Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England in 1927, the same year that the American-born poet became a British subject. The following year, he declared that his religious position was that of an Anglo-Catholic, and he practised his faith rigorously and devotedly for the rest of his life.
Eliot’s parish church, where he was Vicar’s Warden for Father Eric Cheetham for many years, was St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road. But both Eliot’s biography and his poetry reveal his association with several other Anglo-Catholic parishes and foundations in addition to St Stephen’s. The City church of St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge, is famously mentioned in The Waste Land, where its interior is exquisitely described. St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street in the City of London is there too. The Somerset village of East Coker is the location of the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets, and the poet’s ashes are interred in St Michael’s Church there. The fourth Quartet, ‘Little Gidding’, is focused on the Huntingdonshire village church which was the centre of a Catholic-minded community in the early seventeenth century, visited by such as George Herbert and Charles I. Later in his life, Eliot visited the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, London Docks, then under the care of the Community of the Resurrection and, for many years, he went on regular retreats to such as the Kelham community of the Society of the Sacred Mission and the Benedictines at Nashdom Abbey where, had it not been for his second marriage in 1957, he had intended to spend his closing years.
Eliot had a particular association with St Silas’s, Kentish Town. Believing that it was wise to have a priest distinct from his vicar as his confessor, and having met Father Frank Lacy Hillier, Vicar of St Silas from 1930 to 1963 while on retreat there, the poet made his regular confession to Fr Hillier at St Silas’s.
Eliot’s poetry, plays and prose variously reveal his Anglo-Catholic faith. Obviously, a poem such as the Lenten meditation, Ash-Wednesday (which includes prayers to the Virgin and lines from the English Missal Mass) and Murder in the Cathedral, written at the request of Bishop G.K.A Bell of Chichester for the 1935 Canterbury Festival and celebrating Catholic martyrdom, are firmly in that tradition. More typically, however, Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic emphasis on personal and universal sin and suffering and on the redemptive process proceeding from what he regarded as the all-important event and doctrine of the Incarnation are conveyed subtly, obliquely and with appropriate tentativeness in addressing a largely unbelieving readership of twentieth-century men and women. Eliot’s greatest poem, Four Quartets, his last major work, is an extended meditation on time and timelessness, including much Christian doctrine and allusions to such specifically Catholic beliefs as Purgatory, but it would be limiting and misleading to call it an Anglo-Catholic poem as such.
Prose works – most notably, The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) - reveal Eliot’s vision of a social order based on Catholic beliefs and principles and his frank acknowledgement of the difficulty of realising such a vision in the modern age.
In the period from the 1930s until the 1950s, by which time Eliot had won the Nobel Prize, had been admitted to the Order of Merit and was the most famous poet and literary critic in the Western world, the Catholic Movement was dominant in the Anglican Communion. Accordingly, in those decades, T.S. Eliot was the best-known lay representative of Anglicanism.