Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Fortieth Anniversary of Vatican II Symposium (2002)

Premonitions of Vatican II
in the Earlier Life of Bishop Christopher Butler

By Dom Daniel Rees

Christopher Butler and the Second Vatican Council were made for each other. There must have been few among the Council Fathers who could have felt, as he did, that in the conciliar theology and the spirit which it engendered they were breathing their native air at last. It has become a commonplace that the invisible father at Vatican II was John Henry Newman. But, unseen though he was, Newman had in Abbot Butler a mouthpiece who knew his master's voice probably better than anyone else in the conciliar aula. On the brink of his own conversion to Catholicism Butler read carefully the Essay on the Development of Doctrine seven times in order to note where it chimed in with the conclusions he had himself drawn from his own extensive knowledge of Early Church history. Before he chose to be a Benedictine he had briefly contemplated joining the Birmingham Oratory. And after the Council, according to the prescriptions of Newman's Idea of A University he sponsored a pioneering project at Bristol for Catholic theology to be studied and taught along with other secular disciplines in a University setting.

There may have been some among the periti at the Council who were his equals in their material familiarity with Newman's writings. But no one else could have known so well the shades of meaning, the tone of voice, what was left unsaid, the mellow background of Oxford and the Church of England, the cost of leaving that behind and of living out his belief that, in spite of everything, he was in the right place when he joined the Catholic Church. He once said, 'Temperamentally I am a short-term pessimist, but in the long run an optimist.' This was the stance of Newman too when writing after the First Vatican Council to Alfred Plummer, Master of University College, Durham, and close confidant of Döllinger, in words which Newman knew would get back to Munich:

Looking at early history it would seem as if the Church moved on to the perfect truth by various successive declarations, alternately in contrary directions, and thus perfecting, completing, supplying each other. Let us have a little faith in her ... The late definition does not so much need to be undone as to be completed ... Let us be patient, let us have faith, and a new Pope and a re-assembled Council may trim the boat.[i]

'Trimming the boat'—that means readjusting the balance by redistributing the cargo—it was what Christopher Butler had been doing all his life – holding out against prevailing winds, taking up minority positions, but always with a view to finding the balance. Only a stone's throw from Heythrop College, at 13 Vicarage Gate, lived one of his great mentors, Friedrich von Hügel, whose perception that in the Church there have a right to coexist three vital elements—the Prophetic, the Mystical and the Institutional—was a continual light to Butler's path. And lest we feel that the age of imbalance is not our problem, one of his few reserves about the post-conciliar Church was that its prayer life seems to be losing out to more activist concerns.

After the Council was over, Butler was acutely concerned with the reception of its message. As a church historian he knew that the crucial phase of every Council's history was its aftermath, its appropriation by the faithful at large. In 1439 all but one of the Greek bishops present at the Council of Florence, together with their Emperor, signed the Decree of Union, Laetentur Caeli, only to find on their return to Constantinople that it was disavowed by their clergy and people. Butler therefore, returning to England and knowing only too well how ill-prepared his country was for assimilating the Council's teaching, became the Apostle of Vatican II par excellence, spreading the message through every medium he had access to, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, with a serene reasonable­ness and an assurance of the Council's continuity with the most genuine and long-standing Catholic tradition.

 I have understood my brief to be the investigation of his life up until his summons to the Council with a special view to detecting those tendencies of his that came to full expression there. He has bequeathed to us an intellectual autobiography entitled A Time to Speak,[ii] but it is an austere study of the growth of his state of mind, and unlike Newman's Apologia has no account of his childhood, its normal place being taken by an opening chapter bearing the title 'Plato'. But, as is the case with the rest of us, Butler's earliest days had an indelible bearing on the whole course of his life and thought.

