Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Some Grounds for Catholic Optimism

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, began his New Year message for 2022 by comparing two different kinds of hope.  One he called the ‘pragmatic version’ — in which ‘a secure present’ gives us confidence to ‘look forward to an uncertain future’  — whereas the other, he said, was the ‘theological virtue’ of hope — ‘the capacity to face an uncertain present’ because, beyond it, we trust in an ‘utterly secure future.’  

Most of us in the Church would recognise this distinction.  After all, the first kind of hope, which we might also call ‘optimism’, is in distinctly short supply these days.  As the memory of the old faith drains steadily out of our cities and civilisation, as the tenets of the Creed are forgotten one by one, as forces mighty as Goliath yet insidious as the serpent conspire to hobble the Church and smother the Gospel, the psalms of lamentation come easily to the lips: ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’  And so we cultivate the second kind of hope, setting our sights and our hearts on the ‘utterly secure future’ of the kingdom of Heaven.  We brace ourselves for the ‘Long Defeat’, as Tolkien put it, in sure hope of the Final Victory.

But what if even earthly hope is not lost?  For although this Deep Hope is fundamentally the right response to our situation, it nevertheless carries with it an understandable temptation: to give up on the immediate future altogether, and thereby to miss such possibilities as do in fact lie before us. We are not Albigensians; we should not turn our backs completely on the world.  The Resurrection of Christ was as earthly a thing as it was supernatural, and changes the present moment as profoundly as it does eternity; its implications are not only cosmic but comprehensive, changing the world not only in general but in every detail, and from within, not from without.  Our everyday lives on earth are shot through with a new life-force — the Word, whispering perpetually into every crisis, ‘This is not the end — for I was, I am and ever shall be.’  Even in these bewildering times, there is an onward path to tread.

Cardinal Vincent in his message goes on to point out the ‘middle ground’ that exists between the two kinds of hope.  His point, if I understand rightly, is that we need to develop an intelligent combination of both: Deep Hope in the long term; courage and fortitude in the short.  Even if ‘optimism’ is hardly the first word we might use to characterise our immediate outlook, it has to be an ingredient in our approach.  Even a dash will do.  As we heard from the prophet Jeremiah one Sunday last year:

A blessing on the man who puts his trust in the Lord, with the Lord for his hope.  He is like a tree by the waterside that thrusts its roots to the stream: when the heat comes it feels no alarm, its foliage stays green; it has no worries in a year of drought, and never ceases to bear fruit. 
(Jeremiah 17: 5–8)

‘Never ceases to bear fruit’...  Mainstream opinion-formers may think the Catholic Church obsolete, deluded and contemptible, but we must not give the slightest impression of believing them.  Certainly we should be prudent in the deployment of our energies; absolutely we must attend to the deep and inner roots, but in the drought of the coming decades we must never lose confidence that the Church will indeed ‘never cease to bear fruit’ — because she retains countless ways to prove herself essential not only to her own members, but to our whole society.

What sort of thing do I mean?  Here are some ideas.

1.  Pro-life victory is certain

I am absolutely confident of the eventual victory, on earth, of the pro-life movement.  This might sound absurd, given the present total dominance of the abortion lobby in law and politics.  All the same, of the innumerable logical contradictions at the heart of the revolutionary secular-progressive project, this is the hardest to sustain, and indeed can be sustained only by shrill campaigning and a constant flow of cash.  A succession of scientific discoveries is steadily and consistently vindicating the Church’s position, and, sadly, so is the testimony of ever greater numbers of women as to the offence done by abortion against their dignity.  The strength of the pro-choice lobby is nearing its high water mark; it has little further ground to gain; it is already having to become defensive of its establishment position.  Its members are beginning, rightly, to recognise the possibility that they will, as the phrase goes, ‘lose the narrative’ to the joyful and energetic pro-life campaign.

March for Life, London, September 2018

I know we should not be complacent — after all, the cost in unborn lives now runs at over two hundred thousand every year in England and Wales alone — but I am not being complacent; I am being confident.  As with the trans-Atlantic slave trade two centuries ago, the whole outrage is likely to end abruptly, even unexpectedly, with a sudden anagnorisis and revulsion at the horror.  Unless our society is completely overtaken by nihilism, a point will be reached at which the injustice can be denied no more; someone at some point will ask, in a loud enough voice, why (for instance) we see hardly anybody with Down’s syndrome around any more; will ask why we uphold the rights of God’s animal creatures, as we should, without extending the same defence to our own unborn children.  When the tide does turn, the sheer consistency and integrity of the Church’s pro-life position, as well as her record in providing for mothers in need, will stand her in good stead when it comes to establishing a new and authentic culture of life.

That is one concrete reason for hope in our age, but still stretches the definition of ‘optimism’ a little far.  What about today, and tomorrow?

2.  Fire-power isn’t everything

It is worth remembering that we still have great resources in the nature of our presence in our society.  Secular progressivism is on the warpath, and hardening into a religion of its own, having at its disposal many organised shock-troops with strident and persuasive voices, and tightening its grip on our culture.  But if the Church seems not quite able to match this sheer fire-power, it is not because we lack good arguments or articulate ripostes.  It is because we have other things on our plate.  Unlike the cultural revolutionaries, we have always been concerned about more than mere propaganda.  The Church may be in battle, but she is not merely a battleship: she has to be a rescue vessel and a hospital ship and a flagship all at once.  She cannot be expected to swivel and aim her guns as adeptly as a purpose-built destroyer.

What is more, so much of the strength of our witness actually lies in our silence.  This is true in two senses: firstly in the simple fact of our not going along with propaganda or slogans, and secondly in the positive quality of the silence of our sanctuaries.  Especially these days, when moments of peace — let alone peace by oneself with God — are so hard to come by, precious indeed are the physical refuges of our churches amid the howling cities.

Our strength lies, too, in the aspects of the Church’s life that never make the headlines: her presence in hospitals, in hospices, in prisons, in homeless shelters, in ports, in refugee camps, in the armed forces, in universities, in schools.  And her charities: the tireless work of CAFOD for overseas development, Aid to the Church in Need for persecuted Christians, the St. Vincent de Paul Society for the homeless, and so on.  All those things that are never chalked up on the scoreboard of history: the Masses, rosaries, hymns and prayers; the confraternities, the prayer-groups, the pilgrimages, the devotions; the ‘ecclesiolae’ or ‘little churches’ of families holding their own day after day.  The kindly priest in the lit confessional; the carefully-tended Mary-garden under the railway arch; the soup-bowl given to a homeless man: in all these ways the Church, with that gentle tenacity of hers, persists in living the ‘life to the full’ that her founder promised her.  

The cultural revolution tends to be keener on the commanding heights of the culture — the law, the government, the arts, schools, universities, and the apparatus of civil society — than on the welfare of ordinary people.  This tells us that it is only really interested in power; that for all its capacity for intimidation it is necessarily brittle and lacking foundations, and that its strength, though incontestable for the moment, will prove ephemeral.  The Church’s appearance, by contrast, is no mere veneer.  Under the surface she is true to her word.

3.  The Church comprehends the new and pluralised Britain 

Another opportunity for the Church in years to come, one in which it stands as good a chance of success as any other institution apart from the Crown, is in making sure we fashion a harmonious society of the new pluralised Britain, and preventing any division or mutual alienation.  Relatively few things can be said to unify us as a country these days, and certain fractures are emerging which the Faith is placed uniquely to heal.  What but the Christian imagination could even conceive of bringing into serious dialogue, say, the secular liberal on the one hand — whose instinct for mercy, though misproportioned, echoes a distinctively Christian idea — and the observant Muslim on the other, whose concern for justice, codified by the bracing tenets of Islamic law, testifies to a sincere attentiveness to God’s will?  Because the Church understands this paradox of justice and mercy, knowing how to temper one with the other, she can, I think, bring more fruit than others from such a conversation.

