arts, books, other reviews
Dreamworks 9880444, CD £12·99
Rufus Wainwright has some claim to be the successor to Bob Dylan as the troubadourde nos jours. He may not yet have written the definitive songs of the era, no Blowing in the Wind yet, but the times are more disparate, the signs of the times more difficult to discern. His is undoubtedly a secular sensibility but he uses religious and pre-Raphaelite imagery with some imagination and flair, although his assertion No it will not be me / Rufus the Baptist I be is disconcerting and shocking in its context. The cover and the accompanying booklet depict The Lady of Shallott (Hear a song that echoes…) in various winsome poses and are redolent of the wistful, romantic tone of the songs, with their rather more hard-edged lyrics.
This recording begins withAgnus Dei (do not be put off when it initially sounds as if the CD has stuck) and there follows a chronicle of sins committed and contemplated, relationships casual and unfulfilled, living both lonely and loving, poignant and yearning, drenched with a sense of lost innocence: Then came hallelujah sounding like mad Ophelia / For me in my room living / So kiss me, my darling stay with me till morning / Turn back and you will stay under the Memphis skyline. The most touching song is ‘The Art Teacher’ where he etches with economy but truth the recollection of a school girl’s crush for her teacher: he asked us what our favourite work of art was / But I could never tell him it was him. That missed opportunity still pains even after many years of marriage to a company executive that gives her the wherewithal to own a Turner (he told me he liked Turner / And never have I turned since then) but does not fill the void of lost innocence and adolescent agony: and never have I loved since then / No never have I loved any other man.
He is the most literate of singer-songwriters – cultural, artistic, and religious references abound: John Singer Sargent, Bryant Park, James Dean, Studio 54. From the particularity of place he spins a more universal resonance. Similarly the particularity of experience is made into something of wider significance and application:Waiting for the present, for the present to pass / Waiting for a dream to last / You are not my lover, and you never will be / ‘Cause you’ve never done anything to hurt me. Here is a jolting and recognisably true insight that might connect with many.
Some of his lyrics seem deceptively simple but have an allusive quality that makes them rewarding beyond the initial hearing. Not all is easy. There are Joycean echoes of a coherent consciousness which have the appearance, but only the appearance, of the random. They represent the articulation of a distinctly modern sensibility but using the vocabulary of a tradition which it subverts into something radical and challenging.
His voice has a compelling and distinctive purity, not without a slightly metallic resonance, and a chanting intensity that cuts across some lush orchestration. Passion recollected in a dislocated environment, he fashions a morality that seems at once decadent and disarming. He sings like a fallen angel.
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
The Duchess Theatre, London Aldwych
When Bishop Edwin Barnes and I were undergraduates, we spent a month of the summer vacation in Trafford Park, Manchester, in one of the many factories that comprise ‘the Park.’ +Edwin found himself cleaning out the machines, whist I was given the more decorous duty of helping parcel the rolls of felt. Looking out of the export office window, I could see the neighbouring Kellogg’s factory, from which large lorries emerged, bearing their sunshine flakes through the Lancashire smog.
When Pinter was asked recently to sum up his playThe Birthday Party, he mischievously declared that it is about cornflakes. There is some truth in the fact that cornflakes do regularly appear, often with the milk on the turn, but there is much more to the play than a breakfast cereal. What is sure is that the playwright has a deft touch for bringing the squalor of a seaside boarding house of the Fifties into sharp focus; the set also is perfect with the glass cabinet housing the trinkets from Margate, and the light shade in need of a dust. Then there is the acting: the critics have run out of superlatives.
Is it a play with a deep and esoteric meaning? Harold Hobson was the only critic to endorse it on its original appearance, recognising the arrival of a new talent. There is humour in plenty, and suspense is all around. For those concerned with the Christian Gospel, the play sheds light on what we are saved from; the aching loneliness and fear in the human heart. There are deep reservoirs of vulnerability in all of us.
Eileen Atkins is superb, drawing on her early cockney roots. Henry Goodman announces apprehension the moment he appears. There are excellent cameos from the rest of the cast.
