THE VILLAGE of East Meon in Hampshire is one of those villages which English soldiers dream of going back to before they go into battle. They do not go back to them because they very rarely came from such places.
And yet the ideal used to be kept of a place where — if the truth be told — most of them, were they not comfortably off, would have taken to the bottle, gone broke for lack of suitable employment or else broken their hearts in the traumatic attempt to rise one class upwards.
But the dream and the ideal was and is a good one. It is merely impractical. East Meon is decently beautiful in a restrained manner. The houses, shoulder to shoulder, on a Tshaped plan are inward looking
and now cry out tor stockbrokers.
It has two lordly public houses decked all round the year as if for the night of some great feast day, with lights and worshipping motor cars drawn up like animals round a manger.
And if I sound disapproving, it is in fact enchanting and it has an open stream running down its main street, beautifully disciplined between brick banks. All villages should have such a Running water to the Arab is one of thc great mercies of God. In Britain it has tended to
be a nuisance — though not this strange and deadly year.
But tucked away in this village there is a Catholic chapel, It is hidden up a side street and has clearly been bought from some other dissenting sect. (For we are that, too).
The village is dominated by a huge Anglican parish church which is a splendid confection of Gothic styles crowning a high bank.
There is nothing splendid
about the Catholic chapel. It has no tower and no bell. It is a .chapel of ease for Petersfield. Nothing plainer could be imagined. Its windows could just be described as lancets. It is painted quite white.
The problem of what to do with unwanted churches has been aired here often enough, and sects do rise and sink like billows.
This decent building, a real part of the history of the English people, has been found aproper
use and the Mass is said in a
place that once rocked with
evangelical song and, with a
warm, austerity, smell of paraffin lamps.
Some prefer picturesque ruin
There has been a protracted correspondence in The Times recently about what to do with redundant churches. Apparently a lot of non-Christians think it wrong that they should be turned into dwellings or secular public buildings.
Some think it better that unwanted churches be allowed to sink into picturesque ruin. But there is little chance of that with our contemporary vandals who are both more effective and less selective than were the Cromwellian soldiery.
This chapel could have been made into a dwelling. suitable for a bearded artist in an enormous pullover. I can see nothing wrong with that, even if the church were as old as Durham Cathedral. They could always get it back when the demand for God grows again.
But in East Meon they have done the minimum — an altar with a rich frontal, a crucifix with Christ robed as a priest, a decent statue of Our Lady and a reproduction of the ikon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
There is no harmonium — which suits me. Either all 'English hymns were written for nuns who can manage the occasional pious bat's squeak or the harmonics are pitched too high. A man just starts the hymns here and fits them comfortably to his own range.
It also has a tester slung over the altar. This is a plain canopy, a conventional mark of honour. There are several medieval ones surviving in the district_ If there is anyone living over a church, which not many people do, you are bound by church law to have a tester over the altar.
It is most important that people should know about such things and I wish I could remember who gave me this invaluable information.
I went to someone's memorial Mass there this last week. I would if I could give it some sort of prize for the sensible affection which has clearly been lavished on this chapel, and for the fact that its furnishers knew when to stop.
I HAVE had a letter from a respected friend saying that I ought to use this column "to put an end to a practice which ought to have been ended years ago". There's faith in the power of the Press for you!
He objects to the taking of the collection at the same time as the choir is singing a motet or something similar. Motets indeed! He'll be wanting incense next. All right for those who can afford a choir.
Down here we sing our own offertory hymn while a couple of stalwarts go round with the plates and two children, usually, hover like those weather-vane people in Swiss barometers at the entrance to the sacristy wondering when to come out with the -ciborium and the wine and water.
It is mildly fascinating to discover whether the hymn will decently cover the taking of the collection. Then it all comes up to the priest who hands it round to a tumult of altar boys which grows larger week by week — though that might be my imagination.
I don't see when else you could or should take up the money. Some people have an almost conscientious disinclination to sign a covenant. And those envelopes get left behind. Or you may be away from your home sanctuary.
And when else should the money be taken up except at the offertory? Priests must live and leaks in the roof be stopped. There is nothing intrinsically bad about money; that lies only in its misuse. My old friend is extremely fortunate to get a silencecompelling motct. If the crash of silver offends him, he will find a fiver more silent even then a Rolls-Royce. Ile had been to the Carmelite Church in Kensington which is all very well with all those opera singers in the gallery. Down here we find the crash of money interesting and taking the plate round is a fascinating sociological exercise. Taking the money at the door simply does not work — even if you have two collectors. And I would miss Andy's keen scrutiny. Sunday by Sunday, of what goes in.