He was one of six children in a very happy and united family. His parents took very seriously as a God-given vocation the upbringing of their children and for that reason declined a scholarship to Christ's Hospital that had been offered to one of the older brothers. It was a family too that knew the meaning of sacrifice. The future Abbot Butler was very precocious, almost a child prodigy. At the age of three he was already reading a volume of Dickens which he had taken from the top shelf of the bookcase, and when he was only nine his teacher urged his parents to enter him immediately, three years in advance, for the scholarship to Reading Grammar School. In consequence he had to mark time in the Sixth Form for four years before going to the University. He was precocious too in his religion. His family were High Church but with Tractarian restraint. The church they attended, Holy Trinity, was then an unpretentious temple, a converted proprietary chapel, but it was served by some outstanding clergy: Archdale King, the liturgist, was vicar from 1923 to 1926, and E.O. James, the anthropologist, from 1921 to 1923, but the one who had the greatest influence over Basil Butler—'Basil' was the Abbot's baptismal name—was H.E. Lury, whose long incumbency from 1902 to 1921 was followed by a move to London's East End where he was one of Anglo-Catholicism's unsung heroes. It was he who asked Basil to make himself responsible for tending the lamp before the Reserved Sacrament every day on his way cycling home from school. It was this commission which led him into the practice of systematic daily prayer, for which he followed Bishop Challenor's Meditations. Not that he had any Romeward tendencies at this time – he was satisfied with Bishop Gore's refutation of the Petrine claims which he read when he was seventeen. But prayer always remained, far and away, the activity in life he held to have the utmost importance. Lumen Gentium's 'Universal Call to Holiness' would strike a chord that was very close to his heart. His own little book, Prayer, An Adventure in Living,[iii] has recently been acclaimed by the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, as a formative influence on his own spiritual development.[iv] And throughout the heady excitement and suspense of the Vatican Council he kept rigorously to the pattern of Office in choir and twice-daily meditation that he adhered to in the monastery. Histories of Vatican II often leave the impression that its proceedings were driven by politicization, partisanship and maneuvering; in this man's case, at least, they were rooted deeply in prayer. He never ceased to regard the Council as an important juncture in the Church's spiritual growth. When, after we first learned that there was to be a Council, I raised with him in private conversation that, unlike all preceding Councils this one didn't seem to have any sufficient cause in contemporary heresy or ecclesiastical malady, he replied that that worried him too, but he was sure that its cause was God. And that was at a time when he suspected the worst would come of it.

There was another legacy of the Reading years that would resurface in what he contended for at the Vatican Council. One of the decisive considerations in his becoming a Catholic was the impression made upon him, perhaps following his spiritual director Father Vernon Johnson, by the towering holiness and complete abandon to God of St Thérèse of Lisieux and his realization that sanctity on such a scale could only have attained its full expression within the environment of the Church of which she was a member. Holiness was a mark of the Church. But this argument can work in other ways. In years to come he would reflect on the real holiness, in a different style, he had glimpsed in his parents and in the devoted Anglican clergy he had known, and he would conclude that other Christian bodies too, outside the visible frontiers of the Catholic Church, could also be channels of grace to their adherents, and therefore in some sense were rightly called 'Churches'. While firmly maintaining that the fullness of Christian communion must include communion with the successor of Peter, and while maintaining that the historic dictum Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus was still valid insofar as there must be an ecclesial dimension to salvation, he would come to align himself with the words of the distinguished Orthodox theologian, Evdokimov, 'We know where the Church is; it is not for us to judge and say where the Church is not.'[v]

His lasting appreciation of the Anglican ethos would also emerge in his sympathy at the Council for the rights of local churches to be true to themselves, unies mais pas absorbées, and still more to embody the whole reality of the Church there and then when assembled around their bishop in the Eucharist. It would be interesting to speculate where he would stand in the current controversy whether priority belongs to the local church or the Church universal. One can be sure that his logical ingenuity would find some way of surmounting the impasse.

From Reading we go to Oxford, where his academic career followed a majestic curve: he took a triple First in Greats and Theology and carried away all the University prizes, except for the Ireland Scholarship which he did not enter for, in order to leave the field open for a friend. In fact, throughout life he passed every examination with flying colours – until he came to take his driving test. Young though he was, he was head-hunted by B.J. Kidd, the Warden of Keble, to be Tutor of Theology at his college in succession to a man who had just gone off to be a Professor. From this time in Oxford he garnered two permanent acquisitions which would greatly affect the attitudes he would take up at the Vatican Council, particularly in the drafting of the Constitution on Divine Revelation after he had been elected in the Second Session to the reconstituted Theological Commission.

First, Oxford exposed him to the full force of both philosophical and biblical criticism to such a degree that the very foundations of his youthful religion were shaken. He was often tempted to total agnosticism and felt desperately that this all-pervading critical spirit should not be allowed to have the last word. It needed a counterweight, a living context in which criticism would have every freedom but would be redressed by the assumptions generally held by the society in which it operates. At the Vatican Council he would fight successfully for the right of Catholic biblical scholars to make full use of the methods of the various schools of criticism even if in the short term they may lead to some conclusion that does not sit very easily with orthodoxy. He was convinced that, as Newman said in his Idea of A University, 'Great minds need elbow room', and that truth will out. This was in spite of his initial deep distrust, notwithstanding Divino Afflante Spiritu, of Form Criticism, thinking it was based on very subjective criteria, a distrust he only overcame after discussions with Dom Jacques Dupont.

