Page 8, 16th April 1976

16th April 1976
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Page 8, 16th April 1976 — Old rhythm of the Catholic year
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People: Lothian, John Bossy, Seel, God

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Old rhythm of the Catholic year

THERE is a fascinating new book out called "The English Catholic Community, 15701850". It is by Dr John Bossy of Queen's University, Belfast. I would guess him to be a Catholic, but the book is so objective and unromantic that I could not say for certain simply from reading it. (We are reviewing it elsewhere.)

It will be a wholly new sort of book to most Catholics. It does not dwell on martyrdoms or the fidelity under pressure of the laity, It is literally a most careful sociological study of a community within the community of England.

Nothing could be more English than the English Catholics. They were an upperclass sect and they were doing increasingly well even into the 19th century. They were not saved from extinction or etiolation by the coming of the Irish. They made friendly overtures to Cromwell. The secular clergy and the regulars quarrelled disgracefully in the service of God. They occasionally even informed on each other.

But one thing Dr Bossy brings out is the old rhythm of the Catholic year not so much a matter of Sundays and weekdays, more a majestic procession of religious seasons,

There were 40 great feast days and a great deal of fasting almost a third of the year passed on short commons. But they had clearly something beautiful working for them in that logical ebb and flow of joy and mourning,

Now we temporary survivors have left to us only Laster and Christmas, when the year seems to change its very nature for religious reasons. And both have been encrusted with lay parasitical growths.

Christmas has become commercialised and Easter has that extraordinary irrelevance of eggs, chicks and bunnies: and what they have to do with the Passion and Death and Resurrection, I cannot imagine. It is just as easy to ignore the irrelevancies as it is to ignore. the Christian core of it all.

I live in a place which cannot quite make up its mind whether it is a town or a village. But here Easter really does seem to mean something. In the main street, they put up-a crib at Christmas and at Easter a plain wooden cross, almost large enough to hang a man on. Our church fills up. It is a small church, and we could never have managed the ancient splendours and sights and sounds of Holy Week, But the pared-down liturgy suits us well.

Every lesson and psalm throughout the week is read by someone different. The priest and two laymen read the Passion standing in a row at our massive stone central altar. And you can hear people listening. There is no fuss. We cannot achieve magnificence. We use a little Latin here and there lest we forget. And I find the immediacy of it all, the quiet, the ease, the participation a factor which I think some of Dr Bossy's surprising earlier generations would have liked.

We do not, however, like some of Dr Bossy's upper-class laymen and women, treat our parish priest as a sort of cross between an upper servant and a pensioner. We wouldn't dare. We wouldn't want to.

Unity in the distance

IT IS taken almost as axiomatic that virtually all Christians are homesick for unity. Bishop Butler has written so. And such an aspiration is surely a natural component of Christianity itself.

However, there are some exceptions people who do not hold out their arms in longing for the further shore. There are of course fundamentalists who sec their nugget of the truth as the whole of creation.

There are many people whose religion seems to be interchangeable and indistinguishable from their politics. There are people who love to hate.

There are frightened people and people who hoard their prejudices as if they were precious legacies. And there are very stupid people and there are people with the courage of their honourable convictions.

But occasionally I wonder if we are not making too easy an assumption of what is popular opinion on the subject though certainly the Catholic Church makes no pretence of being democratic. But I do meet Catholics and so does everyone else who, like mothers who lost their sons in Vietnam, must ask in the face of the prospect of unity what all the old sacrifices were for. Why the deaths, the imprisonments, the centuries of hardship and third-rate citizenship? Then again, the other day I was talking to a group of friendly Anglican clergy. They had gone far away from the idea of those Purple Papal People, or the Italian mission to the Irish, but the separation was there as real as the colour of a man's skin.

And we talked like explorers back from different continents. One of them firmly said that the majority of his parishioners were still profoundly suspicious of Rome and still found its ways devious.

Yet when we have a joint ecumenical service in our town, more Protestants come when it is held in the Catholic church than Catholics go to the Anglican church when it is their turn.

I have only once here met an act of conscious discourtesy when a lady, hearing I was a Catholic, said, "Oh!" and turned on her heel. 1 rather liked that: but then I have traditionalist tendencies!