Walsingham College Trust, 57 mins
DVD £15·95 / Video £12·95
That this film will sell, and in large quantities, goes without saying. The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has countless loyal devotees who, the next time they are in the Shrine Shop, will pick up a copy and rush home to view it. The present writer, a pilgrim for over 35 years, did just that. Little expense has been spared in its making, with the highest of production values employed throughout. Footage of the National Pilgrimage, the Youth Pilgrimage, the Pilgrimage for Healing and Renewal, Shrine Prayers and all the rest is intercut with footage of a parish pilgrimage made by the FiF Parish of St Chad, Bradford. We hear from pilgrims young and old, male and female, ordained and lay, famous and not-so-famous.
But this regular pilgrim was just a little disappointed that so many of the fifty-seven minutes were devoted to what must be described as advertising, pure and simple. We see the accommodation on offer, we visit the refectory and see the food and we linger long in the Shrine Shop, torn between countless objects of devotion. (Incidentally, the best joke in the entire film is when the voiceover assures us that ‘For a small village, Walsingham is well-served with shops’. Well, yes, if it’s a statue you’re after!)
I had rather hoped to see so muchmore of the pilgrimage experience: the Parish Mass in St Mary’s, a highlight of the weekend for so many pilgrims; the Slipper Chapel, the Chapel of Reconciliation, the Orthodox Church, the Methodist Church – the ecumenical dimension which I had always understood to be one of the essentials of the pilgrimage; the pint in the pub, referred to en passant, but never seen; the demonstrators heaping abuse on the innocent at the National Pilgrimage.
But what you do get is good; Fr Philip North, the Priest Administrator (and executive producer) speaks movingly and eloquently to camera about the meaning of the Shrine; Fr Philip Barnes, the Shrine Priest, is seen doing what he does so well – ministering to pilgrims; and the Archbishop of Canterbury tells of his love for Walsingham. Some of the background music, from Peter Macken and a quartet of accomplished singers, is a delight.
If you have never been to Walsingham, you should buy this video and then make your first pilgrimage as soon as you are able. And if you are a regular pilgrim? Buy it anyway, and then pray forEngland’s Nazareth II – the Sequel, which might fill in the gaps.
CELEBRATING THE EUCHARIST
and Simon Jones
Alcuin/SPCK, 108pp, pbk
0 281 05588 2, [£9·99]
Having recognized that liturgy is not a text but a sacred act for which texts, however important, are not the whole story, the compilers ofCommon Worship have recommended to the Church that there be a time of liturgical formation, the task of the next Liturgical Commission. Broadly speaking, we now have the texts; now we must learn to perform them.
This is a challenge not only for Anglicans: the Roman Rite too is in need of reform. Much of it now feels very ‘sixties’, not least in performance. As withCW, much of the activity has been round the production of new texts, or at least new translations, but it is widely recognized that there must be a new attentiveness to the General Instruction if not a full-scale ‘reform of the reform.’ Pope Benedict himself has insisted that this work of reform needs to be done and we know from his writings that he thinks that some of the excisions and discontinuities of thirty or forty years ago were unfortunate, reflecting an archaeological view of liturgy and a cultural radicalism which were very much of the time. (That is not to say, of course, that, as we await further developments, we should each feel free to ‘antique’ – ‘distress’? – the liturgy in whatever way we see fit).
A number of practical guides for Anglicans have already appeared, notablyAn Everlasting Gift (Edward Dowler and Brendan Clover, Tufton Books, 2004). The latest to arrive on my desk is Celebrating the Eucharist. As with Dowler and Clover, I found myself substantially in agreement with Gordon-Taylor and Jones. The one was a very clear guide to celebrating the modern Catholic rite – without really engaging with the kind of issues that ‘reform of the reform’ is pressing upon us and, I find, younger priests in particular. The other is necessarily trying to reach a broader audience: Gordon-Taylor and Jones, for instance, attempt to explain (p.64f) why the lavabo, though not mentioned in Anglican rite, is a good idea. (Full marks for ingenuity in suggesting that it is an acted out version of the Collect for Purity).
Rather than list the points of agreement – far too many for a review – it is more practical to list some of the more contentious points. The endorsement of Richard Giles’Re-Pitching The Tent (p.7), in my view, is a mistake. I am not the only reader of that book and admirer of Richard Giles to enjoy his anthology of architecture, yet dissent from the main gist of his argument.
