IT IS, or it should be, a matter for gratitude that towns, like people, do not have to be physically beautiful to be loveable or admirable. Take this description of a town from an encyclopaedia. How deeply sinks the heart!
"Co. and municipal bor. and seaport in Lancs., England, on the Ribble, 21m SSE of Lancaster, with which it is connected by canal. It is the administrative centre for the Co. Buildings include the Harris library, art gallery, and museum, and Harris Institute founded in 1882, municipal building (1933), the tn. hall and guildhall, seriously damaged by fire in 1947, and the public hall," After more deadly details, it goes on ...
"The churches in P., sev. of which are Ftom. Catholic, are all modern." Yet under its coat of arms which consists of the Lamb of God couchant it has the initials P.P. Locally they are construed as Proud Preston, or Priests' Preston or, to be exact, Princeps Pads,
It is in fact a marvellous, down to earth place where the porters on the railway station are polite and the spirit of the place arrogantly survived the worst assaults of the Industrial Revolution.
Every twenty years it holds an extraordinary fair called the Preston Guild in which they celebrate their industries. 0. Cromwell, in a rather bloody manner, defeated the Royalists here. The Young Pretender proclaimed in the market place. A couple of Lords were executed here. The Young Pretender visited it on his sad and useless invasion of the South. This is no mean nor uneventful city. But it looks red and made of brick, the sort of place where the Upper Classes do not stop on the journey North.
The odd thing about the place is that it is so Catholic about 40 per cent of it. And it is not the Irish that did it, only a local loyalty. I do not know if it is mischievous to mention it, but as far as I can make out the Lord Lieutenant, the Vice Lord Lieutenant, the High Sheriff and the Mayor are all Catholics. One almost feels like objecting.
But at present this sturdy town where they sell one of the best working cheeses in the world and still have "pork butchers" that sell delicacies unknown in the South, even in Fortnum and Mason's, which has a character which I think is the strongest in England and which is fun without being riotous, which is a jungle of my sort of architecture, where ladies call you "luv" and the police, for some inexplicable reason, were all in the Scots Guards — this is celebrating a great anniversary.
800 years ago King Henry II gave the place a Charter. (He was the one said to be responsible for the murder of that rather tiresome Archbishop of Canterbury.) This charter given in 1179 let the freemen of Preston sell their wares without fee, fine or toll. "Foreigners" had to pay.
Moreover Henry, a slightly manic person in the Plantaganet manner— after all, they were said to be descended from the Devil — decreed that "whoever shall be a freeman of Preston shall be a freeman of England and shall travel throughout the King's domain without payment fee, fine or toll." And England at that time included the best part of France and, later, of Ireland, and of course of Wales. I don't think we'd nicked Scotland yet. Can a Freeman of Preston — clearly no mean city — refuse to pay at airport car parks, at the toll bridge in Sandwich or the great Sum demanded of people like us to enter the Tower of London?
So they have been celebrating. There are 25 Catholic parishes in the Preston area. There are five Deaneries. There are uncounted chapels in schools and nunneries. Well, if they are counted they have not been counted by me.
They have had a luncheon for the Apostolic Delegate in the Town Hall. There has been an overwhelming High Mass in St. Walburg's Church which was designed by Hansom who did the cab. They sang the Credo in Latin. They surprised themselves with their glory.
There were about a hundred priests concelebrating. The church is marvellous. It is said to have the second highest spire in England — after Salisbury, of
The Cardinal is coming to preach — he will have done so by
now — if he lives so long. But the thing, the real thing is the loyalty and pride and dignity of this town which is not a city. Which is not lovely in any physical way. Which is one of the splendours of the English spirit. And which is inexplicable and important to us, the survival of the Old Religion. And which I love. Especially in Proud Preston.
Hurrah for heretics!
THERE A RE occurrences in other churches over which Catholics should rejoice. One of these is the appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.
I cannot claim to know him well, though we were in the army together and he claims to be able to remember me. One hesitates to try to recall the traumatic occasion that should engender such an accuracy of memory. But when the Pope, the Cardinal in Westminster and the Primate of All England, not to mention our Prime Minister, are all younger than one, it must mean something or other.
It's not very easy to be Archbishop of Canterbury. You are not even a mini-Pope. Your sole official job is to be the Metropolitan of the southern half of England and you cannot sack recalcitrant bishops and even getting rid of a riotous rector can be a long, painful and uncertain process.
True you get a seat in the House of Lords, crown the Monarch, are the unheard conscience of the nation, are treated with a vast respect but little obedience by the many provinces of the Anglican Church, are not allowed to make dogmatic pronouncements, are chairman, really. over a group 01 Christians who glory in their diversity and intellectual freedom and yet are conjoined by an indefinable but recognisable tradition of faith and freedom and civilisation and decency and the love of God. it may not have the fullness of the truth, but it is, under God, a most enchanting form of Christianity.
