A Perspective From Across the Pond | A Conversation with Dwight Longenecker | March 16, 2005
Dwight Longenecker is an American who has lived in England for nearly twenty-five years. He holds degrees in English and speech, and a degree in theology from Oxford University. A former Anglican priest, he and his family entered the Catholic Church in 1995 (more about his conversion can be read here). He writes regularly for over twenty-five magazines, papers, and journals in Britain, Ireland, and the U.S., including Catholic World Report and National Catholic Register.
Dwight is also the author of seven books, including The Path to RomeModern Journeys to the Catholic Faith (Gracewing, 1999), Listen My Son (Gracewing/Morehouse, 2000), and St. Benedict and St. Thérèse (Gracewing/Our Sunday Visitor, 2002). Dwight co-authored Challenging Catholics (Paternoster, 2001) with Angelican John Martin. His most recent books are More Christianity (OSV, 2002), Adventures in Orthodoxy (Sophia Institute Press, 2003), and Our Lady? (Brazos Press, 2003), a dialogue with Evangelical author David Gustafson about the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The story of his conversion can be read in detail in Surprised by Truth 3 (Sophia Institute Press, 2003). In addition to his writing he is an accomplished public speaker and broadcaster, having appeared on EWTN as well as Britains ITVs Sunday Morning Program, BBC News Southwest, BBC Local Radio and Londons Premier Radio. For more information about Dwight, visit his web site: www.dwightlongenecker.com.
IgnatiusInsight.com recently spoke with Dwight about Christianity in England and the U.S., the future of the Anglican Church, and his work in evangelization and apologetics.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You just returned from a visit to the U.S. What is your impression of the state of the Catholic Church here, especially compared to England and Europe?
Dwight Longenecker: The English Catholic Church is actually doing better than many of her European neighbors. Because of the historic ghetto mentality of English Catholics they have retained higher loyalty, mass numbers and numbers of priests than the rest of Europe. However, this is not saying much. The mass numbers and numbers of priests and religious are falling fast here as well. Here in England and Europe is it very difficult to get people to commit to anything extra and almost impossible to get them to fund a new idea. As a person with American ideas and enthusiasm, it was great to be home, and difficult to return to this rather barren mission field.
In contrast, the American Catholic Church is like the American people: it's full of enthusiasm, exciting initiatives and an entrepreneurial spirit. Think of an adolescent compared to a tired old man. The old man is tired, pessimistic and even cynical. The adolescent thinks anything is possible. On my visit I delivered a two talks and a workshop to Legatus members in Detroit, led a parish retreat at the fantastic parish of St Mary's Greenville and did two talks at Ave Maria University in Naples Florida. Everywhere I went I found a fervent love for the church, a cheerful enthusiasm and a church brim full of ideas and energy.
I am more on the conservative side of the church, but I'm willing to grant that the liberal church in America is similarly energetic in comparison to England and Europe, and I believe this is has more to do with a national characteristic than theological persuasion.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are differences between the U.S. and England (and Europe) when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular?
Longenecker: I believe the biggest difference is that Christianity in Europe is still associated with the old establishment. For many ordinary Europeans Christianity belongs to history, to the aristocracy and to the educated elite. It simply doesn't connect with the modern world. In the U.S., because church and state are separate, religion belongs to the people. If you want a religion in America you have to stand up for it, belong and pay for it because nobody else will. In parts of Europe there is actually a 'church tax' which you have to pay. The State actually collects money for according to your denomination and makes the donation for you. This enervates the ordinary person's commitment. As a result people conclude that the church is just another arm of the establishment. They suspect that the establishment powers are corrupt, venal and interested only in protecting their own power, and they assume the church is part of this.
In the U.S. there is still a healthy critical and prophetic relationship between many Christian groups and the secular state. In Europe the now secular state props up the established church for cultural and historical reasons, but this now gives the impression that (crazily enough) the church is part of the secular state. As a result, the historic churches seem to most people to be a state run museum. This is precisely what the Communists tried to do by force, but in Western Europe the same effect is being accomplished by stealth far more effectively.
