David Twiston Davies
An old embarrassment passed away earlier this month with the death of Fr Oswald Baker in the Norfolk village of Downham Market. Fr Baker’s name means little to most people today; but almost 30 years ago he became the best known Catholic priest in the country by defying his bishop’s instructions to celebrate the new Mass in English.
The media recognised “a story” in the country clergyman who was in trouble, not for sinning dramatically, but for insisting on continuing to celebrate the Mass in the way he had always done. He had the vigorous support of his parishioners. They thought so highly of him that they formed a “1570 Club” to show that they shared his love of the Latin liturgy established by Pope Pius V.
When Fleet Street’s finest joined his Sunday congregation, they found Catholics who had driven long distances to be there. To judge by some old press cuttings, Fr Baker did not permit himself to be quoted directly in interviews, but he clearly relished making sarcastic remarks about bishops in his sermons. He had a striking resemblance to Alec Guinness, playing G K Chesterton’s character Fr Brown, in the photograph of him kneeling in prayer with his rosary beads which was flashed around the world. As hundreds of people wrote him letters of support from all around the world it became clear that that this obscure parish priest was an illustration of the Catholic writer Marshall McLuhan’s then novel concept, the electronic global village.
Inevitably our bishops seemed unsympathetic and oppressive as a result. Some privately sympathised with Fr Baker’s view. They could already see that a flood of confusion had been let loose by the Vatican Council; however, they had their orders: if Rome had spoken, the case was closed. Fr Baker also represented a particular problem in that his refusal to use the new rite meant that the parishioners of Downham Market could not fulfil their Sunday duty in the approved way because there was no other priest nearby.
In the end he was forced to give up his church to another priest, who would celebrate the new rite, and he had a chapel bought for him by his supporters while being permitted to remain in his presbytery. But the strain told on him. He became ever more extreme in his views, spurning an invitation to join Archbishop Lefebvre and evolving into a sedevacantist, somebody who believed the papal chair was vacant; John Paul II was no more pope than Billy Graham, he claimed.
Fr Baker continued to celebrate Mass but, in time, his regular congregation dwindled to about 20, and he had few friends. Today the legitimately installed parish priest has about 110 Massgoers. Although he never expressly admitted that was wrong, Fr Baker is believed to have advised at least one priest not to allow himself to get into such a situation.
Fr Baker was not a bad man. He was right in recognising the abuses which were creeping into celebration of the liturgy, and which Rome is now trying to put right; one can admire him for sticking to what he thought right, though in doing so he committed his loyal followers to a lonely life outside the mainstream of the Church. One can see, too, that while the bishops had to enforce the rules, they must take the blame for letting the situation develop into a confrontation. However, if this sad episode serves as a reminder that we should all be careful to avoid driving people with whom we disagree into confrontations, Fr Baker’s story will be seen to have had some good effect.