Wednesday, 17 September 2008

A Thing Worth Hearing and a Time Worth Living.

The House of God: the Gate of Heaven

A Sermon preached for the 50th Anniversary of the death of Alfred Hope Patten , priest and the 175th Anniversary of the Oxford Movement in the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham on Monday, 11 September 2008 by Fr William Davage, Priest Librarian and Custodian of the Library, Pusey House, Oxford

FATHER Alfred Hope Patten may well be turning in his grave a few hundred yards distant. Not because of the state of the world, nor even because of the state of the Church, although, God knows, it would give him good cause, but because he was of that age and generation of Anglo-Catholic priests to whom the cult of personality was anathema. They were not motivated by worldly ambition or by ecclesiastical preferment: they did not see the Church as a career but as a vocation. There were certainly eccentrics and vivid characters, some magnificently absurd, but it was an eccentricity that was always at the service of God and of the Church.[1]

Father Hope Patten’s personality remains tantalisingly elusive: austere, disciplined, single-minded, driven, devoted to his parish and to his people; highly-strung, prone to nervous debility and exhaustion. He expended much energy in a series of attempts to establish a communal, quasi-monastic community, but was drawn to solitude. He needed to withdraw from the pressures of communal living and from parish life from time to time. Strikingly lacking in formal education, he occasionally showed an academic inferiority complex and prickly defensiveness. He was respected, loved, revered even. He was immensely persuasive and resourceful, harnessing the energies and talents of many to engage on his great task. These contradictions, complexities, angularities of his personality make him more human, allow a glimpse behind the glacial mask that looks out so uneasily from many photographs: there is one set of photographs, however, that is positively jaunty and hints at something generally hidden and concealed behind a severe public fa├žade. However true these conclusions are, they pale into insignificance and would be dismissed by Father Hope Patten. Despite his reluctance to employ the Latin tongue, he might be moved to say from beyond the grave “si monumentum requires, circumspicere.”[2] For here is the fruit of his vision: here is his legacy: here he restored Our Lady to Walsingham.

His vision of the restoration of devotion to Our Lady is only marginally less significant than the vision of the Lady Richeldis in 1061. It was in that original vision that Our Lady appeared and marked out this small Norfolk village, by God’s initiative, as a holy place. So touched by God was it, that Walsingham did not cease to be a holy place, a place marked out, during the despoliation of a King thirsting for treasure, nor during the protestant aberration of the 16th century, nor during the puritan usurpation, nor during the latitudinarianism of the eighteenth century with only that “thin stream of pilgrims.” Touched by God, this holy ground waited patiently to be re-discovered and recovered by a re-awakened people. It was Father Hope Patten’s singular gift to perceive that and to act upon it.

His creation, or, rather, his imaginative re-creation remains central to an expression of the Catholic Faith in the Church of England. Even if his vision was elaborated by a romantic view of the Middle Ages, by a medieval, chivalric whimsicality that sees the Guardians decked out like bargain-basement[3] Knights and Ladies of the Garter, it, nevertheless, continues to evoke our devotion and to command our loyalty. Walsingham is one of the glories of the Catholic Revival in the Church, a Church it has enriched. Of course, this Shrine Church divides opinion: it exhausts the meaning of Jacob’s words, “How dreadful is this place.”[4] If, however, Ninian Comper is right and “the atmosphere of a church should be such as to hush the thoughtless voice,”[5] then it is achieved day after day in this place as we enter “the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.”[6] Comper also says that to enter a church “is to leave all strife, all disputes of the manner of Church government and doctrine outside,”[7] but that is a less achieved aim and will remain so while there are two Shrines in Walsingham. Yet while that painful and scandalous division continues, this Shrine can be a beacon to unity because at its heart is the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus, the unity of the Godhead is to be mirrored in the unity of the Church, and its ministry is of reconciliation and healing.

The reading from the apocalyptic vision of S. John, which we heard earlier, is one of the most potently emblematic and symbolic of texts. This woman of the Apocalypse brought so vividly and imaginatively before us can represent at once Mary, the Mother of the ruler of all nations, the kings of kings and lord of lords; and also the Mother of the seed which kept the commandments of God and the testimony of Christ, the Church, the Body of Christ her Son. That same figure can symbolise and represent both at once. This compelling and dramatic image, “ a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery,”[8] demonstrates the intimacy of the relationship between Our Lady and the Church. Devotion to Our Lady must mean for us commitment to unity however much the Church of England seeks to rend Christ’s seamless robe even again and even more.

That unity between Christ and his Mother is visible in the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s love at the centre of this Shrine’s work and witness; visible in suffering the slights and pains of the Nativity; visible in the ministry of service and intercession at the miracle of Cana in Galilee; visible in the unity of the Agony and Passion, our salvation and redemption, as the nails pierced his hands and feet and the spear pierced his side, and a sword pierced her own heart as she cradled her Son once again and wept piteous tears. The unity of Christ and his Mother is visible at the Resurrection, in the upper room at Pentecost, and in the glory of heaven. The unity of Christ and his Mother makes unity imperative for us, even if we did not have Christ’s own words in the great high-priestly prayer which was read as the Gospel this morning: (I use a more resonant translation) “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us … I in them and them in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.”[9] Yet as we pray Jesus’ high-priestly prayer for unity, we legislate for disunity in terms which become flagrantly offensive, “effective and definitive obstacles.”[10]

In his letter inviting me to preach this sermon commemorating Father Hope Patten, the Administrator, with that close attention to detail and accuracy for which he is well-known, asked me to link it to the 150th Anniversary of the Assize Sermon which effectively launched the Oxford Movement. Well, it was on 14 July 1833, 175 years ago, when John Keble preached that sermon, but if we take 7 July 2008 as the terminus ad quem, the Oxford Movement did not quite make it and lasted 174 years 358 days.