And where else but within the Church can the demographic changes of the past fifty years be not only reconciled but harmonised with its deepest roots?  To take only one of countless examples, consider the Tamil pilgrimages to Our Lady’s shrine at Walsingham, which I understand attract the largest numbers of all the pilgrim groups.  In this village in the heart of rural Norfolk, a place of pilgrimage since before the Norman Conquest, an ancient English devotion is unified with a Tamil one.  There is no contradiction between love of England and love of neighbour; there is simply one faith, one Church and one Lord.  Thus the world-wide roots of today’s pilgrims are entwined with the very depths of England and Englishness, new Britons follow in the footsteps of medieval kings, and all pilgrims throughout the ages are unified in peace and goodwill.  For many immigrants and their families and descendants, the Catholic Church is a ‘home away from home’ — and yet it has been here in England, waiting for them, it seems, since England’s very beginning.

Tamil Pilgrimage to Walsingham, Norfolk, 2016

4.  New alliances amid the crisis of meaning

Then there is the crisis of meaning: the alarming and deepening void at the centre of modern life, and, which is often even more alarming, what is rushing in to fill the void.  Only a decade ago the New Atheists were trumpeting the new dawn of a fanaticism-free secular age, but now their vision seems completely unequal to the socio-cultural forces of our present time — forces which I am convinced are also spiritual.  As R. S. Thomas wrote,

In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits [...]

Amid a loss of confidence in our institutions, our culture and even ourselves, a tremendous spiritual thirst has suddenly made itself plain: often vague, often outwardly hostile to formal religion, but unmistakeably spiritual in character.  This manifests itself in some obvious ways — the growing and understandable popularity of ‘mindfulness’, or the emergence of whole new academic fields such as ‘Loneliness Studies’ — but also in some more alarming forms: in the ideologies sweeping every public institution, our blind faith in progressivism, and the many genuinely troubled young people.

Writers such as the essential Mary Eberstadt have long been observing how sixty years of aggressive secularism have helped to bring about this situation — but plenty of non-churchgoers are also noticing how far out of control things are spinning.  They share our alarm at the widespread subjugation of truth and reason to personal desire, and many are realising that even the Church may have something interesting to say about it.  We can and must do our best to repay that confidence; if we do, we may find ourselves entering into some new and fruitful conversations.  (I say this from personal experience.) 

5.  The crisis of gender, though tragic, is a particular opportunity

One friend with whom I regularly enjoy such conversations recently brought to my attention a recent lecture on freedom of speech, delivered as part of the BBC’s annual series of Reith Lectures by Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  At the core of this address was an appeal for a ‘coalition of the reasonable’ to maintain the standards of public debate.  She was speaking mainly with reference to the extraordinary behaviour in recent years of many advocates of gender theory, who have often been using quite unreasonable tactics in order to advance their contentious cause, even hounding their opponents from their jobs.

Adichie’s is an invitation to which the Church can and must respond positively.  We believe in reason and know that civil and reasonable debate are essential to our whole society, so there is an opportunity here for some real solidarity and co-operation.  When forming such alliances we do not have to pretend to agree where we disagree, but there is no reason why an edifying exchange of ideas should not take place.  The ‘reasonable secularists’ can discover our sincere interest in truth and reason, while we might draw some inspiration from their strength of purpose and concern for personal or institutional accountability.  Maybe, in finding ourselves on the same side for once, the discussion will be more  fruitful than it has been for many years.

Perhaps, too, at a relaxed moment, the conversation might turn to higher things, and to the spiritual dimension of the crisis of our time.  We might mention Benedict XVI’s insight that as well as reason we need faith, and that the two are not only compatible with but absolutely essential to each other.  We might make the point that the longing for meaning from which so much of our present crisis has stemmed corresponds to a deep reality about ourselves — that it is not some vague and inconvenient appetite, nor some functional or dietary need to be satisfied by some vitamin, but is a sign of the deepest truths about ourselves, the spiritual truths.

Even so, the urgent task remains to offer charitable but robust collective opposition to gender theory, which even now is doing irreversible damage to many confused and unhappy young people, as well as offending in a particular way against the rights and dignity of women.

6.  The Re-evangelisation of Romance

Another obvious mission for the Church is also one of the most dangerous: to confront head-on the ongoing melting down and recasting of marriage and the family, and to re-evangelise the sphere of romantic and marital love with the fullness and beauty of the Church’s teaching.  

As with abortion, the post-Sixties revolutionary movement is visibly running into difficulties here, and beginning to fray amid its own contradictions, but the price is paid particularly by the young — who secretly, often even without knowing it themselves, long to hear the truth.  They long to be told what deep down they suspect: that men and women were made for each other’s friendship, not sullen rivalry; that life-long marriage is possible and worth striving for; that a bride and bridegroom really are worth to the other nothing less than the gift of a great cosmic vow, a vow equal to the weight of an entire human life and taking into account the further promise of new life; that such a vow is no mere formality, but something we long to make and to fulfil.  Youth wants truth, the truth about ourselves, a truth which is written in our bodies as well as in our souls, and the Church’s message is as beautiful as it is true.  Our culture is near enough rock bottom to hear it.  

We will often run up against wild rage and hatred — for those entrapped by darkness hate and fear beauty and truth — but there are millions of others waiting to be captivated by the high mission to which the Church calls them.

As Mary Eberstadt said in a recent interview,

Catholics should be proud (in the right way) of all these unpopular teachings.  They’re only unpopular for the moment, and [...] they resonate with the human heart.  That again is to our advantage as we try to press this case.

This is one of the few spheres of life in which many people will still acknowledge a spiritual dimension, while often remaining sceptical about the form of marriage.  We are in much the same situation as those who argue for rhyme and metre in poetry: our task is to show how the form gives sense to the feeling; how the rules and vows give the underlying human impulse the sense and the strength to endure.  Against the pessimism of liberalism, with its fear of commitment, with its cynical assumptions that all marriages in difficulty should be given up on, many will be surprised and inspired by the frankness, the freshness, the bracing realism, and, yes, the sheer optimism of the Church’s vision.

7. How hope works

I have one final remark on the way hope itself works, and where to look for it.  Whether pragmatic of theological, hope does not usually come marching over the hill; it grows fierce and green in the most hidden unlikeliest places, as tenacious as grass or wildflowers.

I was once riding along a cycle path beside a busy road in south London, gritting my teeth against the volume and hostility of the traffic, when I came to a narrow gap and had to brake to let through a child of about ten or eleven who was coming the other way.  To my complete surprise, the child very sincerely and deliberately thanked me; I hadn’t expected it and was too stunned to respond adequately.  There, uncrushed by the juggernauts and the tyres, defying the smirking warlords of the road, a tiny counter-witness, a green shoot of hope — something so vital, so ‘original, spare, strange’, that it offered a riposte to its surroundings that was stronger than perhaps even the child knew.  Like Lovejoy’s garden in Rumer Godden’s book An Episode of Sparrows, it grows and germinates in defiance of overwhelming forces, even in spite of ourselves.

In the same way, as we should know from our own lives — and at Eastertide of all seasons — the vindication of the faith is with us in on earth in this very hour.  ‘Christianity works,’ as Douglas Gresham, C. S. Lewis’s straight-talking step-son, once said.  It works in our lives, in every detail of our lives, even if the wider world is ignoring it for the present.  