Despite all the arguments of the theologians, the great gestures of reconciliation, the new found courtesy and charity, the end of football team polemics, we still have a very long way to go. do not think we shall see the reality of unity in this generation not in our time, but in God's time which, unlike that of politicians, is both immeasurable and interminable.

The dying chapel

ON the outskirts of Canterbury there used to be a forlorn Catholic chapel, It was built on the estate of the Hales, who used to provide a Catholic centre for Canterbury and fostered the Faith there in penal times.

It was built by French refugee Jesuits some 90 years ago. The big house has been pulled down and the area turned into a housing estate. But the chapel remains crumbling away to itself behind railings.

It has a small graveyard and 13 lime-trees, It began to die in 1928, after the Jesuits had gone back to France.

The chapel is circular, built of brick and flint with a course of stone let into the walls. There is a lantern on its slate roof. It is small and elegant and well mannered.

The weather, neglect and our own English vandals who are always tempted by dereliction and decay, have not been kind. It is a place of importance at least to Canterbury Catholics ancl the history of Kent and it should not be left to die, decaying and derelict in a dapper dormitory area.

If you'd like to help a little, you might send something to the Hales Place Chapel Fund, to the Presbytery at 59 Burgate, Canterbury, Kent especially if you are a Man of Kent or a Kentish man there is a difference!

Redundant churches

WHEN it comes to decayed and unwanted churches the Anglicans have a far, far worse problem than us. In a 1960 report, it was estimated that there would be 790 redundant churches in need of' care within the next 20 years. They now have 84 churches in care.

They are looked after by a Redundant Churches Fund and it works astonishingly well. There has been no public appeal for money, which comes from the Government, the Church of England and from the sale of the sites of demolished churches. They come in many sorts and from many centuries. There are lonely churches whose villages have died around them and disappeared or are marked simply as mounds in the turf. There are churches built to the glory of a vanished family. There are pious chapels for which, like archaic machinery, there is now no practical use. There are some, especially in cities, as close together as public houses. Because of their desertion they tend to be marvellously untouched except where the usual enemies have got in. You can find box pews, towering pulpits, fine rood screens, newly discovered wall paintings and all permeated with that sweet ecclesiastical scent that is composed of polish and green baize and brass and old stone and just a touch of decay.

All of them have to he of architectural or historic importance. Their final fate is decided by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. When the verdict is "redundant," they are restored. It costs on average about £11,000 a church. And then they are laid up rather like battleships.

You usually have to go to a nearby house if there is one to ask for the key. They can be used on special occasions for a service but only with the permission of the bishop. And they are never declared redundant until at least a year has been spent by the diocese trying to find some proper use for them as a hostel, perhaps, a museum, an arts centre, a concert hall. At least one has been handed over to the Catholics,

One which was handed back

The one I knew which was handed back to us was a preReformation church in the nobly plain Yorkshire town of Mahon. It has a tower and spire that commands the whole town. Inside it is less splendid. Few churches can have been so ruthlessly restored in the past. It is a skeleton of a church, dry and bare and impersonal, And then there was the stained glass. Behind the High Altar there was a memorial in glass to some officer killed in the First World War. There he stood in uniform, with a sword hanging from his Sam Browne and his regimental cap on his head. One can appreciate the grief that put it there without regarding it as irreplaceable. It is a large church dedicated to St Leonard and St Mary, once served by monks from a monastery outside the town, I hope they are settling in, for to

restore any of its old parochial grandeur would cost a very great deal. It could in fact he made an exemplar to Catholics and a powerful reminder of what once was.

But it is not quite as simple as , that. When I was there, the priest, without comment, took me to see their former chapel 1820-ish. A painting of the Assumption on glass over the altar. A choir gallery. The Stations of the Cross. All small and intimate and heavy with the memory of the years when the Church in this country was beginning to emerge, almost shyly, into the open. I had got the muddled impression that we had gained a national monument and_lost a Catholic relic. Where one was huge and bare, the other was intimate and somehow closer to one's affections. But I still hope we may have the courage and initiative to acquire more, not out of triumphalism, but out of a decent, practical piety.

