Wednesday 30 September 2009

St Jerome

A Prayer of St Jerome for Christ's Mercy

O Lord, show your mercy to me and gladden my heart.
I am like the man on the way to Jericho
who was overtaken by robbers, wounded and left for dead.
O Good Samaritan, come to my aid.
I am like the sheep that went astray.
O Good Shepherd, seek me out and bring me home
in accord with your will.
Let me dwell in your house all the days of my life
and praise you for ever and ever with those who are there.

I think somehow St Jerome would approve of this:

“……………there is immense evidential force in the fact that, from the earliest days and throughout the history of the Church, the Christian gospel has been preached to the world and has, for innumerable men and women, both provided an understanding of reality and has renewed and inspired their wills for authentic human living……..”
“…What I have tried to do is to show that the widespread modern attempt to deny or bypass the historicity of the picture of Christ that the Gospels provide or to reduce their status to that of edifying myths rests on no sure rational foundation. It is the outcome either of an antecedent bias against the supernatural or of a view of the Christian religion which is not that of the New Testament and which, by denying that Christ has come in the flesh, would have been recognised by St John as bearing the marks of the deceiver and the antichrist…”

E.L. Mascall: “Theology and the Gospel of Christ”

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Michaelmas; the Prince of the High Places

The disappearance of a sense of the sacred is an unavoidable aspect of modern (in the sense of post-medieval) British history. Standing amongst the ruins of holy sites, such as Tintern Abbey, just up the road from the parish here, always induces in me an almost tangible sense of loss. The disappearance of such obvious and living reminders of both the immanence and transcendence of God goes some way to explain our headlong rush into secularism and the abject spiritual poverty of our age.
These were among the thoughts going through my head on St Michael’s Day as in the warm sunshine I climbed up the Skirrid, Monmouthshire’s “holy mountain”, on the summit of which are the barely recognisable ruins of a medieval chapel of St Michael. The foundations of the ancient chapel can still be made out, and in what was the entrance, facing south back down the ridge, are two upright stones about two feet high, all that remains of the doorway.

To stand on what feels like the top of the world, with the countryside spread out beneath and with border country views stretching to Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel on one side, the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains on another, and in the distance to the north east, the Malvern Hills, is to be immediately struck by the beauty and order of the created world.
Sitting and saying the midday office in the small, almost circular depression in which once stood the Chapel of the Archangel, it is difficult to refute the claim that whatever their motives may have been in seeking a purer, more primitive, and in the Anglican case, more patristic faith, the Reformers got it badly wrong, particularly in the dissolution of the religious communities and in the suppression of devotion to the saints. So much which was irreplaceable in our cultural and spiritual history was lost not only because of ignorance of what the Fathers of the Church actually believed but also due to naked greed and worldly ambition.
So, a few prayers were said also for a restoration of unity (in whichever way God wills it) and for a sense of common cause among Catholic Christians which is so necessary if the Gospel in all its fullness is to be proclaimed once again in our country.

In fact, though, devotion to St Michael continued among the large recusant Catholic community of north Monmouthshire even in the face of persecution and martyrdom long after the sixteenth century:

"Pope Clement X grants a Pienary Indulgence to those who devoutly visit the Chapel of St. Michael on the Skirrid Fawr on 29'" September -Michaelmas Day. Anyone making this Pilgrimage and wishing to gain the Indulgence is required, first, to go to Confession and Holy Communion; then, on the Holy Mountain itself, to pray for peace among Christian Princes, for the rooting out of heresies, and for the exaltation of Holy Mother Church. Given at St. Mary Major, Rome, under the Seal of the Fisherman, on 20th July 1676, and valid for seven years "

A virulently hostile protestant witness of these pilgrimages wrote these comments in the 1680s:

'He hath seen a hundred papists meet on the top of an high Hill, called St Michael's Mount, here is frequent meetings eight or ten times in the year, as he is informed. Mass is said, and sometimes Sermons are preached there. Mr John Scudamore of Kentchurch also deposed that: - He saw very great numbers of people at their Devotion on the top of a high hill in Monmouthshire called St Michael's Mount, where there is a ruinous Chappel and a stone with crosses on it, which he took to be an Alter and that he hath seen people with Beads in their Hands kneeling towards the said stone, both within and without the Chappel and he has been informed that Mass is often said there.'
The altar referred to has gone and the most conspicuous monument on the summit of the mountain is now an Ordnance Survey trig point.

