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OLD MEN NOD: Another Anglican World

How I Discovered and Now Commend Comprehension

Memories stir along with fallen arches, creaking knees and automatic weight loss when entering the late sixties of one’s life. Most of my childhood was spent in rural areas of post war England. For a good part of that time my mother and I lived in the Diocese of Norwich –the dead see as it was then termed. Nonconformity was strong enough to deny the parson free range in the village. Yet the old parish church, set dead center on the main street and its surrounding churchyard, parish hall and tithe barn, the vicarage just down a lane, occupied a significant area of real estate and still was the focus of community memories long and short. Unless one came of a dissenting family with live ties to the Baptist and Methodist Chapels; our Roman Catholic Irish doctor had to drive miles away for Mass; the familiar rites of passage, birth, marriage and death were observed and celebrated in that old and rather musty building. This had been the case for centuries, reaching back before the Reformation probably to the time when the interloping East Angles were converted to Christianity.

On the wall of the church was an impressive list of vicars going back to the 13th Century. There was only one gap. The gap puzzled and fascinated me until I was told that the lacuna occurred when Anglicanism was abolished by the Puritans. During those days the spiritual ancestors of those who now worshipped in the Baptist Chapel down the street, held sway in old St. Mary’s Church until the king returned in 1662. Then the dispossessed vicar returned, surely in his dotage, and carried on for a few years.

The deanery was stoutly middle of the road in what was then termed “churchmanship”. Holy Communion was celebrated chastely at 8: AM, and at 11: AM on the first Sunday in the month and on the great festivals. Clergy wore cassocks and surplices, with a colored stole for the sacraments and hood and scarf or the Offices. In the wider affairs of the church, we were guided by the long obsolete Canons issued in 1663. There was no General Synod. The clergy met in the ancient Convocations established before William conquered, probably before there was an England, and certainly before there was a parliament. The laity had a National Assembly and was becoming more influential in the life of the church. At parish level, the parochial church council with its wardens attempted to keep the vicar in check.

Of course there were church “parties” or mutual interest groups, although we knew little about them. A local vicar belonged to the “Modern Churchmen’s Union” and emptied his pews by suggesting the sort of things about the Bible Bishop Spong now seems to believe are new and revolutionary. And then there was Walsingham, the Anglican Shrine to our Lady, but it was more than thirty miles away; out of our sight and imagination.

As we had no equivalent to General Convention, these parties were not so much pressure groups as convenient associations to give mutual aid and comfort and perhaps to spread their ideas by contact and ‘evangelism’. Of course there were Evangelicals, who used the 1662 Prayer Book rather more strictly than the rest of us and published pamphlets warning of the dreadful dangers which accompanied the use of candles and colored vestments. They seemed to believe that the Church of England was founded by Thomas Cranmer. We knew better. Our parish church was old and full of pastoral memories when Cranmer was burnt at the stake. Our bishop and his suffragans were tolerant of eccentricity, wore the robes which fitted in to local flavor, and stayed out of the way most of the time.

Now to my story: Our vicar, all six foot seven of him, was a reserve army chaplain. He was summoned to active duty. For a few months we were under the pastoral care of a gentle ninety year old priest called Roger Boys. He had been trained at Lincoln Theological College when the saintly Tractarian Edward King was bishop. When he was not able to take the services, supply priests were brought in.

I was the only server in the parish. I arrived at the church one Sunday to be met by a distraught verger who told me that there was one of them Roman priests in the vestry who wouldn’t leave. Fascinated, I went to have a look. There stood an ancient cleric, in a cassock with buttons down the front, wearing a funny hat with a pom pom, with a laced garment over his arm. With great hesitation I explained to him that the Catholic chapel was miles away. He replied that this church was the “catholic church” and that he was here to say “Mass”. And so he did: guiding me to do all sorts of liturgical acts not seen in the building since the reign of Bloody Mary. He befriended me and took me to Walsingham and Anglo Catholic meetings. The crucifix he gave me still adorns the wall of my study. He had been a missionary in Africa and preached sermons our ordinary parishioners could understand.

It was with him that I first met “gay” priests and laity who seemed to form a tolerated and rather “Masonic” inner circle within the Anglo Catholic Movement an the wider church.

Then the Sunday came when a quaint old fellow, in cassock, bands and a mortar board arrived and attempted the do the Lord’s Supper from the north-end, which obliged him to hold back the curtains which nearly surrounded our “Sarum Altar”. He objected to wafers, but we had no bread. He preached interminably about our sins and their rewards and although normally gruff, pitched his voice to a reedy falsetto when reading the prayers. The choir giggled.

Of course there was “Mr. Franks” in the next village, he of revisionist views about miracles, the virgin birth, and the resurrection who did Mattins for us once or twice. No one could understand why he was a priest! I later discovered that this shy and troubled man was partly Jewish, a refugee from Nazi Germany, to whom “orthodoxy” equaled the sort of accommodation many German Christians had attempted with Hitler.

And there was always the ancient Father Boys, with his snow white hair, crumbling surplice and Oxford hood, who though a “Catholic” fitted in and taught this young boy to pray and rejoice in a beauty of holiness beyond myself. He taught me about the Church in its mystery and mission.

My American readers may well object that all this has nothing to do with contemporary American Anglicanism, in which “parties” have become lobbies, synods, legislative assemblies and instant communications in shill and uncompromising voices our daily meat and drink. But I leant then that the church is at base none of these things. It is rather found, in myriad expressions, all over the world, in its worship-centered devotion and people and place centered mission. At the Daily Offices in this parish, those who attend pray daily for provinces and dioceses all over the world, not as structures and organizations, not as Catholic, or Broad, or Evangelical, or a mixture of all. We pray for +Gene Robinson and +Peter Akinola, warts and all and through them to ordinary women and men, flawed and “fallen”, saints and sinners, who attempt to be merely the church. There’s nothing radical in this. Anglicanism at its best has been merely the Church in microcosm, made up of the baptized, with all their saintliness and fallenness, who as best they may, place themselves in fellowship together as the rhythm of lessons, festivals, fasts, Word and Sacrament, shape us to be the signs and portents of the kingdom which is and is to come.

If we returned to ponder these things, much which enflame and divide us would fall into relative place. For it is to the “village”, however expressed and discovered, that we find our mission to and with all its inhabitants, whatever their strengths and failures. For we are not a sect for fellow travelers – however we make common cause with those with whom we share convictions – but a church, a microcosm of the Ch
urch to and for all who would avail themselves of our lay and ordained ministry.

One Response

  1. Wise and good words. Thank you. It’s hard to hold it all in tension down here in the trenches.

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