Thus, ironically, did China enter into a golden age of civilisation.
Best of friends
HUGH Whitemore's endearing new play The Best of Friends has just opened at the Apollo Theatre. By clever stage technique it brings together three unlikely friends in real life, all of whom died within the last 30 years.
They were Sir Sydney Cockrell, the Director for many years of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge; George Bernard Shaw; and Dame Laurentia McLachlan, Abbess of Stanbrook, near Worcester.
Naturally they seldom met as Stanbrook is a strictly enclosed Benedictine Order of nuns which I have visited with pleasure before now. But they corresponded vigorously and the play provides an ingenious framework for them each to talk about their own lives and philosophy.
John Gielgud plays Cockrell in a notable return to the West End stage after ten years absence therefrom. He wears his 83 years lightly.
Unintentionally no doubt the play coincides with the 150th anniversary of Stanbrook's English foundation in 1838. The Abbey was originally founded in 1625 in Cambrai, Flanders, by nine English ladies who included three descendants of St Thomas More. They were dispossessed by the French Revolution and spent 18 months in prison in Compiegne, where four of them died. The others were released and struggled penniless to England. They eventually settled at Stanbrook where, today, part of their work is to produce outstanding items of printing. The artistry is exquisite.
Ray McAnally plays the part of George Bernard Shaw, surprisingly with an English accent, though Shaw never lost his brogue and Ray McAnally is, of course, an Irishman and brilliant veteran of the Abbey Theatre.
The difficult part of Dame Laurentia McLachlan is most sensitively played by that fine actress Rosemary Harris.
The whole is a delightful "conversation piece" in the literal sense of the word. Hugh Whitemore has done a remarkable job of research in order to bring together these three extraordinary characters.
Cockerel!, between 1908 and 1937, totally transformed the Fitzwilliam, already one of the oldest private museums in the world, into an unusually attractive treasure house of art and antiquities. Shaw was Shaw. Enough said.
The great Dame Laurentia became Abbess of Stanbrook in 1931 and died in 1953. The play is largely based on the book by Dame Felicitas Corrigan, OSB, The Nun, the Infidel and the Superman and is thus able to reproduce the exact words, from letters, of the three characters in the play.
Dame Laurentia was a brilliant exponent, among other things, of Gregorian chant. She helped make Stanrbook what it is today, as so well brought out in the illustrated guide to the Abbey: 'Each monastic enclosure is a smooth highway, a place where God is free to do his saving, liberating, healing acts, as he did in the Promised Land centuries ago."
Be sure to see this remarkable play.
`Old Brotherhood' member
WHILE I was abroad last month, Mgr Ralph Brown became, as most will already know, a Prelate of Honour, the title formerly known as Domestic Prelate. Together with Mgr Anthony Stark, the distinguished Master of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, he has also been elected a member of the "Old Brotherhood" of the English Secular Clergy which had its roots in Penal Times.
When Cardinal Allen died in 1594 there was no episcopal jurisdiction for Catholics in England until 1623 when Dr William Bishop became Vicar Apostolic. Though he had no cathedral he set up an unofficial Chapter to advise him. It was not looked on with favour in Rome during that long silence which descended on the Catholic Church in England between the early seventeenth century and the dawn of Emancipation nearly a 100 years later.
Finally, in 1850, came the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy or what some Anglicans dubbed the "Papal Aggression." The original Chapter, which had been the virtual governing body of the Church in England for two centuries, became known, as of 1853, as the Old Chapter Trust. Then, in 1862, it changed its name again, henceforth being known as the Old Brotherhood of the English Secular Clergy with a membership limited to twenty four.
The Brotherhood meets every month to "dine" together at the unusually early hour of five thirty. This commemorates the eighteenth century custom as well as allowing priests who live in the country to catch late trains back home.
The Brotherhood is thus an unusual and exclusive association. Once elected, there are, apart from death, only three ways of ceasing to be a member: by "wicked and scandalous conduct," by joining a religious order, or by becoming a bishop.