He also gets a palace at Lambeth of quite astonishing discomfort, fit only for garden parties, large receptions for alien patriarchs and for the occasional ingathering of impressionable curates. It is rather bare and underfurnished.
It has also an Anglican church at its gateway which nobody wants. One of our own, sad Marian bishops is buried there.
But it is a great office of state and I cannot think of its equivalent in the world. The Pope is a Sovereign. This Archbishop is the conscience of a nation that cares and pretends not to. Woe betide the Archbishop who does not please the popular press with his platitudes.
Robert Alexander Kennedy Runcie, MC, was long since predicted as the next Archbishop by Charterhouse in The Observer. But where does he stand in ecclesiastical politics? He is not an evangelical. He is described as a "radical Catholic" — whatever that means, since all Catholics should be almost insanely radical.
He knows a great deal about the Holy Orthodox Church which is a pretty sobering experience. Their unrelenting hatred of Rome — especially in Greece and its Holy Mountain of Athos— has to be met to be believed. Their basic indifference to the Anglicans is insulting. Pope Paul in Jerusalem paid a formal call upon the Ecumenical Patricarch in the house of the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, The Jerusalem Patriarch, Benedictos, came downstairs specially to tell the journalists that nothing of any importance was going on upstairs. Now the Greek Church is making a fuss about the exchange of diplomats between the Vatican and Athens. And there are little and charming enclaves of Catholics in Greece, largely left over from the Crusades. But their knowledge of Rome is a more evil experience to the Orthodox than their experience of Islam. And anyone who denies this is to me a slightly dishonest person.
For the most part the line of Canterbury prelates is of a staggering distinction and even sanctity. Of course, like the papacy, they had their off moments. I reported the other day that at the vast Wednesday Mass at Lourdes, an Anglican priest prayed in the bidding prayers for the help of the Holy Spirit in the choice of their chief bishop. I really believe that they got it, for this man is a man of elegance of mind and of moderation and of charm. Hurrah for heretics? (Especially when they come from the Brigade of Guards.)
High and dry in Sinai
THERE ARE a few places in the world which I would still like to visit. How wonderful to go to Tibet — and think of Mr Ted Heath, uncomprehending and po-faced and incapable of sacred rage — going there as a guest to be shown the disgraced and deserted monasteries and the cruel ruin of a theocentric civilisation which never showed, despite its poverty, the sort of misery you can find in Prague or the slums of Rome.
How fantastic to walk, unaccompanied, through that vast cliff faced palace which was the Potala where the Dalai Lama lived. What on earth were all those blind eyed rooms for? There was no interior, royal splendour, but room after room, about as gorgeous and repetitive as a bee hive.
I shall never be able to go there. The other place is the monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai Desert. I have read an unique account of it in the New Yorker magazine.
Just now it happens to be in Israeli territory. It is due to be given back to Egypt. I have never been there and clearly I never will.
It was founded by the Emperor Justinian and was dedicated to a virgin martyr of Alexandria who was tied to a spiked wheel which did not hurt her. Then they cut her head off. And then they found her remains on one of the hare, brown, appalling, lunar mountains that make this part of our pitiful globe the most undesriable over which sad men chose to right.
But it is of incredible antiquity. About 530. It's been surrounded by a great defensive wall and it has been left high and rather dry by the Moslem tide of otriniconquest. It includes a mosque within its Chrisitan walls. It is now subject to a tide of invading tourists that the monks — about 6 of them — resent as much they did the hordes of Islam who left the place alone.
When I was a child, I gave ten shillings towards the purchase of the Codex Sinailicus which is one of the oldest versions of the Old and New Testaments. It is very plain and sensible and probably written in the fourth century and
was taken by a German scholar on the pretence that he wanted to show it to the Tsar of all the Russias upon whom they largely relied. They have die German's receipt in the Monastery. It never came back.
The Soviet government sold it to the Biritsh Museum for £100,000. And that thing is on display in Bloomsbury.
But this strange walled enclosure where the Orthodox and the Bedouin worship in their different ways, contains unimaginable and also rather horrible treasures.
There is a:plain church which is ablaze inside with ikons and frescoes.
There is a library crammed, and locked, with early Christian manuscripts which are probably second only to those in the Vatican library. There are hundreds of early and priceless icons. But the monks, beseiged by buses of tourists, are unwelcom
ing and inhospitable. Israelis are not sensitive tourists. The library has at last been catalogued by British and American scholars. The monks are resentful rather . than loving in their care for their treasures, But then no one even accused them of being scholars and they flogged a few treasures themselves.
But once during one of their Wars, they lent me a military motor car and sent a Colonel to guide me. He was certainly not a Jewish believer. He was charming and civilised and even bought me wine. But he said that when he was young and had travelled at war through this part of the Sinai, all, but all, of his soldiers had fallen awed and silent. That is what he told me. This was the place, not the Christian site, but a different One 'accepted by the Jews, where the tablets of the law were handed down. No explanation.