Mungo was holy fun
By Patrick O'Donovan
ONE hesitates -or one pretends one does to write about the altered liturgy. It causes such little tumults of uncharity and one dislikes to be an occasion of sin or does one?
But the other clay, in the immemorially ancient and new manner, we had a baptism at our Sunday parish mass. IL was strictly standing room only. The child's family and the god-parents had gently to ask others to move up so they could be near the font. Ours is a church with an axis. Front door nathex (lobby to you), church doors, font, aisle, vestigial altar rails, wide sanctuary, a massive altar of Yugoslav marble, and at the end, the tabernacle on its own plinth and the people on three sides banked like a municipal flower garden with flowers that answer the head gardener back.
I have never seen this marvellous thing done before. Once again, we had one of those parties that make also a divine banquet of the mass. The infant Edmund Mungo was welcomed and enrolled into our community at various parts of the Mass and I do not think that even the most Sunday Dinner pre-occupied housewife there niinded the extra minutes that this baptism took.
The new ceremony involves a good deal of dialogue with priest and family peering into their pamphlets. There is a good deal of formal interrogation. There are blessings done by the priest and the family and the godparents. There is still a mild exorcism, though Edmond Mungo made hardly a sound. That day there were an unconscionable number of small children in the church. Most of it went on in a pleasant babel of cries, bangs, the clash of ever falling money, demands for attention, "Why hasn't Cousin Patrick got his coat on?" "Look there's Uncle Peter." It did not matter. It was dead to rights. And we sang the heartiest of the good hymns, because it was a welcome-in sort of party. We ended with "Now thank we all our God." And for once, the Catholics soared, vocally.
The Grandfather had sat in my unvarying seat, for which may he ever be accursed. But since he was a General, my junior curses will probably take no effect. He is also a friend, but in such things, this does not count.
It was the normal mass of the Sunday, dune in our decorous and intelligent way. It is now known as the Rite. But since 1 must let no-one know where I live, lest it embarrass the priest or appear to be vainglorious, I must leave that gap. It works, however, like Wagner on Bernard Levin. Which is probably the most obscure simile of the year.
But there was this cluster around the fine font, easy friendly, smiling, no une embarrassed, Edmund Mungo in long white clothes, our priest putting a white shawl round him, watering him out of a seashell, spotting him with oil. There was a sense of profound involvement. And if you do not believe me, you should have seen the corona of smiling faces turned towards the font. People were involved. People were gently happy, not only as they always are about a new life, but because there was a new Christian in this town and in our very non-exclusive community.
The parents stood at the font and later before the altar, answered the formal and rather banal questions as if it were all the most natural thing in the world which it is not. But it is the right attitude. And the hymns were of that kind of brilliant joy that comes in the Easter Latin.
Afterwards a parish people poured out onto our terrace and were delighted and made a little better by this happy drama of baptism.
Mungo, just in case you did not know, was a sixth century saint who founded the See of Glasgow. His mother was British and his father unknown (Tsk?) He is also known as St Kentigern. But in that part of Scotland where Glasgow is architecturally, the superior of Edinburgh, he was called in the local language "the dear one." The town that grew around him was called "Clasgu" which means "the dear family." Tell that to Celtic and Rangers.
There was a time when children were presented at the Temple. To present a nascent soul in church so publicly may be embarrassing to the stiffer English. This was lovely, without special music. No-one played Mozart. But, goodness, it was holy fun. I am too old, but mothers and fathers should present their babies to our temples and if the pp is unenthusiastic, insist. The People, who are said to be of God, are on your side.
Bargains to use or adapt
One of the small cultural and religious tragedies of our time is that Catholic parishes do not avail themselves of those city churches which are often in the wide open perpendicular style. which would perfectly suit the new liturgy. They prefer to restore their present own rather than take the plunge and buy back what was once theirs and are suddenly now available. It causes pain to some people when churches are changed into something else. Almost always now the change is not architecturally destructive and almost anyone who reads this must know of some adapted ehurch.
The DoE has produced a splendid pamphlet issued by Her Majesty's Stationery Office. It is called "New Life for Old Churches" and if you mind about these things, you should get it. The Office has many outlets, even one in Belfast where, of course, they have their own way of making churches redundant.
The great triumph of the Redundant Churches Department of the Church Commissioners is, 1 think, in Oxford.
If you know the lovely curve there of The High, you will know there are two splendid churches on the left as you walk down to Magdalen towel. (On the right are two tailor shops to which I used to owe more money than was proper for a Christian,)
One is the University Church were Newman preached and where, I think, Archbishop Cranmer was badgered by coarse friars before being taken out to be burned on the wrong side of Balliol.
There was another large and handsome church. It was designed by an amateur who was Dean of Christ Church. This was in 1699. It was a sniffing church, very rich and very unsacramental with a small but delicious little altar under a terrible richness of plaster and painting. This became the civic church. And, alas, it was not much wanted. Even in Rome you can have too many churches and Oxford at its godless and proud and beautiful heart is more richly churched than Fleet Street is pubbed.
They took this church. They lowered part of its floor. They made it into a library for a small college called Lincoln which without being one of the snob colleges, manages to have more than its fair share of creative dons. The result is marvellous. The thing looks now like one of those great libraries in a baroque Bavarian monastery. We may not now be very good creative architects, but, under God, when allowed, we can cosset our past.
But other churches have been touched with this imagination. In Tufnell Park, a church has been made into a Shakespeare theatre with an apron stage. It is splendid. There is the Hampshire Records Office in a vast Victorian church which is a masterpiece of adaption. I use it often and it does not offend. Yet it is odd to sit under ogival windows, full of androgynous angels, expecting any moment a blast of the opening lines of "Bring me my burning how" from the book stacks.
But this Redundant Churches Fund is one of the successes of our time. Perhaps because, like the National Trust, it is based upon a disinterested love for this kingdom and its still underrated glories.
Old and not-so-old churches have been put to many uses. I can see no desecration. They could be put back to their proper use if the people came back to kneel.
Small chapels make charming homes for slightly selfconscious intellectuals. In Kensington, a noble church by Norman Shaw has been turned into a youth centre and children frolic on a vast floor before a great tracery of a window. The floor has been lifted to make a better basement.
And then there are the little sad churches and chapels that
are turned into eccentric but dramatic private houses. Again, no basic damage is done. If they come back, the Christians could get them all back. In the meantime, anything to keep upright this vast t nglish treasury.
And if only, if only, us Catholics would buy the occasional church more often. Not fur triumphalism. Because sometimes we need them. Because sometimes, tending to he poor, we still live in the centre of cities around the stranded churches, Because there is a sweet pleasure in worshipping God in the marvels of our forefathers which they built for God and for us.
There is one church I know and love, that of St Ethelreda's, Ely Place in London. It was lovely. It was bombed. It was slowly restored. Small, a grand bishop's medieval chapel, it is one of the most beautiful churches in the country. I am not advocating a sort of colonial acquisativism, but if they are going and if we need a church, why not splurge on a minor 15th Century job?