I am under no illusions: this is a very uncertain and unsettling age, and things will not be easy for the Church for some time.  Many of the opportunities I describe may only be born of various crises and amid great suffering: it may be that we can be optimistic only to the extent of being poised to respond to a crisis.  It is undeniable, too, that the Church as an institution — in Europe and the West at least — has been severely weakened in the past fifty years — partly by mockery and marginalisation from without, partly by slacking and scandal from within.  But the Church’s members on the ground are chastened and made wise by crisis; we are all, clergy and laity alike, more alert, less complacent, and able to give a better account of ourselves than we have been for some time.  And in an age when all institutions find themselves struggling to win trust, the Church is again as well-placed as any other to recover her integrity and a visible authenticity.  

As far as external threats go, the Church can handle crises far better than she can uncertainty and apathy.  Our very foundation began with a catastrophe that was, gloriously and outrageously, inverted into triumph.  We have the ‘utterly secure future’; we have the Final Victory, but the near future is worth fighting for as well.  Keeping courage, then, means keeping courage in the short term as well as the long; today and tomorrow, this hour and the next, for the sake of our descendants who in a happier time will remember and thank their forbears in faith.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?...
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.
For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion:
In the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock.

(Psalm 27: 1–5)

Pope Benedict at Hyde Park, September 2010.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Ruth Gipps: Fifth Symphony in the ascendant

The Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Ruth Gipps’ Fifth Symphony next Saturday, 20th May, at St. John’s Church, Waterloo, London.

In the whole sorry tale of the indifference and disdain shown — in official circles at least — towards the music of Ruth Gipps during her lifetime, it is the episode of her Fifth Symphony that seems to sum up the sheer bone-headedness of it all, the blindness into which fashions and fads can lead even intelligent and cultured people.

Gipps’ fifth symphony, completed in 1981, ought to have been the crowning point of her career.  The successful broadcasts of her second, third and fourth ought to have counted for something, yet Gipps had found each of these progressively more difficult to secure — and now, as she was to tell the music agent Alan Poulton, ‘the BBC promptly rejected the 5th,’ adding, ‘I am still made to submit works as if I were a student.’

In 1982, writing to Malcolm Arnold, she hinted that she had rather expected as much.  Where BBC broadcasts were concerned ‘I wait for years,’ she told him, giving several examples of apparent heel-dragging and long delays even for works approved for recording and broadcasts.  ‘So now I write for what I like,’ she said, which in the case of the fifth was a large force with plenty of winds and percussion.  She programmed the symphony in a 1983 concert given by the London Repertoire Orchestra, which she had set up to offer experience and support to newly-qualified professional players.  A recording exists of this concert which, though fairly scratchy, certainly conveys the quality of the music.  ‘It has a great big first movement,’ she told Arnold —

[...] a little tiddly 5/4 intermezzo, a rather difficult scherzo with a cello solo going up to the B above the treble clef in the trio [...] and then a very odd finale – a Missa Brevis for orchestra – no singers, but tunes that fit the Latin words if you did have singers; and two listeners without scores said they could follow it through. I’m not a Catholic, by the way, but was brought up on the B minor [Mass by J. S. Bach] at College.  [1]

I think it is Gipps’ greatest symphony, the magnificent first movement being perhaps my favourite of all her musical utterances.  It has all the Gipps hall-marks — the lyrical mistiness, the angularity and spikiness, the occasional audacity in the treble register — but has less of her usual optimism, being shot through with a particular tang of sorrow, a bittersweetness, which I think adds to its power.  It also contains one of the most beautiful solo passages in all of English music.  And yet, after that first performance, the symphony — inexplicably, bewilderingly, frustratingly — fell into complete neglect and was not performed again.

Until April this year, that is — and once again it is the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra which has ridden to the rescue.  Having given the U.S. premieres of the second and the fourth symphonies, they have now added the first American performance of the fifth to their trophy cabinet.  Their director of music Adam Stern has shown a singular dedication to Ruth Gipps’ music, and in the case of the Fifth it turns out that he had to recopy the whole score and all the orchestral parts, which had been lost.  The six months it took him coincided with the first wave of the Covid pandemic — it is nice to see that something good came from a time that was very difficult for many musicians.

His faith in the music is absolute.  The symphony bears the influences of Malcolm Arnold, Vaughan Williams and William Walton — to whom the work is dedicated — and yet ‘there is nobody else who could have written this symphony but Ruth Gipps,’ he told his players.  ‘It has a new life, and we are giving it life.  We are giving the second performance of this piece — Yes, it’s big, it’s big.’  He also hinted at plans in the pipeline for a studio recording and CD release on the Chandos label, and also mentioned that ‘another orchestra’ needed their parts immediately after the Seattle premiere.

Excitingly for Gipps fans on this side of the Atlantic, the orchestra in question is the Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra, which is performing the symphony in London next Saturday, 20th May, at 7.30 p.m. at St. John’s Church, Waterloo.  This is the first British performance since 1983, and only the third ever.  Further details and tickets are available here.

Many thanks (as I have said so often before!) to the Seattle Philharmonic for their courage in programming Gipps’ music and the fine musicianship audible in the clips below — and to Maestro Stern in particular for his dedication and single-mindedness in promoting this too-long-neglected composer.  Also to whoever digitised and uploaded the recording of the Fifth onto YouTube.  As for the London performance, I cannot wait.


[1] Alan Poulton, ‘Malcolm Arnold and Ruth Gipps’, in Beckus (no. 100, Spring 2016), retrieved 13 May 2023 from https://www.malcolmarnoldsociety.co.uk/malcolm-arnold-and-ruth-gipps/

[2] Norman Lebrecht, ‘Ruth Gipps gets a US Premiere’, (Slipped Disc, 15 April 2023), web resource, retrieved 13 May 20223 from https://slippedisc.com/2023/04/ruth-gipps-gets-a-us-premiere/

Friday, May 12, 2023

Vivat Carolus Rex

I must say, I thought the Coronation was marvellous.  The service in Westminster Abbey was a feast of uplifting splendour, rich in mystery and poetry, and shot through with that serious joy that characterises all the most meaningful occasions.  Careful thought had clearly gone into every aspect of the ceremony; the symbols were deep and rich, he prayers weighty and resonant and the music absolutely magnificent.  

Several things particularly moved me, often moments of simplicity: the chorister's fearless opening greeting to the King, recalling the 'boy bishops' of the Middle Ages, and not without thye hint of a challenge — 'Your Majesty, as children of the the Kingdom of God, we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings' — and the King's simple, correct reply, correct because it echoed Christ, 'I come not to be served but to serve.'  Later, just before the anointing, there was the sight of His Majesty in a simple white shirt — for a moment visibly a man like any other.  Then the veiling by the embroidered screen, so as show that some things are still too sacred even for television's eye.  There was also the Byzantine chanting which accompanied the presentation of the Sword of Offering and the Spurs and the Orb — a remarkable combination which opened up an especially startling glimpse into the depths of time. 

Some criticism of the service has been made even by sympathetic commentators, lamenting the absence of certain traditions, or finding the mystery diminished by the zoomed-in, high-definition television pictures.  But must say I found myself decidedly heartened by it all, above all by its explicitly Christian nature.  I know that we in England are very good at pretending to say one thing and then actually doing something quite different, but in times like these, when so many ancient things are simply being openly jettisoned or reinterpreted to suit our modern whims, it means a great deal that such serious prayers were still said, that our country was still committed, at its heart, to God, and that an ancient covenant was sealed afresh.