Legends about the Skirrid abound, but one in particular made the claim that the conspicuous cleft in the mountain on the North west side appeared when a bolt of lightning marked Christ's crucifixion.
Interestingly enough, and to their shame, the “official” National Trust sign board at the base of the hill makes no mention of this legend, the ruins of the chapel, or of the historical fact that this was for many centuries a place of Christian pilgrimage. We are being airbrushed out of history slowly but surely.

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle,
be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him we humbly pray;
and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host,
by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits
who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.

Monday 28 September 2009


Yesterday was the anniversary (the 23rd) of my ordination to the priesthood. The sunny and dry weather of the last few weeks(September can be so much better in this part of the world than the often wet and unreliable summer) has been very similar to that on the ordination retreat at Ty Mawr Convent, near Monmouth, where we stayed at the guest house, Michaelgarth, dedicated to one of my patron saints, the Archangel Michael: I remember a large and (my memory tells me, anyway) a rather fine wooden statue of St Michael standing just inside the entrance; it made a great impression on me at the time. I also recollect the caustic comment of the young priest who was looking after us when one of our number dared to emerge before breakfast on the day of the ordinations wearing a grey clerical shirt!

Well, it was another world & what feels certainly like another Church! The storm clouds were visibly gathering, but many of us were still buoyed up in the mid-80s at the prospects of unity with Rome which, in our innocence, we believed could be achieved in our lifetime. Next year’s papal visit will be almost unbearably poignant for many of us, remembering as we do Pope John Paul’s visit in 1982 – particularly to Canterbury- and the now sadly dashed hopes it engendered.

I also remember that morning a sense of extraordinary grace overcoming weakness and unworthiness, and (as I’m sure do those who travelled with me)a rather foggy high speed dash in my elderly, red Mini to the Cathedral on the morning of the ordination….. !

Sunday 27 September 2009

Creation & the engagement with modernity

It seems that the recently released film Creation will do little more than trot out (if only by implication) the received view amongst the western secular intelligentsia that Darwin & evolution destroyed the credibility of religion once and for all. Before we get too defensive about that and swallow all the other ongoing consequences of the disastrous Wilberforce / Huxley debate, this is a reminder of the reaction of the great (and soon to be Blessed) John Henry Newman:

“Darwinism, for example was not necessarily atheistic: ‘ it does not seem to me to follow that creation is denied because the Creator, millions of years ago, gave laws to matter.’ He could not see why evolution, any more than human generation, was incompatible with the doctrine of creation. As for Adam being literally created from dust, the Bible also said that all men are created from dust, and seemed to say that the sun goes round a stationary earth. Again there might be well have been a ‘pre-adamite man’ with reason but without conscience, and therefore without ‘a natural knowledge of God, till he had a revelation’, since ‘ all the mental faculties are but latent, till elicited by external means, as invisible ink is brought out by heat.’ Christianity was certainly ‘on trial’, but he knew of no objection such that he ‘ could not fancy either that a fuller investigation would countermine it, or that the original mine when sprung would end in an abortive explosion’; whatever the ‘residuum of truth’ in the objections, ’the greater part of it will vanish before long like the froth and spray of the breakers on a coast’.

From Ian Ker’s John Henry Newman (page 624)

Pope Benedict, among other contemporary theologians and churchmen, has repeatedly warned about the tendency to treat science as having a prescriptive force way beyond its area of technical competence. Again, Newman is there first:

“I have not insisted on the argument from design, because I am writing for the nineteenth century, by which, as represented by its philosophers, design is not admitted as proved. And to tell the truth, though I should not wish to preach on the subject, for forty years I have been unable to see the logical force of the argument myself. I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design...”
….. “Design teaches me power, skill and goodness—not sanctity, not mercy, not a future judgment, which three are of the essence of religion.”

