Out in the Open

It’s Summer and the sun is shining. So today I am allowing myself a little nostalgia. Imagine walking down the north side of Leicester Square in the 1950s. You come across a little court leading to Soho, and there is a small crowd listening to a speaker standing behind a one-man rostrum. You will be surprised to see a crucifix on the rostrum and to hear the speaker talking about papal infallibility or the confessional or some other basic Catholic belief. I say talking but it is more like an energetic discussion between speaker and a continuously variable little crowd.

That speaker was me. And the organisation behind it was the Catholic Evidence Guild. There were branches of this around the country but the London one was the largest. That was no surprise because the senior executive was Frank Sheed (of the publishers, Sheed and Ward). Frank, whom I knew very well, was a magnificent lay theologian. His book Theology and Sanity is a classic. If you never read another book make sure you read that one. The main presence of the Guild was Speakers’ Corner at Marble Arch (where I spoke occasionally). There was another “stand” in the City — normally used at lunchtime.

Speakers had a tough training qualifying for different subjects. They had first to present their talk in front of other Guild speakers. They were given no quarter, tears were common. Then they were interrogated by a theologian – and eventually they were let loose on the public.

Of course you started with no audience (perhaps you had a friend with you – who tried to look like a crowd). So you were largely declaiming to the air. But someone would eventually shout back and, with a bit of luck, a crowd would gradually form. Sometimes you had twenty or more listeners. And occasionally you had the treat of genuine, useful, discussion. Just once or twice a listener would speak to me after I had finished. It was usually a personal question – which I either could answer or give them where they might get help.

I benefitted considerably from the experience. Most obviously I have never been frightened by an ordinary audience: normal audiences don’t behave like the Leicester Square crowd. And. decades later, I was earning rather an attractive amount of money as a professional public speaker. How splendid to be paid for doing something that brings you joy!

Naturally,I had to develop my knowledge of a wide range of Catholic theology, and of course all the objections people might throw at it. I had, and still have, a three volume treatise on this, called Radio Replies. Spend five minutes at http://www.radioreplies.info/radio-replies-vol-1.php?t=26 . You will get a sample idea. (I have chosen the subject of the Catholic view of Reformation Churches since we have recently discussed this. Nowadays we would probably speak more kindly, but the doctrine is the same.)

As far as I know, the Catholic Evidence Guild no longer operates. However Catholic Voices started in 2010. The focus here has been not the street corner but the media. They aim to get opportunities, on the radio for instance, for well briefed (and trained) Catholics to explain issues which are in the news. I was briefly associated with them at an early stage to assist in their preparation. This is clearly a better solution than Speakers Corner in today’s world. And they continue to develop new ideas – such as talking to the laity at parish level about how to explain the Church in a productive and positive way. Austen Ivereigh’s book “How to Defend the Faith” is something of a classic.

Possibly, visitors to this Blog can bring us up to date. The Catholic Voices website is at http://www.catholicvoices.org.uk/ .

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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8 Responses to Out in the Open

  1. David Smith says:


  2. ignatius says:

    Thanks Quentin,
    At least you had plenty of preperation! I’ve had plenty of experience facing the crowds too, in the streets and shopping centres of Maidstone, Stoke and Walsall This was in my early evangelical days when you just went out on the street without training or back up.., picked a spot and began!! good for the soul maybe!! My copy of Theology and Sanity arrives today 🙂

    • Quentin says:

      Do tell us whether you approve of Theology and Sanity once you’ve had a chance to read it. Frank Sheed could hold a big crowd at Speakers Corner simply discussing the Trinity.

  3. ignatius says:

    Yes I will. I contacted Catholic Voices too but their training days this year are all in London which I can’t make. Great idea though so thanks for bringing them to my attention. I’ve been for sometime now mulling over the idea of setting up a Catholic face book page for ‘beginners’ but haven’t got round to it yet.

  4. David Smith says:

    // Natural law was another key concept in Sheed’s apologetics. His books, especially Theology and Sanity, provide a crash course on natural law: the rules of the road for successful living in the cosmos. //


  5. ignatius says:

    There is an interesting aspect to all this which is the question of how to do modern evangelism. If I ever raise this issue amongst fellow catholics everyone seems to get into a flurry of finger pointing and blaming a whole variety of socio political issues. When asked the question:
    ” when was the last time you shared the basis of your believing with a non religious individual?”
    there is mostly a mildly resentful but chiefly frustrated silence.

    I mention this because I am puzzled with regard to this issue. There was a time as a young evangelical convert I would have been quite keen to share ‘the gospel of Christ’ with anyone I met. Now mostly I get to speak about these things is mainly in the course of my work: in Prison, at parish events, or in my other job as an Osteopath when individuals show interest in either my ordination or in the ikon of Mary which hangs on the wall of my Practice room. Despite the fact that I’m more than happy to potter about the town with my dog collar on and engage with whoever so wishes.. I seem to discuss personal faith with fewer people.

    It is quite a common experience that as our faith life interiorises and deepens so we probably pray more but speak less of the Lord whom we love. It does seem to me that we all share the duty however of asking others to Church at least from time to time in order that RCIA groups may flourish. I think that the sharing of faith is a difficult issue, in England at least, for most people.

  6. milliganp says:

    Britain is a strange place to be religious because of having an established religion. I meet lots of people who consider themselves Church of England who have hardly ever participated in a church service (other than christenings, weddings and funerals). These same people think Catholics are superstitious, that we worship Mary and that we think a piece of bread is God.
    CS Lewis, responding to someone who said Britain was becoming pagan, replied “if only that were true, for pagans are always ripe for conversion”.
    It is one thing to convince a pagan the truth of Christ or to convince a thoughtful Anglican of the reasonableness of the doctrine of Transubstantiation – another entirely to awaken a religious sense in someone who is not even aware of what they might be missing.

  7. ignatius says:

    “….It is one thing to convince a pagan the truth of Christ or to convince a thoughtful Anglican of the reasonableness of the doctrine of Transubstantiation – another entirely to awaken a religious sense in someone who is not even aware of what they might be missing…”

    Yes, this is precisely the point. I find it much easier to ‘awaken the religious sense’ in persons who are already sniffing around the possibility. I still have conversations about the soul, sin, salvation ,the presence of God but in my own talk I almost never use a wholly ‘ logically reasoned’ approach as it was the mystery of faith which caught my attention and led me to conversion; I think these times are less impressed by logic and rationality alone, something else is required.

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