Decorations in the streets behind Westminster Abbey (just visible in the background), 7th May, 2023.  Lord John Reith formerly lived in the house in the foreground.

Those of us who are in favour of all this — who believe in the quiet wisdom of constitutional monarchy, in its gentle ceremony and stateliness, and in the particular way of loving Britain that it gives us — are well aware that we are keeping a flame alight in an age when many people miss its purpose.  The Coronation gives strength to this flame.  It seems to me that it matters less whether we matched the full splendour of Queen Elizabeth's Coronation in 1953 than that a moment of this kind should have happened at all.   The outward form of Coronations is bound to change over time; the important thing is to make sure it is done, to maintain the links in the chain, to keep faith with our forbears and hand our society on intact to our descendants.  That the Coronation was so resplendent, should have remained so untainted by plastic secular modernity, and been enjoyed by so many is, in some ways, secondary, though I savoured every minute.  Given the kinds of outrages against our culture that seem to have become a matter of course in public life, I think it was a moment of hope, and a great counter-witness to the irony and cynicism with which so many shut their hearts against the the sacred or mysterious.  It was also a highly intelligent blend of our ancient inheritance and the reality of modern Britain: for instance, I thought the contribution of the other Christian leaders (including our own Cardinal Vincent Nichols) and the leaders from other religions was handled with great dignity and respect.  All people of good will should have been able to find some encouragement in the Coronation: an opportunity for national unity and strength in troubling and confusing times, a chance to step outside our own age for a moment, and a confirmation of higher ideals.  The memory is a treasure to which I will return in the months and years to come.

And not only to the service itself but to everything that surrounded it: it was wonderful to see the flags on the Mall on Sunday, and also for our parish Youth Choir to sing at a special Mass on the Bank Holiday Monday, an occasion for which our auxiliary bishop joined us.  This is no coincidence, but part of the ripples of goodwill that radiate from events like this, quietly building up 'bonds of connexion between persons', as St. John Henry Newman put it.

The Mall looking splendid

'It is deep within our Catholic spirit to love our country and to pray for our Sovereign,' said our Archbishop John Wilson at a Solemn Mass at the Cathedral on Sunday. 'King Charles and Queen Camilla have set themselves to be servants after the heart and mind and example of the Lord Jesus.  We seek to do the same and to pray for Their Majesties and for our lands.'  There is a strong sense, expressed not least in Cardinal Vincent's excellent loyal address, that the Church is behind the King; and that the King knows this.  There is a hard road ahead for our nation, and much cause for concern in the increasing violence and the sense of a weakening of civil society — but last weekend a clear sign of the attitude with which to overcome these problems, in both the short term and the long.

Forgive the repetition: I cannot resist posting Saturday's rendition of William Walton's Coronation Te Deum...  Andrew Nethsinga conducts choristers from Westminster Abbey, the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace, Truro Cathedral, and the Methodist College in Belfast, with Sir Antonio Pappano directing the orchestra in the organ-loft. 

Friday, May 05, 2023

God Save the King!

And so we come to Coronationtide, as the great Eleanor Parker reminds us to call it — though no wonder we had forgotten, as it has been seventy years since the last one.  It is quite something to sense once again, as we did at the death of the late Queen, the heavy mechanisms of state and of history swinging into motion, though this time to music in a major, not a minor key.  Again I sense, and savour, an older, deeper Britain rising almost to the surface.  I expect this sensation will only intensify as we approach Saturday, and that during the ceremony itself we will feel very close indeed to high voltage — as if we need only reach out to touch the charged thread of history, leading all the way back through the centuries, to the very beginnings of our nation.  

It is strangely ironic that the remarkable gift of the long reign of the late Queen — her very longevity and personal constancy — may have distracted us slightly from the even greater length of the thread of continuity to which she belonged.  Now that her son is King, there is perhaps a curious change of perspective: where until last year we might have marvelled that the Queen had reigned since 1953, now it is easier to notice again the remarkable truth that the monarchy itself goes back — well, all the way to Alfred (let us not dwell on Cromwell) and Coronations to King Edgar in the year 973.  Our perspective is broadened beyond the lifetime of a single individual, remarkable and venerable as she was, and recognise that even she (as she knew quite well, and often implied) was only a part of something far older, far richer, far deeper.

Now Charles is to be crowned King, and with his crowning a new chapter opens in our national story.  It is not like 1953, when the young Queen Elizabeth shone with gem-bright optimism amid war-weary and soot-bleared, though dignified, Fifties London.  It was a brightness she kept till the very end, so, without at all making a criticism of her, it is an interesting and by no means unpleasant change to look now to the more sombre, even melancholy figure of Charles in her place.  He is a philosopher king, a man who seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, and in that sense he is the man of the moment.  These are troubled times — troubled spiritually, as many people are realising; a time of uncertainty and fear in which many people are struggling to find their bearings, and in which there is a great, yet widely unanswered thirst for the consolations of goodness, truth and beauty.  Judging by the manner and aesthetics of his reign so far, Charles seems to understand this.

Not that those aesthetics are at all gloomy or pessimistic — their dignity and beauty and confidence have lifted my spirits considerably.  The Coronation emblem (above), which I think is simply magnificent, is the work of Sir Jony Ive, who previously designed iPhones for Apple.  Everything from the King’'s own dress-sense to the new commemorative stamps (also splendid), from the splendid programme of music for Saturday’s service and the newly-embroidered screen which will veil the moment of his anointing from the prying cameras — all doubtless done with the King’s own close involvement— communicates the prizing of slow craftsmanship and care, as well as a deliberate combination of rootedness and inventiveness: just the kind of the old-fashioned modernism, or futuristic traditionalism, to which I would willingly subscribe.  Some commentators have been excitedly wondering aloud if a ‘New Carolean aesthetic’ is on the cards in art and design; I for one hope it takes off.

Finally, in this era of rapacious and often vindictively revolutionary change, it is a deeper consolation to me than I can express to find that the Coronation service itself remains unambiguously a ceremony done before God.  In recent days I have read some online comments, albeit favourable to the Coronation, along the lines that ‘the ceremony is bizarre, but it does our society good’.  But why must everything be ironic and detached?  What if it is serious; what if God might actually hear the prayers addressed to Him in His house built for that very purpose?  What if He takes Coronations seriously because He takes us seriously, and the health of nations, and the welfare of His people — and will help the King to fulfil his promise to uphold this country as a place of peace and justice?  Then Coronations matter very much indeed.  That is why on Saturday I shall not only sing, but pray quite sincerely,

Thy choicest gifts in store
On him be pleased to pour,
Long may he reign.
May he defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the King!

William WaltonCoronation Te Deum’, written for the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.  Sung here by the Wayneflete Singers and Winchester Cathedral choirs with the organist Timothy Byram-Wigfield and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Hill.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Happy St. George's Day!

Happy St. George's Day, which (at least in the Catholic Church — I think!) has been transferred to today, Monday 24th, as yesterday was a Sunday.  Whether yesterday or today, wishing a very happy feast to all who cherish England.

The view south-west from Risby in the Lincolnshire Wolds, 10th August 2021.  Lincoln Cathedral is visible on the horizon, seventeen miles away.

