Barbara Pym & Anglo-Catholicism – Tim Burnett

S Gabriel's(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

The rarefied world of Anglo-Catholicism is well-served by authors liker Compton Mackenzie, Rose McCauley and Pym. I have read most of their stuff and it reminds me of a little world that I inhabited in my (misspent) youth.

Of Pym: The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things, she decided, wondering how many writers and philosophers had said this before her, the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.

To understand this little world, she purchased The Ritual Reason Why. All well and good but it was hardly Anglo-Catholicism. It set out to explained what middle of the road and high C of E churches did. If you want more meaty stuff you want ‘Behind Rite and Ceremony’.

So: She was always a great stickler for accuracy, and I think one of the reasons why clergy enjoy her novels is that she does get things right. – I want to ask ‘right’ by whose standards?

Of S. Gabriel’s Warwick Square (which is still going strong), under a pseudonym: What I am leading up to is that when Barbara came to Pimlico she was already well into churchgoing (as you might say), and in London there were plenty of churches to choose from, but her experience had led her, for whatever reason, into wanting something higher, with more ritual, than the ones she was used to — and here was St Gabriel’s right on her doorstep…..There were two churches in the district, but I had chosen St Mary’s rather than All Souls’, not only because it was nearer, but because it was ‘High’. I am afraid my poor father and mother would not have approved at all and I could imagine my mother, her lips pursed, shaking her head and breathing in a frightened whisper, ‘Incense.’ But perhaps it was only natural that I should want to rebel against my upbringing, even if only in such a harmless way.

Its priest: isn’t married and as he’s about forty I dare say he won’t now. I seemed to have spent so much time lately in talking about the celibacy of the clergy in general and Julian Malory in particular that I was a little tired of the subject.

Does she not get it that most of them were gay? Or is she having a laugh?

The same thing goes for the altar boys: `Well’, hesitates Mildred, remembering Teddy Lemon, the Master of Ceremonies, with his rough curly hair and anxious face, and his troop of well-drilled, tough-looking little boys, `they are very nice good boys, but perhaps you should go to a Kensington church if you want to see glamorous acolytes.’

On incense, as though comparing it with blends of tea that you can get from Harrods: `High Mass — with music and incense? Oh, I should like that. I hope it is the best quality incense? I believe it varies.’

‘ Yes, I’ve seen advertisements,’ [Mildred] admitted, ‘and they have different names. Lambeth is very expensive, but Pax is quite cheap. It seems as if it ought to be the other way round.’ ….It was dark and warm inside the church and there was a strong smell of incense. I began to wonder idly whether it was the cheaper brands that smelt stronger, like shag tobacco or inferior tea, but I was sure that Father Thames would have only the very best. I noticed a few professional details, candles burning before the rather brightly coloured statue of our patron saint, a violet stole flung carelessly over one of the confessionals which had curtains of purple brocade. This one had Father Thames’s name above it; those of the assistant priests looked somehow inferior, perhaps because the curtains were not of such good quality material — there could surely not be all that much difference in the quality of the spiritual advice. see

High Mass is the equivalent of grand opera in that everything is sung no spoken parts: The procession round the church with lighted candles reminded her of a scene from an Italian opera — Tosca, I suppose. There was something daring and Romish about the whole thing which added to one’s enjoyment. It should have been followed by a reception in some magnificent palazzo, where we would drink splendid Italian wines with names like Asti Spumante, Lachryma Christi and Soave di Verona. That it seemed to go equally well with the tea and sandwiches and cakes in the church hall was perhaps a tribute to the true catholicity of the Church of England.

Of Notting Hill it was said: Now we on earth have union with Lambeth, not with Rome,
Although the wags and cynics may question our true home;
But Folk Masses and Bingo can’t possibly depose
The works of Byrd and Tallis, or Cranmer’s stately prose

Would she, now. Have preferred Grest St. Bartholemuews: I get the impression that the strand of High Church Anglicanism to which the Rector adheres is that called “Affirming Catholicism”, which accepts liberal theology and the ordination of women, and has progressive attitudes towards homosexuality.

A debate that we still have in our enclave: Ceremonial is important at St Luke’s. Mr Coleman, the Master of Ceremonies, says to Wilmet “I don’t know if you noticed … but Bob nearly forgot to remove the Paschal Candle and I didn’t spot it for some time. Just imagine, me not noticing a thing like that!” Wilmet replies, rather frivolously, “I’m afraid I never remember exactly when it should be removed… I always think it looks so pretty there with the flowers round it that I wish it could stay.” “But that would be liturgically incorrect, Mrs Forsyth”, replies Mr Coleman seriously. “It should be removed after the Gospel on Ascension Day.”

Well that’s as may be – those of us who have always followed the Western Church wait until after Benediction at Pentecost.

Another of our debates which are past their sell-by date: At the same event Sir Denbigh Grote, a retired ambassador, commenting on the crowd of women surrounding Julian Malory, wonders “whether it would really be proper to admit women to holy Orders. Is it likely that a woman would be surrounded by men at a parish gathering and would it be seemly if she were?” Miss Prideaux, an elderly former governess, supposes that “one visualizes rather plain-looking middle-aged and elderly women taking Orders”, to which Sir Denbigh asks “Surrounded by men of the same type or perhaps not surrounded at all?” He then goes on to ask Mary Beamish what she thinks. “Oh, I don’t think women should be admitted to Holy Orders”, says Mary. “Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but it wouldn’t seem right to me.”

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1 Comment »

  1. […] Many of Pym’s books contain anglo-catholic clergy, with their acolytes (literally their altar servers whose sexuality is ambiguous, to say the least), the spinster old ladies who have crushes on them and somehow they are ‘safe’ as Father isn’t the marrying kind but who are shocked if there is some romance going in because they resent that the Father’s time is being devoted to something other than the church the clergy are expected to remain available at all times. For more on the anglo-catholicism in this book see […]

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