One would surely not assign diaconal tasks to a layperson if there were an assistant priest present (p.18). It is often said (p.21) that the crozier is commonly seen ‘as a symbol of office rather than jurisdiction’ but the (RC)Ceremonial of Bishops itself does not quite say that. The crozier remains a symbol of jurisdiction, but the diocesan may permit its use by visiting bishops in his absence.
As for sub-deacons (p.22), strictly they no longer exist, and the tunicle nowadays is regarded as a dalmatic. There are good reasons, however, to have two deacons at the mass and, in certain circumstances, to use an ordinand or reader – both of whom exercise a recognized ‘sub-diaconal’ ministry – as a liturgical sub-deacon. Commending incense to an English public famously suspicious of anything reeking of popery might have been better done (p.22) if the ‘sweet-smelling savour’ were linked (as the Orthodox often link it) to the presence in our midst of the resurrected and glorified Christ.
Cushions or stands for altar books (p.27), or, indeed, putting the book flat on the altar, are surely a matter of aesthetics and personal taste but one need not fear the book being obtrusive: the book is a symbol of the Word, just as surely as the paten and the chalice are a symbol of the Supper. Word and Supper come together in the eucharistic celebration.
The Sequence tradition is implied but not explained (p.43). ‘If the Gospel reader is a priest, a presidential blessing is not required,’ we are told (p.45), but not that a concelebrant asks a bishop for a blessing or, for that matter, that a priest acting as liturgical deacon, where that custom persists, would ask for a blessing. Given the Orthodox tradition that the assembly is blessed with the sacred elements, presumably with the non-communicating part of the assembly especially in mind, it seems a pity to discourage blessing individual non-communicants with the consecrated host (p.74).
Most of this, admittedly, is cheese-paring: the compilers should take it as a compliment that it is mainly on finer points, often matters of individual experience and taste, that one finds oneself disagreeing with them. The one place where the book becomes lumpen and unconvincing is in discussing the Words of Institution (p.68). ‘Consecratory formula,’ the priest ‘being Christ,’ ‘moments of consecration,’ ‘showing’ the host and holding the host ‘above the head’: none of this will do.
It is a matter of Catholic teaching – however much modern liturgical scholarship may disapprove – that the words of Jesus are performative and that the priest represents Christ in the eucharistic action (whether re-presenting Calvary, as in the West, or praying the Father for the descent of the Spirit, as in the East). As for the difference between ‘showing’ in the modern rites and the traditional elevations of the older rites, this seems to be the difference between an action when the priest is facing the people (as he usually is in the modern rite) and one when he has his back to the people (as was usually the case in the older rites).
Far more than seven-eighths of this book – not only the pages not mentioned here, but other things on the pages mentioned – is first rate, helpful, sane and sensible. I am sureCelebrating the Eucharist will help many priests and parishes not only to produce lively worship but, more importantly, to discover and discern the beauty of holiness.
THE NEW SCM DICTIONARY OF CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY
Edited by Philip Sheldrake
SCM, 700pp, hbk
0 334 02984 8, [£50]
The SCM theological dictionaries have been a reliable collection of reference works for a couple of decades now, though this second generation (‘the new’) have sadly ditched the smart design on the spine, which used to look so good on a student bookshelf. I have my copy of the first edition in 1983, rather thin on its general articles, but with solid biographies and introductions to the great Christian spiritual writers.
With the exponential rise in interest in spirituality, the 2005 version reverses the pattern. There are now no biographies, but a huge range of general articles, half of which could hardly have been imagined let alone written twenty years ago. It opens with thirteen introductory essays, that emphasize the academic and quasi-academic methodology now dominating the field. Do not be put off by them: such surveys are part of the scholarly world’s self-justification and can be safely ignored.
In a subject so self-consciously new, I went first to check how it would handle the dafter fringes. ‘Celtic spirituality’, I was pleasantly surprised, gives a fair, measured and rational critique of an area generally free of such virtues. ‘Given that its proponents make such a claim about its antiquity and its links with particular cultures and the past, it is somewhat ironic that all its headline claims about the past are rejected by historians.’ A wise but sceptical analysis follows. ‘Anglo-Saxon spirituality’ is in the hands of Sister Benedicta Ward slg, and is a model of clear and concise explanation.