Sunday, April 09, 2023

Christus Vincit

Every Holy Week I find myself noticing a new detail in the readings — one year it was Pilate’s ‘astonishment’ at Jesus’ answers in the Temple; another Christ’s line, ‘All who are on the side of truth listen to my voice’.  This year, amid the irresistible drama of the Easter Vigil, two things struck me about the revelation of the Resurrection in Matthew’s Gospel: firstly, the curious detail that, having rolled the stone away from the tomb and frightened the guardsmen almost to death (is it irony, even an outright joke, to say that they ‘looked like dead men’?), the angel is specifically described as ‘sitting’ on the stone — in my mind’s eye I see quite a casual pose.  Then, having delivered his Universe-inverting message to the dumbfounded women — ‘He has risen, as he said he would’ — he directs them to Galilee: ‘It is there you will see him.’  But in fact Jesus comes to meet them almost straightaway, before they have even had a chance to tell the other disciples.

Crossed wires on the angel’s part, the first of millions of church muddles over the centuries?  Or is Jesus so eager to reveal himself that He makes a last-minute change of plan for the sake of the women, even if the others must wait?  Either way, on this third day, in this third garden, all has come miraculously right.  The Devil is defeated, and comfortably, emphatically enough that the mighty stone, yesterday a sound and silent seal on death, is now demoted to a convenient park bench for his former, unfallen, fellow.

Happy Easter to one and all!

A setting of the Easter plainchant ‘Christus vincit’ by Martin Baker, who until 2019 was Master of Music of Westminster Cathedral, sung here by the choristers of King’s College Cambridge and the King’s Singers under Daniel Hyde.  An enticing blend of sound-worlds, in that Westminster Cathedral choir has a harder, purer, more Latin sound, whereas King’s is typically softer and warmer and more Anglican.   The chant itself is a rather subversive repurposing of an acclamation of Roman generals or emperors.

Friday, April 07, 2023

Good Friday

It is three o’clock, and the world comes to a stop.  All Holy Week we have been watching the final disaster draw near; on Palm Sunday, having sung our King into Jerusalem with palms and hosannas, we filled our mouths with barbs and jeers and the unctuous solicitations of the Pharisees (‘Your Excellency, we recall that this imposter said...’)  Now the sentence is passed, on the sentencers as much as the sentenced, and we have come to the place of execution.  Bone-dry silence falls.  Surely there is some mistake... surely God will not permit…?  But the Devil is allowed to see the victory he has so long desired; all, to his own disbelief, has gone to plan; his triumph is within his grasp.  Has he done it?  Has he not only destroyed God’s son but, better, caused humanity to destroy God’s son?  Surely he has; he has driven his opponent out of the world, and humanity is his; if has also pleased God to accept the sacrifice, so much the better.  What now stands in his way?  Only a few things unsettle him: those sharp observant glances among the scattered remnants, their mutterings of recognition and realisation.  And the mother; always the mother; this second Eve he cannot bring to ruin.

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
        O most afflicted!

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
        I crucified thee.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
        God interceded.

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
        For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
Think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
        Not my deserving.

‘Herzliebster Jesu’ (‘Ah, Holy Jesus’), melody by Johann Crüger (1598–1662), harmonised by J. S. Bach.  Words by Johann Heermann (1585 –1647); translation by Robert Bridges (1844–1930).

Thursday, April 06, 2023

The Day Before He Was to Suffer

On the day before he was to suffer
for our salvation and the salvation of all —
that is, today
He took bread in his holy and venerable hands,
and with eyes raised to heaven
to you, O God, his almighty Father,
giving you thanks, he said the blessing,
broke the bread
and gave it to his disciples, saying:


— from Eucharistic Prayer I on Maundy Thursday.

Fresco of the Last Supper by Slavko Pengov (1908–1966) in the church of St. Martin, Bled, Upper Carniola, Slovenia.  Judas's resemblance to Vladimir Lenin is not coincidental.  My thanks to M. S. for showing me this place.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!

 Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!  Happy St. David’s Day to one and all.

… The same sea breaks
on the same shore and is not
broken. The stone in Llŷn
is still there, honey-
coloured for a girl’s hair
to resemble… 

— R.S. Thomas, from Pen Llŷn (Mass for Hard Times, 1992)

An eastward view from cliffs near Porth Meudwy on the Llŷn peninsula, Gwynedd, 29th March 2022; Ynysoedd Gwylan-fawr and -fach (Big and Little Seagull Islands) are to the right.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Rondel for Ash Wednesday

Posted once again, according to tradition... 

All friends of Christ, hold fast, hold fast;
Fear not these desert days of Lent. 
All grunged-up souls, all people pent 
In pleasure’s prison, bravely cast 
Your senseless sin aside at last: 
Believe the Gospel and repent. 
All friends of Christ, hold fast, hold fast;
Fear not these desert days of Lent.
The thirst and hunger will not last, 
For by God’s Son, who underwent 
The Cross, we know that we are meant 
For Heaven’s home when pain is past — 
All friends of Christ, hold fast, hold fast.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Theme and Variations for Ruth Gipps' Birthday

Today is the anniversary of Ruth Gipps, who was born in Bexhill-on-Sea on the 20th February 1921, and whose legacy of melodic, characterful music is now at last enjoying the recognition it deserves.

Here is the second movement, a Theme and Variations, of her Third Symphony (1965), played by the BBC Philharmonic under Rumon Gamba in their superb recent CD release.  The piano reduction of the same movement is also worth a listen.

The next exciting development on the Gipps front will be the United States première of the fine Fifth Symphony (1982), which will be given on April 15th by the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra.  I am hopeful that some way might be found to stream the concert over the Internet for listeners in Gipps' native country, but in any case, the 'Seattle Phil' has excelled itself again.  More information here: https://seattlephil.org/concerts-and-tickets/concert/gipps-fifth/ .

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Farewell to Benedict the Great

And so we must begin the new year without those two great figures, those two great beacons of our time, Elizabeth II and Benedict XVI.  We were not unprepared for the losses; we cannot be ungrateful for their long lives, but the world is colder and lonelier without them, and the torches they carried, one realises with a pang, are handed down to us.  I try not to allow myself too many living heroes, but that is what both have been for me.  They stood for truth and faith in a cynical and darkening age.  They used word and gesture to encourage and hearten people of good will.  They made it clear that they understood their offices as vocations, their authority as a form of service, and their main power to be that of the quiet example — which they each set unfailingly, in strikingly similar ways, and with similar courage. 

The praise of the intelligence, erudition and churchmanship of Joseph Ratzinger I will leave to others better qualified to judge — ‘an essential European thinker’, ‘the greatest mind to reach the papacy in a millennium’,  ‘a man with the intelligence of twelve theology professors but the innocence of a child at his First Communion’.  Mine must be a more personal tribute: the thanksgiving of an ordinary rank-and-file pew-filler whose privilege it was to live through, and be formed by, his papacy.  The reign of Benedict XVI corresponded almost exactly with my adolescence: I was confirmed less than a month after his election in 2005, and was most of my way through university when he resigned.  In between, of course, in September 2010, came his visit to Britain, an event which smote my spirit right when the iron was hottest.

Much has been said about the clarity of Joseph Ratzinger’s prose, but this was not a quality confined to his writings or even his speech: it was a characteristic of all his actions and gestures; it surrounded him like an aura.  Simply by his presence, by occupying his square, he shed light by which others around him could see and think more clearly.  This was certainly true for me: his visit to Britain clarified my life and clarified my faith; it set a seal on me, exactly when I needed it, and deeply and lastingly.

