'Where can we worship when we are in England? Of course we know All Saints Margaret Street' … So many times Americans have begun a conversation with me like that. Well, I know Margaret Street. I knew it when David Sparrow was its Vicar, and before that when Michael Marsall was enthroned there. It is not the same today, for its present Vicar is not, shall we say, quite in the tradition. 'So where shall we go?' you ask – 'how about …' and they name another famous West End Church. Fine, say I, if you want a gay friendly church; indeed not just gay friendly, but gay swamped.
The truth is, the Church of England has changed, and is changing. Get to St Augustine's Kilburn while there is still time; the Vicar is due to retire very soon. St Alban's Holborn was fine; but their Vicar has just announced he is off to be Chaplain in Venice, so who knows what will ensue? Perhaps you will let me give you a little personal history. It is only one story, but I believe it typifies many others.
I retired here to the charming yachting town of Lymington just nine years ago. One of my considerations was the local church; and St Thomas' has quite a history. It has been a place people came in order to die for a very long while; hence these memorials on the South Chancel wall.
The church has some fine features, not least the chancel roof (at the top of this page). The tradition, though, is what we came for. "Prayer Book Catholic" is what they called it; a daily eucharist, a sung eucharist on Sundays, Saints days kept, often with an evening celebration. That used to be the norm across great swathes of the Church of England. There was always a risk that a Patron or the Bishop might seek to change a tradition, but generally they respected what had gone before.
Not now. With the bench of bishops largely made up of liberals, there is a hastening agenda to demolish anything remotely catholic. I have written before about how that has happened, with the closure of catholic theological colleges, and the growth of part-time courses on which most clergy are now trained. All of these are more or less liberal/evangelical.
On Wednesday there was one of the quarterly meetings in the parish. This time our host was Fr Julian, a priest who was once a neighbour of mine when we were both Incumbents in Guildford diocese. Here he is chatting with the young curate, Andy who was due to be priested next month. That has been deferred because his wife is expecting a second infant. So the Bishop of Winchester will come to the parish in October to ordain Andy to the priesthood. I shall not be able to be there.
The volunteer staff amounts to eight; three Readers, five priests. Between us the retired clergy celebrate all the mid-week Masses – five or six of them – and generally one of us celebrates or preaches every Sunday. At the meeting the Vicar was saying how concerned he was that we were not being replaced as we grow older, and foresaw how very soon we must reduce the number of Sunday services. I found this a little hard to understand, not least because with just one parish church, and a daughter church which has at most one eucharist a week, there are two full-time clergy. In the parishes I know best, priests are used to celebrating two or three times on a Sunday and daily through the week, with a possible respite for a day off. That is not the way the Vicar nor his curate were trained. What is more, the Vicar's Sabbatical is due, so he will be away for three months next year to include Easter. He plans to spend some of it abroad looking at worship; possibly, he thinks, New Zealand. I'd say Poland or Romania might be more helpful.
At the meeting we were told about progress in raising money to change the interior of the church. Pews are to be removed and comfortable seating installed. There will be underfloor heating. Most of all, the furniture will all be dismountable, to enable concerts and other entertainments to be held. One chapel is to be replaced with a furniture store. The other will be reduced in size. Throughout the building work St Thomas' will be closed and we shall have to relocate; the Church Council will decide where this is to be. The likely answer is All Saints, the daughter church. The congregation there has been generally 'lay-led' in recent years and is happy with non-eucharistic worship and joint worship with the Methodists, who share the building. So St Thomas' congregation will have to adapt.
Now I can hardly complain. I have myself re-ordered the interiors of two parish churches when I was their incumbent. That was done, as I believed, to make it more possible for congregations to participate in the worship. Here in Lymington the priorities seem a little different; more about entertainment (even worship as entertainment) than offering the Holy Eucharist to the greater glory of God.
St Thomas' Lymington is just one parish church out of many thousands in England. Yet the plain fact is that in many parts of the country which had a great catholic tradition within the Church of England, that tradition has all but disappeared. In the South-west, Cornwall had dozens of 'country catholic' churches. Now, there are perhaps three in the entire County (and for us in England, a County is a much larger subdivision than you know in the USA … think of it, perhaps, as a something like a small State; not Texas, more somewhere in New England).
If I am to worship in the sort of church where I have served my ministry, and in which I grew up, the sort of parish which not so long since made up a good quarter of all English parishes, I now have to travel thirty or forty miles, going through twenty or so parishes, before there will be one which is firmly focused on the Eucharist.
As priests and people become more aware of the reality of today's C of E, I believe more of them will discover the attraction of the Ordinariate. It will offer them what the Anglican Church has all but demolished; places where the Holy Communion is celebrated decently and regularly, and where the beauty of holiness is pursued, not forgotten.
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