(from a letter written in 1872.)

Wilberforce was an Anglican bishop, Newman a prophetic and orthodox Catholic theologian.

It may be going a little too far to cite Newman, as some have done, as a passionate supporter of Darwinism, nevertheless his view was clearly that theories of evolution per se and Darwin’s research in particular are in no way incompatible with the faith of the Catholic Church. Engagement with modernity, even if that engagement often means confrontation and the correction of error, is a necessary prerequisite of the Church's proclamation of the Gospel. On the other hand if you make the foundation of your faith the literal inerrancy of the Bible alone……?

Saturday 26 September 2009


It's been a wonderfully dry and sunny September with warm days and brilliant dawns and sunsets. But despite good weather and the presence of a few late swallows, autumn is definitely here; almost overnight the Katsura tree in the Vicarage garden has turned a buttery yellow.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost

Friday 25 September 2009

The law on assisted suicide

Some mostly encouraging words from the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt. Revd. Michael Langrish, in his statement on behalf of the Church of England responding to the Director of Public Prosecutions’ Interim Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Assisted Suicide.

The bishop said: "The Church of England has consistently argued – and Parliament has consistently voted – against any change in the law governing assisted suicide, even when this is motivated by compassion. Guidance from the DPP about the application of the present law to particular circumstances has the potential to provide greater clarity and is in principle to be welcomed, so long as there can be confidence that it will not in practice lead to an erosion of respect for the
present law. There are serious moral, ethical and practical issues to consider – for example in relation to concepts such as ‘encouragement’ and the nature of ‘informed decision making’. The Church of England is therefore reserving its position on the
detail of the draft guidance at this stage. Its formal submission will be made public in due course."

These are, in the main, very welcome words indeed, although I hope I am not being too pessimistic in detecting a degree of “wriggle room,” at least in the reasoning behind the statement: what if, for example, Parliament were to vote overwhelmingly for a change in the law, something which cannot be ruled out in today’s cultural climate? Unfortunately that is precisely where Anglicanism’s knee-jerk default response of Erastianism may come to the fore and betray us. The current leadership of the Church seems, at the moment, quite resolute on this issue, and one hopes that clear and principled theological opposition to assisted suicide will be a consistent line which will be maintained by the Church of England and not, as in other areas, breached within a few short years in order not to be too far out of step with parliamentary and public opinion. Time will tell.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Our Lady of Walsingham

O Mary, recall the solemn moment
when Jesus, your divine Son,
dying on the cross,
confided us to your maternal care.
You are our Mother,
we desire ever to remain your devout children.
Let us therefore feel the effects
of your powerful intercession with Jesus Christ.
Make your name again glorious
in this place once renowned
throughout our land by your visits, favours and many miracles.
Pray, O holy Mother of God
for the conversion of England and Wales,
restoration of the sick,
consolation for the afflicted,
repentance of sinners,
peace to the departed.
O blessed Mary, Mother of God,
Our Lady of Walsingham,
intercede for us.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Pope Benedict to visit Britain

The BBC and Times Online are reporting that the Holy Father is to visit Britain next year, probably in the autumn. It would be wonderful if the visit were to coincide with the beatification of that greatest of converts from Anglicanism, John Henry Newman.
I imagine the wires will be buzzing from now on with many hopes and dreams and probably some unreal expectations; what we must do is to pray for Pope Benedict and for ourselves, and to ask for the grace to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

From today’s first reading at mass:

“But now for a brief moment favour has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant, and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our bondage.”

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Middle Class – moi?

