11 December 2009

The S Thomas's High Altar

St Thomas's is unlike any other English medieval parish church that I know: it has a Baroque high Altar with a fine copy of Raffael's Madonna di Foligno. The style of it all is a bold and unmistakeable visible demonstration of Papalism and of longing for Christian unity, for unity with the Holy See.

The first generation of the Catholic Revival emphasised the continuity of the C of E with the medieval English Church. Taking the Prayer Book 'Ornaments Rubric' literally, it strove to make churches - and clergy - look as they would have done in 1548. But in the twentieth century, a new aestheticism led the way to a new self-understanding - and a new appetite for Unity. The baroque could express the assertion that the Church of England was not a survival of the second year of Edward VI but a living part of the Catholic Church of Italy, Spain, and France. Medievalism was left (as Ronald Knox, who used to come down to this parish so that he could say Mass in Latin, explained) to the 'comparatively moderate party' who asserted 'loyalty' to the C of E by fulminating against 'Roman innovations'. (This was the period when Sir Ninian 'Patrimony' Comper grabbed the best of both those worlds with his motto of 'Unity by inclusion'.)

The Society of SS Peter and Paul was founded in 1911 to articulate this aesthetic and this programme. The mysterious and exotic Fr Maurice Child was its begetter, aided by Mr Samuel Gurney ... that name sounds fsamiliar to you? ... yes ... Sir John Betjeman's verses about the hopes of the triumphalist Anglo-Catholicism of the inter-war years - and its anxieties - "And has Sam Gurney poped?" (He never did.)

Its provocative humour was that of the young curates who multiplied like rabbits in the clergy-houses of Anglo-Catholic England. So the SSPP announced itself as "Publishers to the Church of England". It sold "Lambeth Frankincense" and, never inclined to take prisoners, advertised "Latimer and Ridley Votive-candle stands". Child borrowed a church near Regent Street for High Mass on the Feast of SS Peter and Paul, and publicised it widely: "members of the Order need not wear their insignia". A large and inquisitive congregation turned up. (I hope to return to the SSPP in a day or two.)

There was, and still is, a distinctive genre of Anglo-Catholic humour very different from the jocosity of RC presbyteries. One thinks of the comic verse of Betjeman, Farmer, Mascall, Stephenson. Nowadays, the mind turns to the satiric sections of our monthly New Directions, much of it written by the Juvenal, the Swift, of our time, the brilliant, the admirable, Fr Geoffry Kirk.

Come to think of it, that humour, with its bite and irreverence, is what makes us so disliked by other Anglicans. They wouldn't care what we said if we were sad, grumpy and moribund; what they find hard to take is that we laugh; and that we laugh at them, the high Protestants, the Lords of the Earth (as Newman's irony described them). One almost hears them murmuring in their episcopal palaces, and in their London clubs (their membership of which, I have been told, is paid for by the pewfodder - is that right?) "It's the tone that is so objectionable".

Ah, the tone of the Patrimony. In aeternum floreat.


The best bits above are plagiarised from Waugh's biography of Knox.


Pastor in Valle said...

Another (and similar) Knox quote, which I think was also in the Waugh biography, but I can't find it now, was along the lines that, Knox being accused of mere frivolity in his A-C period commented: 'not at all: we were in serious earnest. But you won't convince me that it wasn't fun doing it!' (or something similar).

Sue Sims said...

Waugh does quote it, but it's originally in A Spiritual Aeneid: "It was easy to say of us at this time that we thought what we thought, did what we did, for fun. I repudiate the accusation entirely, but nobody shall persuade me that it was not fun doing it."

It's p. 189 in the first edition and p.167 in the 1950 second edition.