I was envious of the Anglican synod
I WENT to three very different religious occasions this week. The first was the
General Synod of the Church of England. This is the Parlia
ment of the Established Church. I do not know if we have anything to learn from it, but I found myself feeling somewhat envious of it.
It is composed of all the bishops, with representatives of the clergy and laity who have been elected to the Synod from the parish level up. And it is a genuinely legislative body. True, it is very subject still to Parliament, but it decides, really decides, on the organisation, the prayer and the discipline of its Church. Women are well represented. It is not an advisory body. For us, the Pastoral Council And what influence has one of these ever had? Our only real legislative body is the National Conference of Bishops. Everything else is either a pressure group or a cosmetic or a consultative body totally without executive authority.
Perhaps our way is best and that the Church, of its nature, cannot take on the forms of democracy. The will of the Faithful does exist and does very slowly make itself felt.
(Witness the nature of the choice of the last two Popes). But it was fascinating to watch this parliamentary procedure — and proper boring most of it was too — to the affairs of God.
They sat in a great, round debating chamber in Church House in Westminster. There was a good deal of referring back and of points of order and of amendments to sub-section this or that in some careful proposal.
Among their opening prayers they used the new form of the Lord's Prayer. It sounded clumsy and was even more obscure than the original. But it was fine to see so many dedicated laymen, certainly not driven by the equivalent of a politician's ambition, working so long and so hard and so carefully and with real authority for their Church.
The second I attended was a Renewal Service in Alton. One of these is held every Saturday afternoon in this small respectable town in the convent school of the Sisters of Providence. They have a large assembly room chapel and it was packed, bulging out of
the doors, overheated with a crush of bodies.
True. Bishop Langton Fox of Menevia, a tall, easy man whose diocese is reputedly the poorest in England and Wales, was visiting. And he has taken the Pentecostalists under his wing.
All afternoon they prayed and sang and lifted up their arms, and 1 thought brought a new and uncontrived joy and emotion to their essentially simple prayers and songs.
They ended with a Mass said in the middle of the mob which overflowed onto and around the dais, which engulfed the little band of guitar and recorder players which rose above the bowed heads, sunk in concentra
tion, like a group of Olymp c athletes at their moment of triumph, separate yet also part of the mob. They went on for four and a half hours.
The Bishop spoke at length, very simply, about the sort of almost untapped graces offered, and he spoke unaffectedly and as an equal. It is a growing movement. It is still something that genuinely repels or frightens many people.
It is in fact wholly orthodox. It is something important. It is not hysterical. It is under the best of all controls which is self-control and it is not a Billy Graham phenomenon but just another of the sources of wealth in the Church.
Another of these sources was on display in our parish church last Sunday. Once a year we have a visit from a non-denominational local amateur choir called the Ashton Singers. Their simple delight is to sing polyphony. As amateurs, their standards are professional.
And so we sat through the cool harmonies of a 17th century Mass and motets by Bruckner and Poulenc. It could not have been more different from Alton, and yet it was the same.
This addition of an extra dimension of great beauty to the Mass is accepted in cathedrals and monasteries. In a small parish church — well, a fairly small parish church — it comes like finding a Rubens in your attic. And then when we sang our last hymn—"All People that on Earth do Dwell" — unexpectedly the choir came in with a soaring descant.
A nest of singing birds we are not, but suddenly our church was filled with splendid sound and we made a tremendous noise to the Lord. We sang like Chapel folk. Perhaps it would not do for every Sunday, for it does limit participation. But it was curiosuly noticable that the people who rabbit on about their regrets for the pre-Counciliar beauty of the Church were not there. Still, the congregation came out beaming.
The great survivor
FAR BE IT from me to point the finger or cast the first stone. For there is a sort of freemasonry among those who make mistakes. But the extraordinary numbq of Catholic registers and reference books produced each year also make mistakes.
A correspondent, doubtless of evil but jovial intent, has drawn my attention to an extraordinary fact. The living and active Gerard Hetherington is recorded as having been ordained in 1664, and this in the Portsmouth diocesan yearbook of 1979.
This heroic recusant and seminary priest survived the worst of the penal years as well as an education in the Low Countries and is now the parish priest of Fareham in Hampshire. I do not expect to avoid his displeasure for drawing attention to his record.
But if such facts are fed into the Bishop's computer, willy nilly, by some nun with her mind on even higher things, there could be disasterous consequences on the statistics dealing with the average age of our priests.
While on the subject of misprints, there is sad and recent news from Latvia. The Com
munist Youth paper Padomju Jaunatne got the words Apspnesana, meaning discussion, mix'd up with Apspiesana, meaning oppression. It might happen to the most loyal of us.
But as a result, a Communist Party edict ordered everyone who was anyone "to review the comments and recommendations made by the people in the course of the peoples' oppression regarding the new draft of the constitution for the Soviet Republic of Latvia."
Well. it could happen to anyone. Except that our lot do not have heart attacks when they find such errors as did the Editor, Mr F. Papins, when he saw it in print. The new Editor of Padomju Jaunatne is a lady.
READING a BBC hand-out I had a moment of extraordinary insight. It announced that Michael Aspcl, he of the innocent and reassuring face, was going to take a weekly look at "the
star-studded world of prediction and mysticism". On Fridays.
This could only mean one thing — that he was going to indulge in the charismatic gifts of prophesy and that he would seek on Fridays that union with God which is given to the greatest and most assiduous and selfdisciplined of saints. It was a prospect to comfort the hearts of sinners and non-believers in the BBC.
