Tom Howard’s Chance or the Dance was one of the influences that affirmed the decision I had already taken to leave Evangelicalism and head down the road first to Canterbury then to Rome.
I read the book while I was a theology student at Oxford, and it was while I was at Oxford that I met Tom’s sister Elisabeth Elliot–the wife of martyred Evangelical missionary Jim Elliot. The Howards were an extraordinary Evangelical family, and it was from that same breed of totally committed, missionary minded Christians that I originated.
We connected. Although our family was associated with Bob Jones University and the Howards were a generation before us and affiliated with the community around Wheaton College, we were on the same wave length. My younger sister Denise left the orbit of Bob Jones University and completed her undergraduate degree in English at Gordon College where Tom Howard was the somewhat famous professor of English.
He played the part to the full with his T.S.Eliot manners, his tweed suits, bow ties and witty repartee. He was an actor and raconteur and revelled in the joy of language. His speech was not so different from his writing style…full of fun words, unexpected turns of phrase, amusing observations and a sense of wonder in it all… “Forsooth! Can thus and so be really so? I’m aghast!”
Denise moved to England too and married an English clergyman and eventually established quite a reputation as a foremost scholar of Thomas Traherne. She had Tom Howard to thank for her career. He remembered her as a bright and promising student and was not surprised at her academic accomplishments.
It wasn’t until I left the Anglican Church and started writing that I actually had the privilege of meeting Tom. He and I had both been invited to present talks at one of Stratford Caldecott’s summer seminars in Oxford. These seminars drew Americans for a few weeks to England to enjoy the glories of old England and participate in talks and presentations on Catholicism, literature and culture.
In person Tom was humble, witty and warm hearted. I will never forget sitting next to him at the banquet we enjoyed at the close of the seminar. It was arranged to dine in the great hall of Christ Church. And as we sat at the centuries old tables surrounded by the paintings of all the great literary and cultural figues of Oxford Tom leaned over to me and said, “Just look at us. This is quite something isn’t it? We’re just a couple of Evangelical yokels from the backwoods. You from BJU and me from Wheaton College, and here were are in these panelled halls dining as if we were venerable dons at Oxford! It’s a great hoot isn’t it?”
I think I replied something like, “Yes. It is extraordinary. We’re a couple of old frauds aren’t we?”
He thought that was hilarious and we both laughed at the good blessings we had been given and the chance to have such an adventurous life.
Do you want to know what made Tom Howard the man he was and, if I may say humbly, what has made me the man I am?
It is that missionary spirit in which we were both brought up. That Evangelical world prized the missionaries–the men and women like Tom’s brother in law Jim Elliot and his parents, sister and brother–all who were missionaries.
With that missionary spirit is a great sense of adventure. You can set out and do something beautiful for God. God will provide. Do not be afraid! That missionary spirit is the apostolic spirit that has driven all great Christian accomplishments. That Tom Howard went on to take the chance of joining the great dance was taking a risk with God. It was stepping out of the boat on a stormy night to walk on the waves. That’s the spirit that led him to follow his heart to become first an Anglican then a Catholic.
It is no surprise that this is the same background of St John Henry Newman. He too grew up in an Evangelical missionary minded home. He also went to Oxford and did great things and he also left it all and set out to join the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Like me Tom Howard loved T.S.Eliot and C.S.Lewis and now we can wish Tom well and offer masses for his soul and wish him on his way and say with T.S.Eliot “Not farewell, but fare forward voyager” and with the children of Narnia, “Further up, and further in!”