It is necessary that the more distant and seemingly outlandish strands (think North America) be described by those in sympathy, if one is to learn anything of value. All the same, the entry for ‘Womanist spirituality’ is such a gushing piece of evangelism, I wondered who was speaking to whom; it opens, ‘Womanist spirituality is a vital, expressive, revolutionary, embodied, personal and communal resistance-based way of life and theoretical discourse, based upon the rich lived, yet oppressive, experiences of women descended from the African diaspora, who as social beings in relationship with the divine, celebrate life and expose injustice and malaise.’ I suspect the editor did not dare ask the North Carolina professor for a bit of judicious editing, with the result that we learn very little.
The breadth of this new subject requires articles on such topics as ‘clothing,’ ‘film and spirituality,’ ‘food,’ which are easily read introductions, but rather detract from the wider collection of more serious summaries of the great Christian traditions. Is the book trying too hard? After an excellent and quite brief summary of the Lord’s Prayer, Bishop Tom Wright ends with this bizarrely anodyne sentence, ‘It could energize and sustain fresh growth in shared ecumenical witness and life.’
It would be odd if a dictionary of spirituality did not annoy you. If this one is a little too earnest, at least it is getting the topics and approaches across. If you want general introductions on what is going on in every corner of a ‘hot’ subject, this is an excellent resource. It does not, despite its own claim, ‘replace its predecessor’ for it covers quite different ground. Note that it is £10 cheaper until the end of July.
ANARCHY, CHURCH AND UTOPIA: ROWAN WILLIAMS AND CHURCH
DLT, 128pp, pbk
0 232 52578 1, £9·95
The premise of this book is straightforward: Theo Hobson, freelance theologian, journalist and clever fellow, has a lot of time for Christianity, but, to use his own words, finds ‘the whole issue of church rather tricky.’ Altruistically, he decides to help out another clever fellow, whose liberal catholic outlook, poetic spirituality and socialist politics would be just the thing, if only he had not made the fatal mistake of getting mixed up in the whole church business, to the extent of becoming Archbishop of Canterbury.
Some intellectual quirk has obviously tripped up Rowan Willliams here, and Hobson sets out charitably to put him right, so that he can get on with the real job of dismantling the institution he leads. And Hobson thinks he gets his man. With the smug air of someone who has just cracked the Da Vinci Code, the last chapter pins down the Archbishop and reveals where sentiment has triumphed over rationality: he likes the Eucharist too much, indeed his faith in the Eucharist is what holds his theology back.
What Hobson has spotted is that the institutional church is not perfect, and that the church’s corporate example to the world is often as bad a witness to the message of its founder as that of its individual members. All conscientious Christians worry about this, and Rowan Williams is no exception: indeed, because he has been a theologian concerned about social issues and at odds with the unspoken assumptions of the British Establishment, there is a lot of stuff in his writings where the church appears bathed in a particularly lugubrious Celtic Twilight.
Hobson is diligent in setting this out, and all the familiar bits and pieces of Wittgenstein, Bulgakov, MacKinnon and Simone Weil are untapped to show how someone as spiritual and intellectual as Rowan Williams must truly have fallen among thieves. And all that holds him to it is this atavistically conservative attachment to the Eucharist, which Hobson helpfully tells him and us is simply an ambiguously ritualised presentation of the Kingdom of God, performed by the very institution which by its inadequacies is actively inhibiting the arrival of that kingdom.
What Rowan Williams thinks about church is an important question. He presides over a Church of England and an Anglican Communion on the verge of disintegration, and the solutions which he proposes to define what authority might mean for Anglican Christians will have momentous consequences. All Hobson really has to say about Williams’ ecclesiology is that he believes in a church which defines itself not by obedience to a visible central authority, like the papacy, but by participation in shared habits of worship and devotion, which coalesce and are exemplified in the Eucharist. In other words, a high church sort of Geoffrey Fisher.
This does not do justice to what the Archbishop has to say about the task of making decisions about faith, morals and church order in a polity which has no evident means of coming to a common mind. Worse than this, there is not a single reference that I can find in this book to the Bible, or any sense that the institution of the church, or for that matter the Eucharist, might in some way be related to the will of God and command of Christ, rather than to the misguided enthusiasm of unenlightened Christians.
