Thomas Mason is a seminarian of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham who is currently on a summer placement here in Pembury before he returns to his studies alongside the Dominican’s at Blackfriars,Oxford. He has kindly written today’s blogpost:
An English Village Church– an outsider’s view of S. Anselm, Pembury.
If one journeys in one’s mind to an English village, one might well find a tree-filled churchyard; then entering the church, hymns from the English Hymnal and choral music from the English tradition to provide a solid musical underpinning for the worship. As the shadows lengthen on a Sunday afternoon, one might even find a local lady cycling to evensong. Thus one might well conceive the stereotypical idyll of a Church of England village parish – but of course this is no Church of England parish, this is a Catholic Church fully united in faith, teaching, practice, and communion with the See of Peter whence unity in the Church flows.
Viewed from the outside the church of S. Anselm, Pembury, strikes one as a place which is remarkably ordinary. Built as the church hall in the ’60s, money ran out before the church itself was built, so it currently functions as both church and hall. These two facts, which seem to be in direct contradiction are the foundation upon which the Ordinariate is pursuing its work in this corner of Kent.
The idyll which is seen as characteristic of the Church of England is, of course, a nearly extinct species; as our former home is finding that its centre will not hold, the Ordinariate seeks to tap into the deep and long memory of Christianity in England. It is no coincidence that the parish Priest’s youngest son is named for S. Augustine of Canterbury, whose mission (on the direct orders of the then Holy Father) led to the creation of a deeply Catholic nation and culture which lasted for a thousand years.
This memory needs to face and address the effects of the reformation; England was dragged out of Catholic Christendom at the point of a thousand pikes, at the hangman’s noose, and at a series of smaller exclusions and marginalisations too numerous to mention; yet something remained – Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth did not manage entirely to extinguish the yearning to Catholicism and that remnant grafted back onto the strong nourishing roots of the Catholic Church is being allowed to flourish once more.
There is a palpable Englishness about everything which happens, yet this is through and through a Catholic parish. Straggling both the Ordinariate (which supplies the two Priests and around half of the laity) and the archdioceses of Southwark (which supplies the building and the other part of the laity) the parish seeks to model unity in diversity – neither side extinguishes the other, yet both enrich each other. The great hope of the Malines conversations – the Church of England united not absorbed – is being built in an unassuming manner. Diocesan Catholics joining Ordinariate Catholics at evensong, and kneeling together for benediction.
The physical setting does not even begin to compare with the local Ordinariate members’ former home of S. Barnabas, Tunbridge Wells; and so it would be easy to consider the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, to be inappropriate here; to relax into a gentle mediocrity which in seeking to offend and challenge nobody leaves all unfulfilled. Yet, for many years it has been a mark of the anglo-catholicism whence we came to seek always and everywhere to create ‘Heaven and Earth in Little Space’ – to take the title of a book by (the now Msgr) Andrew Burnham, of the Ordinariate. The outward and obvious challenge of the space seems to force an extra effort to create that within.
The beauty which is pursued is expressed in the reverential manner of the celebration, in the maintenance of a strong musical tradition, but above all in the beauty of Catholic Faith and teaching. There is no sense of a tension between a beautiful celebration and the unabashed expression of truth, but rather they become two sides of the same coin – the Faith is itself an object of beauty (one might even call it the veritatis splendor), that it is surrounded by other forms of beauty as it is expressed flows naturally from this central first proposition.
The beauty is also not to be kept hidden. Just as the via pulchritudinis was called a ‘privileged pathway for evangelisation’ [Plenary Assembly, Pontifical Council for Culture, 2006]; so the beauty is passed on and shared. The sharing is suitably quiet and unassuming (for such an English place), but is clear; the beauty when fully presented becomes irresistible. This sharing also means that rather than talk about the importance of community, here it simply happens because it’s the natural thing to happen.
What will I carry away from S. Anselm’s? First, there is a strong theology of place, this is a particular corner of England, and therefore it is right and proper that a deeply English spirituality should be pursued; the place is also personal, this is a particular community of people, a community who clearly know and love each other. Secondly, this particularity of place is complemented by the universality of Catholicism; in singing the chants from the Missal any Catholic from the anglophone world should be able to feel at home and join in with the Mass, the teaching and the communion are world-wide and throughout time. Thirdly, the concept of beauty; the beauty of the truth of the Catholic Faith, and its reflection in a desire (a realised desire) to have beauty and reverence in worship. We are told that a three-legged stool is sturdiest, and upon these three legs S. Anselm’s is creating a truly special expression of the Faith which is in turn drawing people in and enriching them to bring others in.