You can take take that last either way.
But what could he show? Of course he could blind on about the coming fire and the date of the next General Election. He would not have levitated for, though this is perfectly easy to simulate with TV's physical technology, it was never done by the great mystics, and St Teresa of Avila positively disapproved of leaving the ground.
However, there was my favourite, St Joseph of Cupertino (1603-1663). He ought to be the patron saint of hang-gliders. And the disturbing thing about his exploits are that they undoubtedly happened, annoyed and incommoded his brethren, were witnessed by princes, and in history are as well authenticated as the fact that Louis XIV used to dance in ballets.
He came from South Italy. tie was poor and ignorant and perhaps rather stupid. He had a bad temper, which he overcame, and was much given from the age of eight to ecstasies which earned him the nickname of "Rocca Aperta."
One lot of friars refused him for his lack of education. He became a lay brother near Taranto, but he was sacked because his ecstacies interfered with his work. The Franciscans at Cupertino took him on as a stable worker, and, despite the fact that he read at a less than "0" level, eventually let him become a priest.
Anything holy, even the sound of a church bell, could bring on an ecstacy. In choir he was frequently airborne. And nothing could bring him round except the command of his Superiore. Not even pins.
So for 35 years he was not allowed to attend choir, go to the refectory, join processions or say Mass in church. He was even taken before the Inquisition.
He was exiled to horrid, lonely convents, but he remained serenely happy, despite the fact that a lot of people resented him and were beastly. It is even recorded that when he died his coffin went up during his Requiem and had to be ordered down. I confess I doubt that one.
But I suppose we dare expect nothing like this from Michael Aspel in his "world of prediction and mysticism". The PR boys at the BBC have used mysticism as a fancy word for magic or astrology or accomplished conjuring, or even perhaps paranormal phenomena. Though I doubt that one too.
May St Joseph of Cupertino assist him in his programme and may all the great mystics who sought to know God forgive him — or at least his publicists.
Backbone of piety A CTS PAMPHLET about Bishop Challoner has just been published. It is as bald as the Bishop's life — of which a great deal is not known. But in fact he was and is a major ingredient in the nature of English Catholicism.
Now, even within these islands, the national and even regional faces of Catholicism vary richly. Yet English Catholicism itself, since and during the Reformation, has, to my reckoning, produced three major poets, three major musicians, two major architects. one noble statesman and one theologian-philosopher of world stature.
This is putting it at its lowest. It has produced a raft of aristocrats of antique lineage and remorseless eccentricity. It has also produced some very inferior conspirators.
But there is also basic to it a down-to-earth piety, a sort of heavy-booted, unemotional loyalty which does not prevent them being suspicious of foreigners.
Challoner, who lived from 1691 to 1781, bridged the period between the tail end of persecution and the beginning of emancipation. It was a time when the fortunes of the Church here reached their very lowest.
He was the son of a Presbyterian wine cooper from the dedicated no-Popery town of Lewes. He became a Catholic at 13, probably because his mother worked for Catholics.
He went to Donay in the Low Countries, a comfortless hothouse of the Faith which grew 160 martryrs. And he wrote his first book there: "Think Well On't".
Then he came back to England as a priest and withiln nine years became Assistant Bishop to Bishop Petre, a rich and rather indolent aristo, and he had to do most of the work.
England was then in the care of four Vicars-General, and the London Viciarate contained 10 counties, the Channel Islands and the American colonies.
Leaving out America, Challoner got around it in three years and wrote prodigiously. He wrote "The Garden of the Soul"l, which has been adapted again and again but which used to be the backbone of English piety. Most Catholic houses will have a copy still — somewhere.
He also revised the Douay version of the Scriptures, the Catholic equivalent of the Authorised Version — very similar and, as literature, almost as good. It was used for 200 years and now seems to have disappeared from sight. Pity) It should be used for solemn occasions.
It was a strange time. In 1778 the British Government desperately needed more soldiers to help lose the American War of Independence. The best of these came from the Highlands of Scotland, and many were Catholic and would not take the anti-papal oath on enlistment.
So through an intermediary Lord Petre — the Government negotiated with Challoner who should, by law, have been in gaol. He then held a position equivalent to that of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. This resulted in the Catholic Relief Act of 1778.
Priests were legalised and the pressures lifted. But two years later there were the Gordon Riots — led by Lord George Gordon, who was a mad Protestant who died in gaol as a serene and orthodox Jew.
The riots were technically antiCatholic. The rioters burned some of Challoner's chapels, but they were more an incoherent and hideous protest against the Establishment than against Popery. They burnt the house and library of the Lord Chief ustice. Challoner had to flee to Pinchley.
It was in the 1860s that many considerable English Catholic families gave up. They had held out during the worst of times; as it got easier they chose to rejoin the State in the position their rank and wealth commanded.
Ennui and the apparent pointlessness of the Catholic (and Royal Stuart) cause worked better than fines and persecution. The great growth of the Church in England and before the Irish Diaspora, came after Challoner's death. He made it possible.
He was austere and hardworking and said Mass in cockpits and pubs and anywhere else, and wore a wig under his mitre. His contemporaries thought him a saint. He is buried in a tomb designed for someone else (for instance, Nelson lies in Wolsey's in the crypt of St Paul's) and though it is hard to detail his personality, he was one of the greatest of our re-Founding Fathers.
The CTS pamphlet says that his sorrow over the Gordon Riots undoubtedly hastened his end. He was 90 when he died.