He emerged from Oxford to be equally positive about its philosophical onslaught on the intellectual respectability of Christianity. His time there was the heyday of Neo-Hegelianism and Idealism, before the arrival of Logical Positivism. He would never flinch from proffering a rational justification 'of the hope that was in him', and in later years his role would be primarily that of an apologist, but of the kind which always assumed the good will and reasonableness of those he was addressing. This would culminate in his radio discus­sions with Bertrand Russell and Freddie Ayer, and would continue in the years he became a bishop and President of the Social Morality Council where he would endeavour to find common ground on moral issues in public life and education with ecumenically disposed Humanists such as Lord Ritchie-Calder and Harold Blackham.

The second great debt he owed to Oxford was that there he discovered friendship. At St John's he encountered Martin Hancock who was also reading theology there. He came from a line of clergymen who had been prominent in the Christian Socialist movement with Matthew Headlam and James Adderley.[vi] He was to precede Butler into the Catholic Church where he would end up as Parish Priest of Ilford. He was to Butler what Ambrose St John had been to Newman – a lifelong confidant to whom Butler wrote every week unfailingly. The enriching reality of such a friendship had to be integrated into Butler's mental framework – that was his way. It could not be accounted for by any materialistic interpretation of the Universe, which would render it a tragic absurdity. And yet it was incontestably real, and if it was the product of God's causation must cast a shaft of light on the nature and purpose of God, its supreme cause. Undoubtedly this ratiocination would shape his mind to give enthusiastic support to the Council's presentation of Revelation not as a series of guaranteed propositions, but as an interpersonal dialogue by which God discloses himself to the human race.[vii]

But in spite of these happy fruits, his long years at Oxford were clouded by a gathering anguish about the prevalent scepticism which to some degree had also percolated into his own mental world in spite of the fact that in 1927 his own form of churchmanship was on the crest of a wave and seemed poised to take over the Church of England. As a manifestation of its confidence there took place in the Albert Hall a series of Anglo-Catholic Congresses, with an impressive array of speakers. As a sign of the mounting hopes that were set upon him, the young Mr Butler was asked to speak on 'Sacraments and Other Religions', intended to be a rebuttal of the claim of the History of Religions group at Göttingen University that Baptism and Communion arose in imitation of the rites of the ancient mystery religions.[viii] To do this task properly Butler felt he had to perfect his German and went to stay in a village in the Black Forest. There he was amazed to come across a community in which it was taken for granted that the whole population, and not just a sprinkling of, as he put it, 'the confraternity types', came together for Mass on Sundays. It was his first palpable experience of the Church as 'the People of God', as all humanity redeemed at least in principle. What had been for him previously an intellectual construct he now could see was a living reality. And when in Lumen Gentium, the Council's masterpiece, the biblical image of the Church as the People of God became the one that was pressed above all others, it was a shift of accent that won his wholehearted support.

For our purposes it is not necessary to go into all the intricacies of his conversion to the Catholic Church. I only think it relevant to draw your attention to two of its features. First, it was a move made without the slightest degree of the natural enthusiasm one normally associates with converts. He had no relish at all for Catholicism in the concrete embodiment it had in 1928, though after many hesitations and retractions his intellect and will came to recognize it as the authentic visible and universal fellowship which Christ had set in motion to bring about the communion of men with God and with one another. Secondly, chief among his grounds for hesitation were the restrictions on Catholic scholars then imposed by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the wake of the anti-Modernist panic at the beginning of the twentieth century. His fears on this score would be allayed by the knowledge that von Hügell could combine a daring practice of biblical criticism with a fundamental allegiance to Church authority, not to speak of the paramount value he set on communion through the Sacraments.

After conversion he became a monk. What aspects of this stage of his life would affect the stance he took at the Vatican Council? Normally people have the expectation that monks have an especial interest in liturgy because they are its full-time practitioners. This was not the case with Christopher Butler – indeed one might say that liturgical theology was one of his blind spots. True, he liked the liturgy to be well done. He was scrupulous to a fault in his obedience to its rubrics. But although he came to be convinced of the pastoral need for liturgical reform, liturgy never became for him 'the fountain and culmination' of Christian life and the way one entered into the mysteries of our salvation. Personal prayer was always for him the overriding imperative, and he feared that if liturgy filled the whole horizon it could end in formalism. Monasteries were not 'propter chorum fundati', but places for seeking God.

