ONE particular village made a valiant effort to celebrate Christian Unity Week, which you may or may not have noticed has just slipped by — quietly, carefully and attended with a sort of regret and shame and longing which may prove
stronger than the ratiocinations and ingenuities of the theologians.
This was the village of East Hendred, in Berkshire, riot far from Abingdon, which town has a few stones left of what was once one of the greatest monasteries in England, and from Harwell, where they investigate a power far greater than even Henry ever knew, In its way East Hendred really is the sort of place that England in its heart believes itself to be. It has an ancient High Street, but an intermittent and wandering one, with houses and cottages, of every style and period, fine houses, secret gardens, all unplanned, all like fruit fallen from a tree, scattered over the countryside. It looks comfortable and enviable and content.
It has a great Anglican church commanding the centre of the medieval cyinfusion. There is also a fine Catholic church, for the Catholic presence here is old and assured and the furniture in the presbytery was designed by Pugin himself to remind the priests that they are not there for the easy life.
There is also a private Catholic chapel and a tiny medieval cubicle of a still Catholic church they are turning into a museum.
It was an ecumenical occasion, of course, most of it held in the village hall, which in its small and convenient impersonality is like a thousand other such places dear no doubt both to God and democracy.
It was a day-long affair. The vicar and parish priest stayed silent, though the latter was supected of crying "Alleluia" once. The aster of Ceremonies was the Anglican priest-in-charge of Nettlebed and Bix, who specialises in such charismatic matters, and a monk from Douai Abbey who does the same.
Despite the excitements and occasional eccentricities of such affairs, they are deadly serious and time is of no importance. The essential purpose seems to be to lose oneself in God, with frequent references to the Holy Spirit, with a shedding of the sort of traditional, social inhibitions that prevail in all railway carriages and most churches.
So there was a line of enthusiastic singers to sing hymns which are on purpose of a blinding and occasionally banal simplicity, Whether it be Catholic or Protestant, this is a revolutionary movement that intends to move mountains by moving men.
I cannot write as an expert, but clearly it is intended to produce an unabashed committal to the worship and love of God. Its primary purpose is this praise and worship of God from which should come the compassion, the caring, the social responsibility and the love of one's embarrassing neighbour. But here the practicality starts from spiritual love and not from social anger.
Anyway, there was much singing and some silence, some prayers and scriptural reading, and people were really wrapped in it, sitting and smiling and willing themselves to feel this love (I felt an aged and fastidious stinker).
In the evening there was a service in the Anglican parish church. Emotions were kept down by the fact that the place was as cold as stone in winter. Nevertheless, as the singing went on people were raising their arms like Moses in prayer Or holding their hands, palm upwards.
There were home-made
prayers from individuals which had a pretty professional ring to them. (Is there a danger of vanity creeping in?) Again the Benedictine spoke, very simply and from the heart. And then after about two hours of this there was a service of healing.
These are perfectly legitimate. It consisted here of several people laying on their hands, asking what was wrong, what your name was. These have nothing to do with exorcism or magic. They are simply a concentrated call upon God for some special relenting or mercy.
went up myself (most people did) and found it moving and serious and curiously endearing. And I embarrass easily, and no one would get me to raise my arms or shout "Alleluia".
Joy of religion screened
JUST in case you find that all these goings-on have an unorthodox and illicit sound, you should see a film they showed at one point during this long day.
It was made by an American priest. It is brilliant and loving and witty. It covers in half an hour the 1975 Charismatic Conference in Rome,
It must have been a vast affair, and obviously had "hippie" overtones. But it has an innocence that still comes across. Many of the people were elderly. But, under God, the joy! I was told that wherever it is shown people break out clapping at the end.
The conference was presided over by Cardinal Suenens, who made a joke —which must have been by the direct intervention of' the Holy Spirit — at one of the mass meetings.
There are some very moving bits of sermons. There is the Cardinal celebrating a Mass at the Papal High Altar in St Peter's, feeling his way through a crowd of concelebrants and an old London fog of incense.
There is the Pope being carried in on his portable throne to wild applause and the singing of one of those simplistic tunes,
Even I allowed myself the luxury, given only occasionally, ot a little of this sort of popular emotion, But certainly the whole affair could not have received more official approval from the apparatus of Holy Mother.
There are many scenes of high but not disgusting emotion. The end could win any documentary film prize. The thousands start dancing to the music of a band. A bishop is dancing a sort of jig on the platform.
Young people, matrons, friars, nuns (white and black) from all over the world, dance round faster and faster in circles holding dispassionate hands. This is an expression of the joy of religion which we tend to forget even exists in our Dark Night which is now the Fashionable colouring. But it looked unforced and convincing. The film ends suddenly with a close-up of a priest dancing round what appears to be his hat on the ground.
Believe me, there is nothing shocking in what you see. It is only enviable. And if it all looks a bit "over-emotional", recall that the strangers thought the recipients of the first Pentecost to be drunk, II' you would like to try to get a copy of the film for your parish, why not write to Sister Peter Scanlan at More House, 53 Cromwell Road, London, SW7? Poor Sister Peter!
Death of a man seeking God
AS ONE grows older, one's friends die with increasing frequency. One begins to feel that one is an island in a flat estuary under the process of erosion.
I think the grief for these newly dead is less fierce than from one who is young. I saw in The Times the other day that a man whom I had not seen for years had died.
Although it is years since we met, I remember him as a great, civilised bear of an Anglican priest and I was young then and used to tease him in a very primitive ecumenical way for being a heretic.
And that sounds as far away as the language of the Mystical Poets — who, incidentally, to me seem to transcend in their union with God all sectarianism and all triumphalism and all condemnation. But there are no mystical reporters.
This was Hugh Ross Williamson, whose father was a Congregational minister, Hugh became a Church of England clergyman (high), Then, in the 1950s, there was the controversy over the Church of South India. This was a highly practical and theologically unsound (at least Hugh thought so) union made from all the lonely and scattered Protestant Churches in that part of the world.
Almost all the sects agreed to be a Church, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalist — it was a hotch-potch of nonCatholic Christians, really for the reason that their island too seemed to be getting smaller.
This very practical step offended some learned AngloCatholics and rent their consciences. Hugh became a Catholic. It was not easy. It seldom is,
He could not become a priest in the Roman Church because he was married, though, had he been Greek Orthodox, he would have got the best parish in Athens — though never, of course, a bishopric. He was a brilliant journalist, which is not incompatible with, though may be rare in, devoted Christianity. He wrote all his life, perhaps not with the ultimate artistry, but with skill and style.
He wrote 35 books and 20 plays and novels. I take this from his obituary in The Times, which paid this honest and good man the sort of space usually reserved for a field marshal.
He was very unhappy about the changes in the Church after Vatican II, even about the validity of the Mass. But from over the years I remember a man, larger than me, with more authority than me, with more tolerance than me.
He was of a self-sacrificing, excoriating honesty. This is a Catholic newspaper, so can I suggest you put this brave and intellectually honest man in your Bidding Prayers. His conversion to Rome gave him little comfort. He merely felt it was a necessity. He was more happy within the ancient arms of Canterbury. RIP.