To make this point, it is interesting that the only churches in Europe that are actually growing are the fringe Evangelical churches. These churches are clearly non-secular, prophetic and radical in their espousal of real Christianity. It is these churches that are growing while the established churches are withering fast.
IgnatiusInsight.com: As many expected, there have been more Episcopalians, including notable names such as J. Budziszewski, entering the Catholic Church in the last few years. In your estimation, what does the future hold for the Anglican and Episcopalian communities? Will there be an increase in conversions, or just a steady trickle?
Longenecker: There will be a steady number of conversions to the Catholic Church from the Anglican Communion. These will be among Anglicans who take their faith seriously and who take the trouble to think through the issues. The majority of these Anglican converts will probably be people who are not cradle Anglicans. They will have moved from other Protestant denominations to the Anglican Church before coming over to Rome.
The sad truth about the present disturbing trends within the Anglican Church is that with the growing apostasy and heresy within that church many people are not going to the Catholic Church, they're going to the golf course. In other words, their disenchantment with Anglicanism is actually driving them away from the church altogether, and not necessarily into the arms of Rome. These 'cultural Anglicans' won't trouble themselves to become Catholic, they'll simply drift away.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Why did you leave the Anglican Church (and priesthood) to become Catholic?
Longenecker: When the Church of England decided to ordain women to the priesthood in the early nineties it made me think more seriously about the nature of authority in the church. The Anglican church claimed to be a branch of the Catholic Churchrather like a latter day Orthodox Church. Many like me felt that if this claim were valid the Anglican Church did not have the authority to unilaterally break from the ancient tradition and ordain women as priests.
If she did this she was not just making a decision about women's ordination; she was also making a statement about what sort of church she really was. That is to say, she was stating that the Anglican Church was not, in fact, a branch of the Catholic Church, but simply another Protestant sect who could decide to do whatever she wanted to do in her own backyard.
I felt that this sort of decision making would only lead to a further secularized agenda. I remember saying to my parishioners when discussing the matter, "Mark my words, women priests now; homosexual marriage ten years from now." I was right. While the two issues are not in themselves, necessarily connected, the way the decision on the matters are made are identical: if you campaign long enough, get enough votes and shout loud enough you can change the historic rule of the Church. While this seems 'democratic' it actually ignores what G. K. Chesterton referred to as the greatest majority: the dead. In other words, it ignores tradition.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You've been involved in a number of evangelistic and apologetic activities over the years. What are some of those and what are you currently working on?
Longenecker: I've written for numerous magazines and papers on both sides of the Atlantic and have produced thirteen books and contributed to a couple more. Most of my work is concerned with Evangelical/Catholic dialogue as well as Benedictine spirituality. I was pleased to produce this religious writing, but was worried that I was preaching to the choir. When it comes to evangelization I was concerned that I was pretty good at giving the answers, but perhaps I was giving answers to questions people were not yet asking. I therefore started looking for some new method to communicate the heart of the Christian gospel in a way that was exciting, motivating and inspiring.
Over the last two years I have been pioneering a new concept in business training and consulting. We use the plot line and characters of films to help people make positive change in their lives. We have also started a charity called 'Ordinary Hero' which uses the same method to help prisoners in resettlement programs and young people with drug abuse problems to get a new vision for their lives and receive the positive tools to make that happen.
This method of ministry goes right down where people are: into the workplace and into their dependency and prison problems. It is a very implicit and powerful way to work towards the 'evangelization of culture.' We don't apologize that it is more about getting people to ask the questions that lead them to the answers.
I'm a great Tolkien fan, and the key film that we use is Lord of the Rings. Using this great Catholic work of art to help convert people's imagination, and give them the tools to embark on the spiritual quest for truth has been exciting, and all the feedback we've had so far has been fantastic. To learn more about how this works check out the web site: www.workinghero.co.uk
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