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey — and he was alarmed a the prospect. “I know what I shall have to do if the bill passes,” he said to me, “but I don’t know if I shall have the strength and health to do it. I hope I die first.” I didn’t dare to ask him what “it” was, and he did die first: the General Synod did approve the measure in November 1992, but the passage of the legislation through Parliament subsequently, and the “Act of Synod” providing compensation for those opponents of women’s ordination who would feel compelled to leave the church, and a scheme of Provincial Episcopal Visitors (or “flying bishops”) for those who wished to remain in the Church of England — a scheme now evidently to be withdrawn and terminated in connection with the legislation to allow women bishops — ensured that the measure did not come into legal effect until February 1994, a year after Mascall’s death.
What would he have decided? After his death I made some attempts to contact the executor of his will, listed in his obituary in The Times as “Col. Robert Gould,” but to no avail. A friend of mine inquired some years ago of the recently-deceased former Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp (1915-2009), a friend of Mascall’s, who in his memoirs said that in the unlikely event that he would ever feel compelled to leave the Church of England he would become Orthodox, who replied that he thought he would become Orthodox. Another friend made the same inquiry of the late Msgr. Graham Leonard (1923-2010), a former Bishop of London who became a Catholic in 1994, and likewise a friend of Mascall, who responded that he was sure that he would have become a Catholic. Then a chance telephone conversation with a friend led to another with a colleague of that friend, who identified “Col. Robert Gould” as in fact “Fr. Robert Gould,” a man who in his youth had been a colonel in the “territorial army” (the British equivalent of the National Guard), had then been ordained in the Church of England, served as a priest in it for many years, until he had become a Catholic at the time of Mascall’s death, and had resumed the use of the “courtesy title” of colonel until his subsequent ordination in the Catholic Church. I was given Fr. Gould’s telephone number at the retirement home in which he lived, and in subsequent conversations with him learned that Mascall, whose confessor Fr. Gould had been, had after much agonizing come to the conclusion that he would have to leave the Church of England if the legislation should pass — but that by the time it did pass his advancing debilitation had reached such a state that he concluded that he did not have the mental faculties to make such a decision. At the end, though, it seems that he was a Catholic in desire if not in fact. We should remember him today, and on this day, as someone whose thought, writings — and lived experience — forms a bright tessera in the mosaic of the Anglican patrimony that is moving towards reconstitution within the Catholic Church. Perhaps he might one day be a candidate for canonization, a suggestion made recently concerning Edward Bouverie Pusey, as one of the earthly inspirers and heavenly patrons of this movement.