Curiously, I am bad with the plate. I tend to miss out whole rows of people and have to be recalled by one of those reptilian hisses that people use for calling attention in church.
Acting at St St James Church
ONE of the best things about having a niche like this, even if it be on the back page, even if it be sore pressed by the engagements of the bishops, the obituaries of the worthy dead and the advertisements of mildly desperate Christians, one of the best things is that I can write about what I like — well, almost. I am learning, like a rat in an electrified cage, those things which are better left unsaid, One of the things I like is the Church of St James, Spanish Place. If I had a guinea for every time I went to Mass there as a child, you could all come to dinner.
But I see that they are doing something which sounds enterprising and exciting. They are putting on a play there. If you are reading this in Leeds or Glasgow, this may not seem very relevant. And yet it could be a part of the endless apostolate.
The English drama did not start at Epidaurus or in the Roman theatres; it started in English churches and it was taken from the Church to the people sometimes literally on carts.
After all, especially in the high days of Holy Week, the liturgy is still a drama. You watch the faces of people crowding forward to kiss the Cross on Good Friday or watch them listen to the Passion when it is read by three competent people — in English.
Anyway, St James's, that severely splendid church, is going to have a bash. The play is called "Coming of Age" and is by Wilfred Harrison and is done by the Octagon Theatre Cornpany, who are a repertory from Bolton. The play was written to be performed in Church.
The scene, bless me, is a redundant church. It is up for auction. The bidders start talking of what they will do with the building if they get it. Someone inevitably asks: "Well, what is a church for, anyhow?"
This is answered by a dramatisation of the writing of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, that marvellous German pastor who
rejected Hitler and was hanged
only a few days before the
American forces reached his concentration camp.
The play ends with the singing of the 150th Psalm, "0 Praise God in His Holiness", which is right because Pastor Bonhoeffer went to his death almost rejoicing and was a man who towered over our sectarian walls.
It will be performed on Wednesday and Thursday, October 27 and 28, at 7.30 pm. It will cost you a quid to get in — half price for students and old age pensioners. I have read the play and hope to see it happen in my own special church.
New liturgical installation
I READ in an American magazine recently that it was the microphone which finally made the triumph of the vernacular over the Latin in the Mass inevitable.
The theory was that electronics murdered the Latin and exposed the frequent inadequacy of the priest's latinity. They said it sharpened and intensified the Latin to a meaningless degree. I cannot say that I was wholly convinced, though it could, I recall, be startling, during one of the quiet bits, suddenly to have nobis quoque pecatoribus roared in your ear from the top of a nearby pillar. Before microphones, we accepted the distant mutter and either followed the Mass in our Cabrol Missals from Burns & Oates or clashed our rosaries or knelt there, a prey to enchanting distractions.
Do you remember all those "holy pictures" and memorial cards which people used to keep in their missals? My sisters used to come back from the convent with missals like filing systems. It appears that they were an accepted way of communication among Catholic girls.
Since they would invariably flutter out and away during Mass into the undergrowth of
the chairs in Spanish Place, they infuriated my father. There was little he could do since each term the supply was invariably replenished.
Particularly prized were cards with an olive leaf from the Mount of Olives stuck on. And they used to have the most extraordinary things written on their backs.
But we have changed all that. Perhaps the microphone did play a part in the change. Certainly the microphone, at least in large churches, has become almost a liturgical instrument.
It stands among the sacred vessels on the altar and when knocked with the base of a chalice gives out that solemn "bonk" that we have all learnt to expect during discussion programmes on television.
But watch a good master of ceremonies in a Cathedral to see the glory of the thing. Few thrones and no faldstools are wired for sound, so in England, at least, he whips it and its trailing cord reverently from place to place.
And he does not, as they do abroad, continually tap the thing or blow into it, making a mighty wind, as if he had no faith in its efficacy.
Perhaps we should have an annual ceremony for the blessing of the new mikes. Fr Agnellus Andrew and the staffs of the religious broadcasting departments could attend in state.
And I am quite prepared to put this new sacramental into the sort of Latin that was thought good enough in the collects of the old Tridentine rite.