7 March 2017
There was a lot of Church when I was a girl. Surprising, when you consider that both our parents were agnostic.
From our house in the country a Saxon church of great beauty, St Michael’s, was within walking distance in one direction; and an ugly Victorian one in the other, dedicated to St Paul. Before the Reformation St Michael’s had been an Augustinian foundation; it is set in the midst of fields with a background of old trees. It had – still has – the prettiest graveyard with a distant view of mountains. We were sent there for Matins and to St. Paul’s in the village for Evensong. There was also Sunday School at St Paul’s run by a friend of the family, so of course we went to that as well.
My sister and I loved church, especially in the country; since much of Sunday was spent there it was just as well. Unconsciously, by osmosis, we absorbed large chunks of the Bible and a great many hymns Ancient and Modern. My great-grandfather had crafted lecterns for both churches: eagles with outspread wings on which to rest the Bible. (The fruits of his carving littered the dining-room at home, including a dozen hideous, orange mahogany faux “Jacobean” chairs, each so heavy you had to drag them to the table. Uncompromising, unforgiving chairs they were; tailor-made for the frequent admonition “to sit up straight”.)
Church in London was a very different affair. St Jude’s was of the highest of the High Churches, loftier than Rome by far, with bells and incense, a choir and an orchestra for Holy Days. It was immensely popular in the ‘Fifties and the charismatic Rector, Father Rennie, was to prepare me for Confirmation. By that time (aged fifteen/sixteen) I had decided to become a Catholic, a decision my father could not approve. How to avoid Father Rennie’s persuasive arguments, I prayed? The poor fellow had a massive heart attack just before our first meeting. Feeling mightily relieved and only slightly guilty, the subject of Confirmation classes was never mentioned again.
However, it was not the end of the saga. Aged eighteen I wrote a long and (I thought) reasonable letter asking my father if now that I was old enough to leave home and start a career, could I not also become a Catholic? The answer was no, not until I was twenty-one.
How times have changed! Can you imagine that happening today? And yet my beloved father was not a rigid or a hard man. Where religion was concerned he was a weddings-and-funerals man. At school, he told me, they would throw boots at the boys who knelt by their beds to say their prayers. He would only smile when asked which camp he belonged to.
I have no idea where he picked up his aversion to Catholicism but I have met quite a bit of it among people of a certain age and background. When I went to school in London in the early ‘Fifties no Catholics were admitted; and the history lessons were skewed. Some people believed (and probably still do) that one couldn’t be a true patriot and a Catholic simultaneously – and this despite all three armed services having a fair share of “Left Footers”, both officers and men.
That early introduction to the Old and New Testaments has been a comfort and an inspiration to me, and, poetically, the St James’s version is a yardstick to aspire to; if the more modern language is more accurate it is sometimes clumsy and downright ugly. You can’t beat a gentle country Evensong. Possibly only by its forerunner, Vespers, sung in a Benedictine monastery?
The road to St Michael’s is etched into my head: every gateway passed, the single house, lanes to the right up the fell and to the left to the river. Wayside plants, differing with the seasons; rainy Sundays and sunny ones – and us in our best clothes scuffing our shoes as we kicked pebbles along.
Happy days, all’s right with the world!