I suppose that it should be a matter for wry rejoicing that the catholic revival in the Church of England has at last produced an Archbishop whose worst ecclesiastical vice in the eyes of aGuardian columnist is a liking for the Eucharist.
WHY STUDY THE PAST?
DLT, 112pp pbk
0 232 52549 8, £8·95
Two recent discussions clarified why it was that I found Dr Williams’ prose so difficult to grasp. One comment was, ‘I know what all the words mean but I do not know what his sentences mean.’ The other comment was that his sentences ‘seem to contain their own contradiction.’ It has become a commonplace of newspaper discourse that the Archbishop is obscure and that must be a matter of regret and a barrier to any conversation with contemporary society.
It is refreshing to have a prelate of intellectual stature even if he requires some effort on our part. He compares favourably with his immediate predecessor but he might well look to another of his predecessors ,the late Michael Ramsey, who published less frequently but to deeper and more potent effect.
In the latest book from his literary production line, Dr Williams has expanded lectures he gave in Salisbury Cathedral under the auspices of Sarum College in May 2003. He looks at the writing of Church history. His first aim is to see history as part of our self-understanding. He does not quote the great philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood, but perhaps he should have done.
History is ‘for’ human self-knowledge. It is generally thought to be of importance to man that he should know himself: where knowing himself means knowing not his merely personal peculiarities, the things that distinguish him from other men, but his nature as man. Knowing yourself means knowing, first, what it is to be a man; secondly, knowing what it is to be the kind of man you are and nobody else is. Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.
That is the moral case for history put with moving clarity, but it applies to the writing of all history and not exclusively to the writing of Church history. More specifically Dr Williams sees the historian of the Church, in part, explicating and demonstrating that the Church is a society of divine origin; and that the writing of such history should contribute to the building up of the Body of Christ, to feed and to nourish present Christians.
For many historians, Christians or not, this confessional approach would over-step the mark and history would seem more like propaganda. But Dr Williams points out that ‘for a Christian the writing of history is bound to be theological…the possibility of telling a consistent and coherent story about how God’s people have lived is inescapably, for the believer, the possibility of seeing two fundamental theological points. God’s self-consistency is to be relied on (i.e. God is not at the mercy of historical chance and change); and thus relation to God can be the foundation of a human community unrestricted by time and space, by language or cultural difference.’
Can history in any sense be coherent and consistent? Human beings are rarely so. The Whig view of history was long ago shattered, killed off in the fields of Flanders. Although history charts change, it is not only about change. One of the most significant forces in history isvis inertia and by saying, ‘when people set out to prove that nothing has changed, you can normally be sure that something quite serious has,’ he sets up a straw man.
It is true that the Russian Revolution changed that society profoundly but in what sense can we say that the replacement of one despotic, authoritarian regime with one that was an arid, cruel, ultimately incompetent communist tyranny marks a change? Was the Revolution acoup d’état by a disciplined political force, the replacement of one dictatorship with another? More significantly, does human nature change? The context in which human beings operate certainly changes, society’s systems, change, but do human beings in their relationships, neuroses, and motivations change?
Chapter 4 is the best, and it wisely cautions about importing into the past a modern sensibility or current assumptions. The past is important for Christians today because the Christian religion is rooted in historical particularity. He is perhaps a little too tentative for my taste when he says, ‘this has something to do with Christianity’s special emphasis upon redemption as an event with a particular location and date.’ Well, yes. God’s intervention in human history, his Son’s Passion, Death and Resurrection would seem to require a degree more affirmation, certainly if we take seriously theanamnesis of Eucharistic worship.
He is right to see the crucial importance of the Tradition and to recognise, as did Newman, the significance of development. The problem we have today, and to which in other contexts Dr Williams makes a contribution, is the jettisoning of the Tradition allowing primacy to contemporary notions which derive from a post-Enlightenment, humanist tradition, rather than the re-presentation of the Tradition in a contemporary setting.
There is much of immense value with which to engage. Amidst so splenetic and disputatious a discipline he will never satisfy all, certainly not the most iconoclastic of secularists.
WE HAVE A POPE!