I don’t mean that there was a dramatic conversion.  To grow up with and into the faith in mid-suburban south London in the 2000s was to be more than familiar with the ennui and malaise of our times; it was, then as now, to live against the grain of the surrounding culture.  There was always an awareness of being held to different, I dare say higher standards; always a discernible change in atmosphere between the Church and the mainstream, secular-materialist world whose raucous tide came right up to the church porch.  I knew that this world thought the Church mawkish and irrelevant and obsolete.  I knew about Dawkins and Hitchens and the fashionable New Atheists, though the prevailing mood, at school for example, was less outright hostility than a leaden indifference to serious conversation of any kind.   Yet I was certain that all churches were inhabited; that they were Someone’s house, and that this indwelling presence was a benevolent influence on life.  So the knowledge that to belong to the Church was to risk the bemusement or ridicule of others was not something I minded — in fact, I probably enjoyed it rather too much.  I felt myself lacking in intellectual formation — since it was on intellectual grounds that the New Atheists were attacking religious faith, I wanted to know how to mount a defence — but I did not mind being a bit of an outsider.

What I did not altogether realise, though, was what became clear almost the moment Pope Benedict’s visit was announced in February 2010: that the Church is hated.  Hated not just by celebrity atheists with a book to sell, not just by edgy comedians – but by considerable numbers of influential, intelligent people in positions of responsibility. Journalists in supposedly reputable papers, politicians, personalities, even employees of government offices — all felt quite free, even in self-proclaimed tolerant Britain, to articulate that hatred to their spleen’s content.

Now, I knew I could not expect unbounded enthusiasm from the media, but this went beyond, say, reasonable concern about public expenditure, or just excoriation of corruption in the Church (corruption which Catholics hate as fiercely as anyone else, if not more).  It was plain that what they hated was the Church itself, and the faith itself, and Pope Benedict himself.  It was personal and it was nasty.  In Britain it would have been tolerated towards no other religious leader.  It was different, too, from the residual Protestant anti-Catholic prejudice which had led some to protest against Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982.  This had a different source: secular progressivism, the new faith of Europe, whose chummy mask had slipped to reveal a face twisted with malevolence.  It was an outbreak of what we now call ‘cancel culture’, and they certainly wanted Benedict cancelled.

I had not known all that much about Joseph Ratzinger, but all this impelled me to find out pretty quickly.  For us Catholics, an attack on the Pope is like overhearing your grandfather being insulted — the immediate instinct is to rush to his defence — but even a dispassionate observer should have been able to see the extraordinary discrepancy between Benedict’s media image and the man himself.  This discrepancy was its own wordless vindication of Pope Benedict, of course, but, being a fire-blooded adolescent, I wanted some hefty ripostes from our own side.  Many of the most spirited defences I initially found online were mounted by bloggers sympathetic to traditionalist worship, and ever since, though always an English Mass-goer myself, I have been disposed to sympathy for those who prefer the traditional Mass (though it has since been dismayingly instructive to see some other traditionalist blogs turn as nasty about Pope Francis as the secularists were about Benedict).  Benedict had other defenders, too, not least Catholic Voices, which was established precisely in order to offer intelligent, robust defences of the Catholic position  — an approach which, I now realise, was entirely consistent with the style of the Pope himself.

What I discovered in Benedict was a man alert to the times but not subservient to them, quietly but acutely addressing himself to modern man, diagnosing his pains, warning with gentle urgency against his errors, and proposing a way forward.  He explained with startling lucidity what I had long hoped and suspected: that intelligence and faith, far from being opposed, illuminate each other; that there is no contradiction between truth and love; that the flame of the sanctuary lamp remains the vital spark of life, in this age as in any other.  More immediately, I found a gentle and grandfatherly man, perhaps the most misrepresented man of the past half-century.  

I was probably more bothered by the protesting secularists than Benedict himself was.  Still, there was considerable and justifiable concern that the visit was going to be marred or hijacked in some way, and very little about the eight-month media circus was reassuring on this score.  But this was where his clarity came in.  His character, simply by its sheer contrast to the mud-slingers, presented me with a clear choice.  One side was sneering at faith, hating beauty, scoffing at marriage, dismissing hope; on the other sat Pope Benedict and the Church, quietly but firmly standing for the ‘splendour of truth’, defending the absolute and irreducible human dignity of every human being, even when it is inconvenient — perhaps especially when it is inconvenient — and holding up defiantly the model of the person of Christ.  The whole experience confirmed my suspicions about the the secular-progressivist modern West, and my sorrow at the ebbing away of Old Britain.  I saw that I might one day have to choose between my own culture and the Church; that when it came to it, the Faith might actually cost me something.  Before he even landed, though, Pope Benedict made it clear to me where my loyalties lay.

But then he did land — and the mood changed utterly.  There he was on the television, chatting with the Queen at Holyrood; suddenly the BBC was wearing the seriousness and respectability of the national broadcaster, and the grown-ups were back in charge.  And it was not that he routed or shamed the protestors. It was that they just seemed to melt away, and their menace evaporated.  A demonstration against the visit did go ahead in London somewhere, but it had simply ceased to matter.  I almost forgot about them — and if I did give them a moment’s thought, they seemed rather sad and silly and lonely.  Meanwhile, the crowds who came out to see Benedict, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, were unequivocally benevolent, if not jubilant.  That change of mood alone taught me several lessons I have since found useful — how far a media narrative can diverge from public opinion, and how effectively simple sunlight can evaporate hostility.  It also confirmed everything I had ever been taught about withstanding bullies and their largely illusory power.

But even while all this was sinking in, Pope Benedict himself, twinkling away, was healing the hurt of centuries.  Here he was, at the the Queen’s invitation, not merely on a pastoral visit (as Pope John Paul II had been), but also a state visit.  The following day, the 17th, he was down in London, meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace, and, later that evening, during a profoundly moving Evensong in Westminster Abbey which included some of my very favourite hymns, kneeling with him at the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor.  This was, however fleeting, a startlingly coherent and plausible expression of Christian unity, an image of how things could be if the divisions between Canterbury and Rome could finally be healed.  It was an act of worship held together not merely by politeness or decorum, I believe, but by an aesthetic and spiritual harmony.  And so, in sudden contrast to the outsiderhood I had been experiencing as a Catholic Englishman only a few days before, I suddenly found deep congruence between my faith and the very roots of Englishness, and a way opened up and out — as if illuminated by a lightning flash in the middle of the night — towards reconciliation between the Churches.  This had a great deal to do with the organisers on both the Anglican and Catholic sides, of course, but it was also because Pope Benedict himself understood the power of symbolic gesture.

That Benedict knew this personally is, I think, proven by my favourite story about him, an incident which occurred during the Lambeth Palace visit.  It was told by the late, great Fr. Mark Langham, himself an ardent ecumenicist, who was present at the time:

At the conclusion of the speeches we prayed together the Lord’s Prayer, and we came to that awkward bit, the bit where the Roman Catholics stop and Anglicans carry on.  The Anglican bishops, sensitive to the Roman Catholic tradition, graciously concluded, “But deliver us from evil,” and there was a pause.  And then one voice continued, “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.”  It was the voice of Pope Benedict.

I think this simple gesture speaks volumes about the man.  He was salving and resolving the past, blessing the present, and giving us hope for the future.  Between the Lambeth Palace visit and the Evensong in the Abbey, he delivered one of the great speeches of his pontificate in the great hammer-beamed Hall of the Palace of Westminster, arguing that faith and reason are not only compatible but essential to each other.  With his impeccable manners he was proposing a vision for Britain — a vision in keeping with our best traditions, and one which would lead us to a happy and harmonious future.  “May all Britons continue to live by the values of honesty, respect and fair-mindedness that have won them the esteem and admiration of many,” was his prayer.  It has occurred to me that the visit meant a great deal to him, as well as to us; I think these words of his were entirely heartfelt.