In the 1930s, while still a young monk, he was prominent in a movement at Downside, commanded by Dom David Knowles, to shift the place in a more contemplative direction and, in particular, to safeguard the monastery from being dominated by the demands and values of the growing school. The ensuing conflict was hard fought and led to David Knowles parting from the community and embarking on his soaring career at Cambridge. But what this harrowing episode taught Dom Christopher was the value of patience. Truth will out. And indeed in the course of the years nearly all the demands of this party of reformers became part of the pattern of life in the monastery.[ix] And this patience would serve him well both in his long wait for the Church to approximate more to the vision he had of her, and in the longanimity he showed and counselled in the squalls and tensions after the Council.

It was inevitable his intellectual pre-eminence and the depth of his spiritual life would carry him to the highest offices of the monastery and the Congregation. How did his experiences as head master and abbot prepare him for the Council? The salient feature of his regime was the practice of subsidiarity. He was not a superior who had to show his leadership by actively intervening in every department. He gave his subordinates their head and supported them when they were under criticism. He seems to have imbibed Bagehot's prescriptions for a constitutional monarch: to be consulted, to encourage, to warn. And he ruled the place more by what he was than by anything he did. This is not to say that in his case this style of management was altogether successful or popular or couldn't occasionally look like passivity. For subsidiarity to work there needs to be simultaneously the counterbalance of a strong but sensitive central government concentrating on the tasks that belong to its own top level, yet available to all as a court of final appeal and having the freedom to intervene in the rare cases that warrant it. This seemed to him from his reading of Early Church history to have been the relationship between the Eastern Churches and the Papacy before the Schism.

In 1961 he was elected Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation in succession to Abbot Herbert Byrne of Ampleforth, and it was in this capacity as a major superior that he would be one of the Fathers at the Ecumenical Council. The Preparatory Commission had already circulated all those who would attend, requesting their recommendations for the Council's agenda, and Abbot President Byrne's response to this request is now published in the Council's Acta.[x] It is very succinct, but when compared with the responses of other prelates it is remarkably prescient and on target as to the topics which, after the Council's tumultuous beginning and its rejection of the draft documents of the original Theological Commission, were to emerge as the Council's major preoccupations. Abbot Byrne proposed three matters for the Council's deliberations: first, the nature of the Church, secondly, its notes of unity and Catholicity, thirdly, the status and authority of bishops. He then proceeded to a general comment, asking that nothing be decided which would favour 'that tendency to centralisation which in recent years has more and more appeared in the Church, and that there be rendered not only to bishops, but to anyone who is placed in authority that due liberty which allows each to use his own discretion in the performance of his own duties'. These pleas not only articulate convictions which Abbot Byrne had long held, but also mirror accurately the mind of his successor who probably had been consulted in the drafting of this memorandum.

Abbot Butler went to the Vatican Council without any high expectations and indeed with some well-grounded fears. It was a most welcome surprise for him to discover that in the long years beforehand he had not been ploughing a lonely furrow, but that his vision of the Church turned out to be shared by so many. It is not given to everyone to see in his own lifetime the realization, at least in the book of rules, of most of their hopes. Usually the roseate outlook comes first; the bleak years of disillusion follow. Christopher Butler's life in the Catholic Church followed the opposite order. But he would have said that the distribution of light and shade in one's earthly existence is just a surface phenomenon; what really matters is that there be a progress ex umbris in veritatem.


Back to List of Symposium Speakers 



[i]  Letters and Diaries (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1973), vol. XXV, p. 310.

[ii]  (Mayhew McCrimmon, Southend-on-Sea, 1972).

[iii] (Darton, Longman and Todd, London 1961).

[iv] See R. Ashby, 'Rowan, Man of Prayer', The Tablet, 27 July 2002, pp. 7-8.

[v]  L'Orthodoxie (Delachaux et Niestlé, Neuchatel, 1959), p. 343.

[vi] See M.B. Reckitt, For Christ and the People (S.P.C.K., London, 1968), pp. 1-60.

[vii] B.C. Butler, The Theology of Vatican II (Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1967), pp. 29-31.

[viii] Report of the Anglo-Catholic Congress 1927 (Society of St Peter and Paul, London, 1927), pp. 21-32.

[ix] See Aelred Sillem, 'Father David and the Monastic and Spiritual Life' in Christopher Brooke et al., David Knowles Remembered (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991), pp. 47-65, and Dom Adrian Morey, David Knowles, A Memoir (Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1979), pp. 61-98.

[x]  See Acta et Documenta Concilio Oecumenico Vaticano II Apparando, Series 1 (Antepraeparatoria), vol. II, Consilia et Vota Episcoporum et Praelatorum, Pars VIII, Superiores Generales Religiosorum (sub secreto) (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, Rome, 1961), p. 17.