Our Sunday Visitor, 240pp, pbk
1 59276 180 1, [£9·99]
Modern production has become so fast and sophisticated that instant books, following major news stories, are a feature of contemporary publishing, but not one that has generally brought lustre to the world of letters. This introduction to the new pope, however, deserves a second look. It may not offer much to the crypto-papalist sophisticates who read ND, but for those less well informed it is an admirable introduction, focussing as it does upon the events surrounding the death of John Paul II and Benedict’s election.
With colour photos, clear chronologies and plenty of text boxes explaining aspects of the Roman Church and the Vatican, it offers a lot for a tenner. There is a slight tendency towards hagiography, but throughout the author maintains an authoritative assessment of the papacy and the current pope. This is good, clear, reliable writing. If you have been bemused by the excitement surrounding Benedict’s election, or have a suspicion that some of the less favourable reaction to him may actually be wide of the mark, or simply fascinated by the whole process (so much swifter and more theatrical than the CofE’s own secretive method of finding a chief pastor) this American work is well worth considering.
I liked this wise assessment: ‘Despite the exaggerated desires of some, the papal job description does not include being a revolutionary. The mission of the office is to preserve and teach, not speculate and overturn. The political language of ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive,’ ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing,’ misses the fact that the papacy is first and foremost about continuity.’
A FAITH FOR SKEPTICS
John H. Heidt
Gracewing, 144pp, pbk
0 85244 628 4, £14·99
This little book is a gem. You have a member of your PCC, whose wife or husband has never really seen the point of their spouse’s attachment to the Church? Give them this. You have successful, secular friends, who cannot understand why you bother with all that religious nonsense? Give them this. You have a lively, thoughtful adult confirmation class? Give them this. You are a priest and middle manager in Church of England plc, who cannot quite recall why you ever came to faith in Jesus Christ? Read this.
A Faith For Skepticsis both sharp and intelligent, and, unlike so many guides to Christian basics, it neither explains away the fundamentals of the Faith nor patronises the reader. There are Chestertonian moments (‘When I go to our new supermarket, I am very rarely tempted to hit the cashier over the head’). There are paragraphs which could come from Ronnie Knox’s Belief of Catholics, yet the whole thing feels entirely up-to-date. It takes the condition of modern man seriously, but knows instinctively that the answers to modern problems are to be found in harvesting the wisdom of the ages, in clear thinking (theology must begin with philosophy), and in acquiring the patience to engage with the Tradition (Old Covenant and New) in which God has both revealed himself, and taught man about man’s own nature.
The book is calledA Faith for Skeptics because it assumes that most people are ‘neither so clear about their faith nor dogmatic about their doubts.’ Heidt is surely right, as the title of the first chapter suggests, that genuine atheists are a dwindling tribe: that is, the number of people who definitely, cogently and rationally deny the existence of anything which we would call supernatural or metaphysical is now few.
The book, to summarise rather brutally, sets out to show us why faith is possible, and why belief in the reality of God, in the remarkable significance of the Jews (‘In the very depths of our psyches we are all Jews’ is one of its more startling insights), and the unique revelation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, are all something worthwhile: more than worthwhile, they are transforming, in the way that life was transformed when the first fish crawled out of the sea and learned to breathe the air.
Heidt is not starry-eyed about what it means to call oneself a Christian. ‘The practising Christian is both Superman and Clark Kent,’ he writes. Participation in the Church’s rituals and sacraments is ultimately the only way in to the mystery of God: shades of both Rowan Williams (who, incidentally, commends the book enthusiastically), and Fergus Kerr on Wittgenstein. We are to jump in before we have every question answered; to venture into the unknown before we are at all certain of what our reward will be.
Of this journey into uncertainty (which cannot be undertaken alone, but only in company), baptism is both the figure and the reality. Heidt’s description of the rites of Easter night, celebrated in their fullness to include the sacraments of Christian initiation, is as lyrical and evocative an account of the Liturgy as you are likely to encounter.
The only cavil is with the publisher, not the author. Regrettably, the book does not look well: the typeface is poor, the printing slapdash, the attention to the appearance of the text on the page woefully negligent. Never mind: here is Christian apologetic both serious and accessible, rooted in a generous orthodoxy, which one finds all too rarely and which deserves the widest possible circulation.