It remains a special memory for me that I saw him in the midst of all these monumental errands, having travelled up with some Sixth Form friends (incidentally none Catholic) to greet him on Lambeth Bridge.  We saw him in the Pope-mobile, twenty feet away, as he travelled to Westminster from his meeting with the Anglican bishops.   

Now so far everything may seem to have been on the political or national sphere, rather than the personal.  The main spiritual experience took place the following day, Friday 18th, at the great vigil in Hyde Park.  It is worth remembering, that as the Pope travelled down the Mall through the crowds, that Hyde Park was already full of 80,000 of us waiting for him; the two gatherings have to be added together!  It was a tremendous joy, to be gathered all together in Hyde Park, to see how many of us there were — and, for me, not least, to see so many other Catholics my age.  The music — with its full chorus and orchestra — was both dignified and uplifting.  Then came his unforgettable speech.  What other figure, addressing young people, would refuse to talk down to them, would steer clear of slogans or cheap platitudes?  “Dear young friends,” he called us, and one sensed, by the fondness with which he spoke about John Henry Newman — whom he was to beatify in Birmingham the next day — that this speech was clearly his own work, and sincerely felt.  There was a sense of his speaking personally to us — indeed, to me.  The three lessons he drew from the life of John Henry Newman were, just as he said, ‘very relevant to our lives as believers and to the life of the Church today’: firstly, that we are capable of knowing — and were created to know — the truth, which, in a word, is Christ; secondly, that this truth requires our commitment, our ‘intellectual honesty’, which may come at a cost; and thirdly, our beliefs and our lives must be consistent with each other: our faith must be no mere intellectual pose or stance, but permeate our hearts and influence our every word and action; and that it is by this courageous integrity that health flows not only into the human person but into families, into nations, into the whole world.

One of the Cardinal’s best-loved meditations includes the words, “God has created me to do him some definite service.  He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another.”  Here we see Newman’s fine Christian realism, the point at which faith and life inevitably intersect.  Faith is meant to bear fruit in the transformation of our world through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives and activity of believers.  No one who looks realistically at our world today could think that Christians can afford to go on with business as usual, ignoring the profound crisis of faith which has overtaken our society, or simply trusting that the patrimony of values handed down by the Christian centuries will continue to inspire and shape the future of our society.  We know that in times of crisis and upheaval God has raised up great saints and prophets for the renewal of the Church and Christian society; we trust in his providence and we pray for his continued guidance.  But each of us, in accordance with his or her state of life, is called to work for the advancement of God’s Kingdom by imbuing temporal life with the values of the Gospel.  Each of us has a mission, each of us is called to change the world, to work for a culture of life, a culture forged by love and respect for the dignity of each human person.  As our Lord tells us in the Gospel we have just heard, our light must shine in the sight of all, so that, seeing our good works, they may give praise to our heavenly Father.

And then in the cool September night we fell silent for Adoration, all together in prayer in the middle of London with Pope Benedict, on the eve of the beatification of a great Englishman.  It was a great privilege to be there.

There is much else for which I am grateful to Pope Benedict — I have not even mentioned a greater reverence in the liturgy, and the new translation, which I associated closely with him —  but this visit was the centre-piece of his legacy for me.  Barely a fortnight after this speech I began university; it was a natural step to join the student chaplaincy, and there I found the same irresistible combination of aliveness and conviviality which I have been able to find in various different places to this day, and which is so characteristic of the Church. 

Did he have weaknesses?  It is true that neither his visit nor his papacy appear to have arrested Britain’s and Europe’s, slide into despondency and self-loathing; it is true that many of the British parliamentarians who heard his speech made no sign of having paid the slightest attention to him.  Some of my friends outside the Church have only an impression of a man overwhelmed by scandals and crises, and even some of his admirers have criticised him for his resignation.  It is, I suppose, arguable that a good pastor and perceptive intellectual may lack the strength of will to govern effectively.  But I think some of the things he had to deal with would have been a pretty hellish proposition even for a younger man — and in any case, even before he became Pope, he had already spent twenty years driving out rot as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; with work that was meticulous if unspectacular.  Likewise, though I was as shocked as anyone else by his resignation, I don’t find myself worrying too much about it now.  I agree with many others that it was a sign of his humility, and his awareness of his own limits, for, much as I would have loved him to be able to carry on for ever, he seemed clearly weakened and bowed down.  It was also a sign to us not to pin all our hopes on him.  He had, in any case, arguably already established his legacy.  His emphasis as Pope was on Europe, and on issuing the last warning to her not to tear up her roots, and on encouraging the faithful as the shadows fall; he knew, though, that the vitality in the Church today is in Africa and Asia, and I could well believe that, having given all he had for the faith in Europe, he felt the need to stand aside to let this new growth flourish.

Pope Benedict XVI was one of those rare people who were both great and good in mind and heart — too great and too good, perhaps, to be summed up at this short remove; I agree with those who expect his clarifying influence to be making itself felt centuries hence.  He was, as our own Cardinal Nichols (who was himself, I sense, strongly influenced by the visit) has said, ‘through and through a gentleman, through and through a scholar, through and through a pastor, through and through a man of God’ — and, he added in a BBC interview on the day of the funeral, simply ‘a lovely man’.  I am proud to belong to the Benedict Generation.  May the God whom he served so faithfully and so courageously welcome him into the courts of Paradise.

Papal visit: Welcome by HM The Queen

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas!

The lullaby 'Sweet was the song the Virgin sang' (words by G. R. Woodward) from Ralph Vaughan Williams' cantata Hodie (1954)

Wishing all readers a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Monday, December 19, 2022

‘Blessed be the time that apple taken was!’

A contribution to a virtual Advent Calendar of art, music and poetry compiled by members of Deo Gratias, a circle of Catholics in their twenties & thirties meeting fortnightly in London to discuss artistic and cultural expressions of the Christian faith.

Adam lay ybounden,
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
Thought he not too long.

And all was for an apple,
An apple that he took.
As clerkës finden 
Written in their book.

Ne had the apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Ne had never our ladie
Abeen heav'ne queen.

Blessed be the time
That apple taken was:
Therefore we moun singen
Deo gratias.

This carol is one of several medieval lyrics, sacred and secular, that are preserved in a remarkable and unique fifteenth-century manuscript, possibly originating from Bury St. Edmunds, and now held at the British Library (Sloane MS 2593).  Like many medieval verses it is macaronic, combining Latin and the vernacular, and, as well as offering an aching glimpse into medieval Catholic England, it expresses in a nutshell one of Christianity's great theological paradoxes, the ‘felix culpa’ or ‘happy fault’ — the realisation that, in so far as Adam’s sin led to our redemption by Christ, we may actually rejoice that the sin occurred, so wonderful is that redemption.  We hear it in the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil: ‘O happy fault; O necessary sin of Adam, which won for us so great a Redeemer!’

Wearing its learning lightly, and with (I think) a particularly English humour, this carol expresses the same idea, but this time with respect to Mary.  The carol begins with Adam ‘bounden in a bond’, an allusion to the medieval idea that he lay in limbo until Christ's Harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday.  I love the wry humour of the lines ‘Four thousand winter / Thought he not too long,’ which strike me almost as brotherly teasing; the same with ‘And all was for an apple, / An apple that he took’.  It is an acknowledgement of a kind of solidarity with Adam; an admission that he and we are all in the same pickle.

