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/ .