THE MONK CARDINAL
Headline, 350pp, hbk
0 232 52549 8, £20
Anthony Howard was a surprising choice as the authorized biographer of Cardinal Hume. He is a seasoned, veteran, political journalist with distinguished biographies to his credit and has commented on religious affairs from time to time: usually being fairly disobliging about ‘traditionalists.’ From his family background and upbringing he knows the Church of England and seems to relish its quirks and foibles. He edited theNew Statesman, was Deputy Editor of The Observer and edited the obituaries on The Times.
His strength as a commentator lies not so much in political analysis, but in pinpointing a vignette or an anecdote which seems to encapsulate a personality, tensions within a Cabinet or party, or even the wider debate. He is stronger on personality than policy. In less assured hands this may have descended to little more than gossip or tittle-tattle but Howard’s grasp of contemporary history and his fluency both in speech and writing make him a perceptive historian and biographer. He now writes, as he says in his introduction, from an agnostic background.
Cardinal Hume (Howard’s preferred style, Basil, seems too intrusive) was himself a surprising choice for Westminster. The Apostolic Delegate was initially faced with some ninety-five names with Derek Warlock as the front-runner, but Howard sees the ‘single decisive moment’ for Cardinal Hume’s success as a meeting at which the Duke of Norfolk swung his support behind him: ‘the patrician, recusant strain in English Catholicism joined forces, for once, with the more liberal, intellectual elements within the Church.’ By the time of his death he had brought the Catholic Church into the mainstream of ecclesiastical, national and political life. He has some claim to be the most influential churchman of his generation.
The cynical may argue that in Archbishops Coggan (whom the Cardinal liked and admired) and Carey he had little competition but he rivalled the cultivated and suave Robert Runcie. He had star quality. His public persona appeared diffident, polite, humane, attractive, amusing. That Howard shows him to have a streak of steel, an explosive temper and a marked degree of asperity in some of his dealings makes him all the more human. Unlike most of his predecessors he combined an old, if not recusant, Catholic background with a public school education and an ease with the ways and workings of the establishment (his brother-in-law was Secretary to the Cabinet) as well as the common touch which never fell into condescension.
It is little wonder that the Queen made her visit to Westminster Cathedral for Vespers, invested him with the Order of Merit, her personal gift, and called him ‘my cardinal.’ The Cardinal was an ardent royalist: although not enamoured of the Prince of Wales, who comes out of this book in a less than flattering light.
Yet, and Howard wrestles with this in his final chapter of evaluation without coming to any firm conclusions, his term of office coincided with a marked decline in Mass attendance, in vocations, in marriages and baptisms; a headlong descent into a secularist society. But the interest and outpouring of sympathy at his last illness, and of grief and mourning at his death showed that he had touched more deeply the sensibilities of the British people than statistics can allow.
His background was one that our demotic age seeks to despise. Immensely proud of his Geordie background and birth, one of his proudest moments was receiving the Freedom of Newcastle upon Tyne alongside ‘Wor’ Jackie Milburn from whom he diffidently asked an autograph. His mother was French, his father an eminent doctor of sceptical religious views. With domestic servants, governesses, nannies and private education he was a member of the privileged middle class. At Ampleforth, which he loved from the first, he was sporty rather than academic. He chose the monastic life rather than join the armed forces in 1941, a decision he looked back upon with a tinge of regret.
His relationships with the Roman Curia are portrayed as combative. He exhibited pastoral sympathy over the treatment of Lavinia Byrne and wrote strongly and critically over the vexed issue of homosexuality, again emphasising a pastoral concern for individuals. But as a man under authority he articulated the teaching of the Church. Much of his appeal lay in the impression he gave that he had no difficulties with belief in God but that the practice of his religion and its obligations was more of a struggle.
Howard is also excellent, on his home turf, charting the Cardinal’s campaign to secure the release of the Guildford Four. This is a fascinatingtour de force in which the Cardinal emerges as a tough operator and a skilled politician. He offers a telling insight into the workings of the establishment which he encapsulates in the occasion when Douglas Hurd, as Home Secretary, went in person to see the Cardinal to tell him that he had decided not to send the case to the Court of Appeal for review and how ‘the Archbishop instantly respond[ed] by refuting each and every reason he had given.’ Eventually he won. Otherwise he was relatively sparing in his political pronouncements and support for causes which gave added weight to his interventions when he did make them.