And yet — the poet says — if the apple had never been taken, if Adam had not sinned, Mary would never have been Queen of Heaven (since, implicitly, we would have had no need for Christ to save us).  Hence, strange to say,  ‘Blessed be the time / That apple taken was!’  This is the ‘felix culpa’, and a (surely deliberate) echo of the Exsultet.  And so, one senses to his own amazement, the catechist declares, ‘Therefore we moun singen [may sing] / Deo gratias.’  It is one of the most marvellous paradoxes of Christianity, and here is expressed concisely and with winsome humour, and also with the Marian devotion for which medieval England was renowned.

Several composers have set the carol to music. The best-known setting is probably Boris Ord’s, which has regular outings at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge.  Benjamin Britten also included a version in his Ceremony of Carols.  But I think my favourite is the setting by Philip Ledger, with the words ‘Deo Gratias’ as a haunting refrain.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

‘Go forth, O Christian soul...’

The queue for the Queen’s lying-in-state at the King’s Stairs Gardens, Bermondsey, roughly five miles from Westminster.  10.30 a.m., 17th September 2022. 

My final contribution to the Second Elizabethan Age was, as it turned out, to take half a dozen newly-catalogued manuscripts down to the store, sliding them into fresh envelopes, fastening them with archival tape, labelling them, and putting them ready for shelving.  I had seen the lunchtime announcement about the Queen’s health, and worried and prayed as I worked, actually rather glad there was no computer downstairs.  By the time I surfaced again, the news had broken: it was a colleague in Security, an ex-serviceman, who told me.  “If it hadn’t been for her, this country would have gone to the dogs years ago,” he said flatly.

The day afterwards, a friend of mine happened to be cataloguing a file of condolence letters received by an actor’s widow, and came across a nice phrase: ‘You can prepare your mind, but you cannot prepare your heart.’  We had known the day would come and dreaded it, but even I was slightly taken aback by the grief that took hold of me when it did.  As others have said, the Queen’s death was not a surprise — but it was a shock.

Yet the way it happened was in several respects fitting, and therefore already consoling.  Not until after the pandemic, and the great Platinum Jubilee, and even this summer of ferocious heat and the shocking beige of drought were over; only once welcome showers were sending some of the life and colour flowing back into Britain’s veins, so that her landscapes were beginning to look themselves again, did the moment arrive.  The Queen saw us through, and then went home.

And from the ten days of mourning that followed, too — with a first autumnal bittersweetness in the air, with the tearful glory of rainbows in the skies, with torn ragged clouds trailing overhead at dusk like smoke, with the hard underframe of the national story to which we all belong suddenly only just below the surface — I shall remember not only sorrow, but deep consolation.  I mean not only the constitutional reassurances — the ancient mechanisms of the accession ceremony, swinging into motion like a pair of sombre oaken doors, just, I realise, as they would have done, if needed, on any other day between 1952 and 2022 — I mean something deeper: spiritual consolation.  The lying-in-state, for instance, was balm for the soul, even when seen on television: the solemnity, the simple formality, the reverence.  And it worked, for in filed, and kept filing, thousands upon thousands of mourners, their faces strangely beautiful with love and grief, passing reverently through Westminster Hall, curtseying or bowing or even crossing themselves.  The live-streamed television pictures of this procession, though zooming into people’s faces a little intrusively at times, must be one of the most moving broadcasts I have ever seen.

The queue down Shad Thames, just E. of Tower Bridge.
And the extraordinary lengths of the queues showed the extent of the grief and the love, even as the pictures showed their depth.  Seeing dire warnings of a twenty-two-hour-long wait on the Saturday morning, my sister and cousin and I initially abandoned our plans to join the queue, deciding instead that we would walk along its length, past the mourners, pay our respects outside Westminster Hall, and then perhaps go to see the flowers in Green Park.  But just as we reached the start of the queue at Southwark Park, it was reopened with an estimated length of a mere sixteen hours, and we changed our minds and queued after all.

It was, as many have noticed, a pilgrimage — starting, for us, under the dingy girders of South Bermondsey station, along past Galleywall Road, through Southwark Park and a first set of interminable zigzags into the queue, past the makeshift tea-stands set up by enterprising residents, snaking among converted warehouses and bridges and embankments and theatres, over Lambeth Bridge, and, after a further two hours shuffling concertina-wise up and down Victoria Gardens, and a jarring bag-search and body-scan, at last slipped into the thick solemn hush of Westminster Hall, with the rich colours of the catafalque before us, and the priceless brilliance of the Imperial State Crown flashing finely at journey’s end.

Zigs and zags at Tower Bridge

The whole experience (which turned out to be eleven hours long, not sixteen) taught me something about pilgrimage: that it is the natural expression of gratitude.  I had, and have, no way of repaying the Queen for her years of faith, and integrity, and quiet constant example.  All I could offer was a mark of respect before her coffin.  Small recompense indeed — but there was subconscious logic at work; the knowledge that if this little gesture could somehow be made to cost me more — if I had had to stand in a queue six miles long in order to make it — perhaps it would actually come to be worth more.  Rather like the widow’s mite in the Gospel, my little bow would take on a greater meaning, because I had ‘given all I had’.

The Lambeth Embankment, across the river from Parliament, as the afternoon wears on

This, I think, has something to do with why, when I had heard that the queuing time had nearly doubled, my initial reaction was not dismay, but a strange instinctive determination that I was Jolly Well going to queue, come what may.  This is surely the same impulse that drives people to walk barefoot and impose all sorts of hard, tough exigencies on themselves while on pilgrimage.  It is, however heartily we laugh and joke with our fellow pilgrims along the way, a serious, deep, even primal gesture of love.

The Palace of Westminster from Lambeth Bridge, with flag at half-mast

I think the same is true of the great marches and the funeral offices: as well as solemn duties, they were acts of love and gratitude.  How beautiful, then, that they healed us even as we undertook them.  How comforting, too, were the beautiful prayers of the Anglican liturgy, their loving poetic language, commending our Queen to God, and telling us again and again what we needed to hear: that whereas we rightly grieve our Sovereign who ‘now rests in sleep’, we may have confidence both that ‘we shall rise again at the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ’ and that, ‘in due time, we may share with our sister that clearer vision when we shall see thy face.’  We are right to grieve, but it is not the end: again and again I drank in the medicine of those words.  One sensed the wisdom of ages in the knowledge that ten days would be needed for the salving and bandaging of the wound, for that ‘gracious promise’ to sink in once again.  

The two-mile-long concertina in Victoria Gardens

“We will miss Queen Elizabeth terribly, said Archbishop of Southwark, John Wilson, at a beautiful Requiem Mass at St. George’s Cathedral the following morning.  I have written at length elsewhere in these pages of my admiration for the Queen, and of how extraordinarily blessed we have been to have at the heart of our national life a person who placed love so clearly above power, and for so long, and with such constancy.  She may not have made her opinions known, but she did show her beliefs, and the response to her death, the outpouring of grief and love, shows that this did not go unnoticed.  And so, as that extraordinary and bittersweet month slides away off into the past, and as we who share those beliefs, shouldering our loads, turn to carry on without her, we may take slow-burning courage from this parting gift: the vindication in her death of the manner of her life.

Go forth upon thy journey from this world, O Christian soul;
In the name of God the Father Almighty who created thee;
In the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for thee;
In the name of the Holy Spirit who strengtheneth thee.
In communion with the blessèd saints,
and aided by Angels and Archangels,
and all the armies of the heavenly host,
may thy portion this day be in peace,
and thy dwelling in the heavenly Jerusalem.  Amen.
A still frame from the BBC’s live stream from Westminster Hall.