Today we have more predictable pre Back to Church Sunday (27th September in the U.K.) chatter from some very middle class bishops ironically bemoaning the middle class image of the Church of England (and the Church in Wales.) “How do we attract the Asda (Walmart) and Aldi demographic?” they ask. Perhaps by not abandoning the apostolic faith once delivered, one is almost tempted to argue.
But a more serious question needs to be posed: when did the Church in England and Wales ever command the active allegiance of the populace? When did the population at large ever feel they owned the Church? The answer to that certainly appears to be (apart from in isolated pockets) not since the sixteenth century when the active participation of “the people” in ecclesiastical life and liturgy through the parish guilds and other associations was taken away from them by the wealthy and the literate. What do the Anglican bishops intend to do about that one?
As Fr A.H. Maconochie is reputed to have said, there is something about protestant truth which is consonant with great wealth! If 450 years ago, most of the aristocracy and the growing middle classes embraced (much to their own material benefit) a form of pared-down and nationalised Church life which effectively excluded the “lower orders,” we can hardly be surprised at the middle class image of the Church of today. Can we, my Lords?
There again, perhaps we could put together a committee of the great and the good to report back on the problem.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

The rise and rise of the deanery…

One of the more delightful items of post waiting for me in a Babel like tower on the hall table on my return from France was the latest report to the Church in Wales’ Governing Body on the Review of Clergy terms of Service. “Yet another guaranteed insomnia cure,” was my first thought as I skimmed through it before almost committing it to the "filing cabinet" which sits by the side of my desk. Not entirely unexpectedly there were sections of this document which could be of great concern for those of us trying to preserve (seeking to restore, is probably more realistic now) the traditional faith within the Province. Predictably, there were the expected proposals for a move towards a system of “common tenure,” a rather dubious status very familiar to our brothers across the border in the Church of England.
However, tucked away at the end of the report as one of the potential illustrations of the occasions when the Province’s complaints procedure against the clergy could be set in motion was a “failure to regularly attend meetings of the PCC or Deanery Chapter.” Split infinitives on one side (and Church in Wales documents now read as if they have been badly translated from the original Welsh) this made me sit up and take notice.
Now a consistent failure to attend one’s own PCC meetings would obviously flag up a significant breakdown of a parochial ministry and be a sure indication that the non-attender was in need of urgent and appropriate help in order to get his priestly ministry back on track, but I worry – a lot - about the recommendation that a failure to attend deanery chapter constitutes a similar problem; in fact, that would constitute a sea change in the status of deaneries within Anglican diocesan structures.
Previously deanery chapter meetings have been a convenient forum for the discussion of issues of concern to the clergy in their parochial ministry. The rural dean (“area dean,” now, alas!) despite the “sly shade” of Rupert Brooke’s “Grantchester,” has largely been a genial, collegial figure nominated by the clergy themselves to deal with necessary administrative matters and to represent the views of the clergy to the diocesan bishop.
However, the modern trend has been very much to build up the status of the deanery (historically nothing more than a convenient and voluntary association of parishes) into one of the vital pillars of the diocesan structure, and to regard the “area dean” not so much as the clergy’s representative to the bishop, but as a kind of ecclesiastical middle manager appointed to do the bidding of the diocesan hierarchy –in effect, a complete reversal of his historic role.
Attendance at deanery chapter was at one time, if not always an unalloyed pleasure, hardly an onerous or challenging aspect of the parish priest’s life. But with the advent of women’s ordination and the moves towards women bishops, deanery life has become much more politicised, and for the isolated traditionalist (whether catholic or evangelical) fraught with problems. How, for example, does one relate to fellow clergy who, one believes with the Universal Church, cannot actually be priests at all? With ecumenical courtesy, of course, but problems still occur if that courtesy is not reciprocated and one’s views anathematised by the overwhelming majority of one’s deanery colleagues. Here we bear the scars of that after a lengthy and ultimately rather futile attempt at deanery re-organisation.
So for non-attendance at a deanery chapter to become, in effect, a serious disciplinary offence is a huge matter of concern for those of us whose theology makes such attendance highly problematical if not downright impossible. Add to that the wilful refusal of the Welsh hierarchy to take seriously or even comprehend the need for alternative provision for traditionalists to be made in terms of deanery membership (as in episcopal care,) and we have potentially a ready made weapon with which to drive out the remaining orthodox clergy from the province altogether. It’s sad, even tragic, that one should have to regard these proposals with this degree of suspicion; but it is a realistic attitude in the present crisis when solemn promises have been dishonoured, and also one borne out by events across the pond in TEC, to believe that if a particular power can be used (or misused,) then sooner or later it will be. The sensible option (the Christian option, even) is not to grant that power in the first place.
The failure to make provision of any kind for the orthodox in the Church in Wales is partly due to the antipathy felt by some bishops, senior clergy and laypeople to the traditionalist position (otherwise known as the historic faith of the Church) but also to an abject fear of giving offence to the increasingly vocal and militant women’s ministry lobby who now tend to regard any provision whatsoever for their opponents as a concession too far and as an affront to both their gender and to their individual ministries and sense of vocation. Of course, they have a point: there really is no future for an ecclesial body which recognises or even tolerates two incompatible doctrines of the apostolic ministry. Ultimately, heterodoxy and orthodoxy cannot co-exist, not that they would put it quite like that.
Having said all this, and putting the disastrous revisionism of the Anglican world on one side for a moment, it would be good just once in a while to receive official communications which spoke of fatherly or brotherly concern and support rather than documents couched in purely legalistic and punitive terms prescribing disciplinary measures to be invoked in the case of individual pastoral failure.
Every pastoral breakdown when it occurs has at its root a physical or mental and, almost(?) invariably, a spiritual cause. What we need today are more bishops and clergy in the mould of St Francois de Sales, St Gregory the Great, George Herbert, the Abbe Huvelin, and, in this anniversary year, St Jean Vianney, and far fewer “efficient” administrators whose hearts and minds are closed to the pressures and problems of priestly ministry and the “demons” which beset those called and commissioned to engage in it in the largely hostile environment of today.

