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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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Revd Dr Peter Howson’s response to my article (Letters Extra, The Tablet, 7 August) is perhaps on less sure ground than his expostulations might lead readers to infer.
The “institutional incompetence and dreadful disorganisation” of the War Office in deploying Catholic chaplains had already been noted by the Irish Catholic in September 1914 and raised in the House of Commons. Cardinal Logue of Armagh complained in late October 1914, by which time there were only six Catholic chaplains in France, that Catholic soldiers were being denied chaplains by the country for which they were sacrificing their lives. The situation improved as time went on but even after chaplaincy reorganisation in 1915 there was an enormous number of complaints from Catholic servicemen and clergy about deployment. Revd Dr Howson insists that the chaplains’ department had “well organised deployment”. Readers must draw their own conclusions.
The self-satisfied Tablet comment of 28 November 1914, of which Howson makes so much, has to be seen against the background of the fact that The Tablet was at that stage owned by the Diocese of Westminster and was the mouthpiece of Cardinal Bourne, the man responsible to the War Office for recruiting Catholic chaplains. Many of the criticisms about Catholic chaplaincy provision up to early 1918 were levelled at Bourne and his supposed influence at the War Office. Eventually Sir Reginald Brade, Permanent Secretary at the War Office, absolving the War Office from blame, insisted that Bourne was the real problem with regard to complaints about Catholic chaplains. I can only suggest that this aspect of Howson’s work is under researched and under examined.
In regard to my reference to Robert Graves’ uncomplimentary allusion to Anglican padres which attracts Dr Howson’s most acerbic protest: of courseGoodbye to All That is sceptical and iconoclastic. However, his comments fit with a pattern of criticism from more conventional sources, not least Guy Chapman MC, Professor of History at the University of Leeds, 1945-53. Even the best-known Anglican wartime chaplain, G. A. Studdert Kennedy (Woodbine Willie), thought there was little opportunity for Anglicans to minister spiritually to troops. Over the last 20 years Anglican writers have, not without some justification, tried to counteract the rather negative picture of Anglican and Protestant chaplaincy in the early stages of WWI. But they have tended to do so by, at times, dismissing or denigrating sources that do not fit a pre-conceived picture of Anglican effectiveness, thereby succumbing to the simplicities that Revd Dr Howson asserts that he wants to avoid.
Oliver Rafferty SJ, Professor of History, Heythrop College