His views on the ordination of women, according to Howard, were decidedly open and he may have had some private difficulty in accepting Pope John Paul II’s determination that such an innovation was beyond the power of the Pope to instigate. Nevertheless he was generous in making it possible for many Anglicans unable to accept the decision of General Synod in 1992 to be received into the Catholic Church. Howard deals with this issue fairly, but it still makes painful reading even after the lapse of time. What Howard sees as a lapse in the Cardinal’s sure-footed approach when he openly speculated that this might be the conversion of England for which Catholics had prayed, seems an entirely reasonable hope in the midst of a crisis.
Howard has mastered what was for him initially unfamiliar territory and has written with fluency: there is real pace, perhaps a little breathless, and interest. He does not allow himself to be overwhelmed by his material. He finds the telling quotation, the personal foible, the significant anecdote, the particular moment that sums up and captures the essence of an individual or an event. This may not be the definitive or the last word on so fascinating and influential a figure but it is a vivid and compelling portrait.
Canterbury, 90pp, pbk
1 85311 627 0, £9·99
It would be foolish to visit Lourdes as a tourist. You must, even if sceptical and agnostic, approach the shrine with some understanding of what it means to be a pilgrim. Lourdes isbig in every sense of the world (in a way that Knock and Walsingham are not). The numbers, the space, the churches, hostels and shops, and above all the prayer, are on a scale not found at any other Marian shrine.
This being the case, youneed some kind of guide to give order and purpose to your visit. This one is pocket-sized and concise, with colour photos, maps and a glossary. A bit more French might have been helpful, but all in all a most satisfactory summary of what is needful for a visit. This, moreover, is small and friendly enough to give to an agnostic friend who is holidaying in southern France, and thinks they might go and see what it is all about. Encourage them.
ON A GENTLEMAN’S APPAREL
Eric Gill, renowned for his works of art in many fields, but especially in religious art, did not extend the same expertise to his own dress. Photographs usually show him dressed in a shapeless shift, vaguely resembling a monkish habit. There is, then, a certain poignancy about his comment, ‘Give a naked man a coat and he will be more a man than before and therefore more a gentleman.’
Clergymen, those of the Church of England in particular, can sometimes seem to be obsessed with the subject of dress. Usually this is restricted to sacred vestments and such pressing questions as whether a cotta ought to be gathered or box-pleated. Normally, however, when clergymen are seen dressed in street clothes, it is only too obvious that vestments are an absolutely indispensable part of a mission-shaped church, not least to prevent complete derision being heaped upon such unfortunate sartorially-challenged clerics who attempt to ‘get alongside the people where they are’ in terms of dress.
No doubt there will be some who ask what has the dress code of a gentleman to do with the Christian priest or his ministry. To answer requires a digression into the history of dress to prevent any unfortunate repetition of error.
Once the words ‘Christian’ and ‘gentleman’ used to go together. This pairing emphasised a way of behaving towards others which included courtesy, respect, charity, compassion and hospitality. It did not include causing offence, mugging, ‘bitch-slapping’ or the caustic (did they but know the word) abuse of strangers. To a large extent clothes featured in this admirable way of life and social behaviour. Doubtless many will remember been told in their schooldays that the purpose of a uniform was to iron out the immediate social differences between pupils of differing backgrounds and incomes. To some extent the dress code of the Christian gentleman is a reflection of this admirable premise.
Down the years an unwritten rule emerged emphasising a non-flashy, non-intrusive form of dress which, out of courtesy, did not offend the sensibilities of others. This is not the same as dressing similarly to other people.
The Prince Consort issued a set of instructions for the guidance of gentlemen in which he wrote: ‘The appearance, deportment and dress of a gentleman consists perhaps more in the absence of certain offences against good taste, and in careful avoidance of vulgarities and exaggerations of any kind, than in adherence to any rules which can be exactly laid down. In dress, with scrupulous attention to neatness ands good taste he will never give in to…frivolity and the foolish vanity of dandyism…and will ensure that his clothes are of the best quality he can afford, well made and suitable to his rank or position.’
The last word may be left to Beau Brummel, whose name, alas, has become a byword for the exact opposite of the sartorial philosophy he expounded: ‘If John Bull turns to look after you, you are not well dressed but either too still, too tight or too fashionable.’
Return to Home Page of This Issue
Return to Trushare Home Page