Good women at lunch

ON May 4 there will be the eighth annual Catholic Women of the Year lunch at Quaglino's ballroom in London. You can find out who she will be by turning up with £4 for a ticket. Profits from the occasion go to help young people who do voluntary work in developing countries.

One speaker will he Lady Lothian, the mother of six children, for ten years a journalist on the Scottish Daily Express (of lamented memory). She founded the magazine called The Catholic Mother.

The other speaker is Ms Lovatt-Dolan who is PresidentGeneral of the World Union of Catholic Women's Organisations a body which represents more than a million women in five continents.

Only the superwomen elected by the committee as Women of the Year are invited. Otherwise it will be all come, all served. If any aspect of the Church is more than usually and shamefully neglected, it is the role and the achievement of its women. In Dr Bossy's book, mentioned above, he puts the survival and even growth of the Catholic Church in England during the penal times in large measure to the fidelity and determination of the women.

Oldest artistic tradition

IT CAN be argued that the Byzantine is the oldest surviving artistic tradition in the world. It is still being used, though not always with wholly felicitous results.

But one of its glories were its ikons the small paintings of Christ, and the Mother of God and a great company of saints. In an Orthodox Church, the altar is hidden away behind a screen that is usually almost scaled with these sacred, hieratic pictures which are kissed by the faithful as they come and go during the lengthy services.

It was traditionally the function of monks to paint these ikons and there was a special prayer that the monk would say before starting a new ikon. They are acts of prayer and they are now wildly fashionable, especially in New York.

In the past unscrupulous, or naive or half-starved monks used to sell them to visitors. They are still occasionally pinched from empty churches by tourists. And monks still paint them. There are countless ikons in Russia, and the Turks in Cyprus must have got hold of thousands.

In London, however, there is a Cypriot layman who paints them. His name is Totos and his home is in Othello's ancient city of Famagusta. It is now in the hands of the Turks and it looks as if it is going to stay that way.

Totos' paintings are in the old, less garish tradition. He uses materials as authentic as he can find and paints in the traditional manner of an art that has always depended heavily upon a slowly developing tradition rather than on any sudden inspiration of the artist.

His ikons look so authentic that he was once arrested on the Dutch frontier for smuggling antiques out of the country. That actually gave him useful publicity.

You could watch him painting in the window of the Cyprus Tourist Organisation at 213 Regent Street, London. You might have to pay anything from £100 to £300. As for himself, he wants only to go back to Cyprus.

Liverpool's backstreet St Peter's

WE ARE not, in this country, rich in churches which give a stranger delight. The same divine graces, of course, are available in all of them, but occasionally you do come across one that moves the visitor in a special way.

I found a church like this the other day in a Liverpool back street. It was started in theory in 1788 and it is St Peter's, Seel Street.

It is now in a somewhat decayed area near the centre of the city. Once the street used to be lined with the carriages of the well-to-do at Sunday Mass time when the choir sang Mozart and Pergolesi.

It used to stand among fields, and the original Mr Seel seems to have been a market gardener who made a packel selling fresh vegetables to ships in port.

It is now a "protected" building, but to a Catholic it is a solid chunk of our history. Outside, it is plain and unostentatious, Inside, you can feel the effort of the generations to restore something of the glory of the past. It is run by Benedictines.

It is 'like a sound middle-class chapel inside with embellishments. The altar is classical. There is a gallery on three sides of it. It has been added to from time to time.

It is said that one of the parish priests ordered a railway wagon load of marble statues from Italy and that when it arrived the parishioners went down to the station with wheelbarrows to cart it all back to the church.

In the priest's house there are portraits of some of his predecessors bluff-looking men in black suits and high cravats as if they were farmers off to a funeral. One of them has a memorial inside the church. He died tending the Irish during a cholera epidemic. Now Seel Street is a place of "clubs". But there is real elegance still under the advertiseMents. The congregation has dwindled, though it still has 20 Chinese members. But the city council intends to rehabilitate the area. The church is pure pleasure and is the sort that makes even a stranger smile with affection. But, goodness, how Pugin would have hated it!




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