Tuesday 1 September 2009


The photos are of the farmhouse and the statue of Our Lady about a kilometre away on the road to the village.

Back not home but from home in the Vendee (that’s increasingly how it feels) after almost a month in the sunshine and having completed all the jobs which have to be done when running a house at a distance – cutting the hedges, repairing and painting shutters etc. etc.. There’s a lot to be said for a Benedictine balance between physical labour and the work of prayer; less seriously, there’s also a lot to be said for a glass or two of decent French wine at the end of the day!
“Go away and forget about it all,” is always the advice we are given; that’s not so easy when the things we are being urged to forget make up our entire life. Yet there has been time – and at a suitable distance and in a different cultural setting – to reflect deeply on the issues which now face us and what the future may have in store. The best thing this particular couple of Francophiles from Wales did some years ago was to buy a house both for eventual retirement and present escape which would at least provide us with a roof over our heads and a small measure of security when the Anglo-Catholic world fell apart, as it was inevitably going to do, given the direction in which western Anglicanism was heading and the single-minded ruthlessness and lack of scruple of our opponents on the radical feminist left and their more liberal fellow-travellers. [To digress a little, interestingly enough, when I got back I had an email invitation from the diocesan cell of Inclusive Church – the unintentional humour of random mailshots!]
The clear dawn in Portsmouth harbour soon gave way a couple of miles along the motorway to a steady drizzle and a temperature of twelve degrees (at 7 a.m. admittedly.) For the last few years “summer” in Britian has been not so much a season as a question asked of the climate with an increasing note of despair. Obviously again this year the answer has come back in the negative.
But in some ways – in many ways - it’s good to be back among familiar and friendly faces doing what I am meant to be doing.
But sooner or later I know that the situation will become such that we will get on the ferry to France, having bought a one way ticket, and watch England, together with all our battles and defeats, our dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams, recede into the mist.
But that time is not quite yet and there is still work - God’s work, I believe – to be done in the particular place where I have been put for the time being. But…. for how much longer? That, as everything else, is in the Lord’s hands and his hands alone.
Even in defeat there are rearguard actions to be fought and things of value to be rescued from the oncoming catastrophe. Undoubtedly, though, for me exile (ecclesial and physical) will be the end result of the process through which we are living. But it will be exile in the hope that, with the kind of paradox our Catholic Faith delights in, the place of exile will turn out to be my intended home all along. Read that as you may.