Let me say just a word about Father Philip. He has been a notable servant of Our Lady’s Shrine: his pastoral care, his sermons, his fund-raising exploits, his total self-giving have been in every way outstanding. North London has gained a fine priest. I understand that the Administrator is also leaving.

For the Catholic Movement, 175 years after its inception, the “winter stretches, where all vision is lost and all memory dies out,”[11] as it faces its greatest and possibly its final threat. The Oxford Movement, whose genesis was the assertion that the Church is a divine society, unswayed and uncontaminated by a secular polity, has fallen victim to the Church of England’s genuflection to the world, so much so that one preposterous and fatuous member of General Synod could say that “our national church, the church by law established, is … now in step with most of the country and what people feel.”[12] It is as if the Oxford Movement never happened.

“All our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.”[13]

Perhaps the great mistake Anglo-Catholics made was to settle for toleration rather than to pursue conversion, to accept an honoured place in a broad and accommodating church. It seems we are no longer honoured and are no longer to be tolerated. The sanctuary lamps are going out throughout the Church of England. Father Hope Patten fought for the Catholic Faith here with very little spirit of compromise. That great litany of Tooth, Cox, Enraght, Dale, Green, spurned compromise or trimming for the sake of conscience. Father Mackonochie memorably proclaimed, “No desertion: no surrender.”

There is no point, however, merely clinging to the wreckage of a once glorious past. We cannot see that heritage degenerate into Protestantism in fancy dress. Liberal Protestantism is a dead end. As the irredentist Administrator once said, “Protestantism is a staging post on the road to atheism.” That will not bring men and women to Christ. That will not further Christ’s cause of unity. Unity is a greater prize, the mercy of God is a higher aspiration than the present concerns with episcopal power and a partial and contentious understanding of justice. The state has already surrendered to that liberalism in religion that John Henry Newman identified, “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another … It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true … all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste, not an objective fact … it is the right of each individual to make it say what strokes his fancy.”[14] The Church of England is on the same track. If you seek proof of Newman’s words, read the debate in General Synod on 7 July 2008. Thankfully, it is not the General Synod that is infallible.

The Catholic Movement cannot be allowed to fade away a mere 175 years after John Keble’s sermon: our history does not permit it; our consciences cannot allow it. From the Oxford Movement came the fullness of the sacramental economy with at its centre the presence of Christ in the Mass; the urgent call to the holiness of living; the integrity of the Church as a divine society, as a sacrament witnessing to a morally wayward society; the engagement of the fullness of human imagination and all our senses in the worship of God in the beauty of holiness; the creative and ordered discipline of the Christian life; the incarnational demand of transforming the moral lives and the material conditions of the impoverished; the sanctification of the world; the understanding of the order and faith of the Church as part of the mystery of God’s self-giving in his revelation in Christ Jesus; the recovery of “the apostolic tradition maintained by the Church since the first millennium”[15] of the undivided Church; the priority of responding to Christ’s prayer for the unity of his Church and of his people. That is a faith and a creed worth preserving and worth fighting for, even at the last. It is not something we can surrender. Can you imagine Father Hope Patten, for the repose of whose soul we plead this Mass, surrendering?

The trumpet call that is sounding is not yet the Last Post for the Oxford Movement, rather it is a call to obedience to the Catholic Faith and to Catholic Order; a call for a new Oxford Movement in our own day, a new articulation of those effective and definitive riches which lie at the heart of our tradition; and it is a note of defiance to those who seek to deny it and seek to turf us out.

“Forth to the mighty conflict

In this his glorious day

Ye that are men now serve him

Against unnumbered foes;

Let courage rise with danger,

And strength to strength oppose.”[16]

[1] An insight of Fr Barry Orford, in conversation. Gratias

[2] Words used by Sir Christopher Wren about S. Paul’s Cathedral when asked for his epitaph.

[3] The Principal of Pusey House, and Guardian of the Shrine, suggested this alternative to my original “cut-price”

[4] Genesis 28: 17

[5] J. N. Comper, Of the Atmosphere of a Church London, Sheldon Press [1947] p. 8

[6] Genesis 28: 17

[7] Op cit Comper p. 9

[8] Revelation/Apocalypse 12: 1

[9] S. John 17: 21, 23

[10] Cardinal Walter Kapser in an address to the Lambeth Conference 2008

[11] D. H. Lawrence writing about England in a letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith, November 1915. Quoted in A. N. Wilson, After the Victorians: The world our parents knew London, Arrow Books [2006] p. 128

[12] Robert Key MP (Conservative) for Salisbury who is striving to maintain the reputation of the Conservatives as the stupid party. BBC web-site.

[13] Rudyard Kipling, Recessional

[14] John Henry Newman in the Biglietto Speech 1879

[15] Cardinal Kaspar in a statement from the Vatican following the vote in General Synod on 7 July 2008.

[16] EH 581: NEH 453