After my Barsetshire Agent had shown me round our newly restored cotton mills at Hogglestock (I hope they will become a lucrative tourist attraction with a fantastic Gifte Shoppe for Americans), I thought I'd pay a quick visit to Barchester Cathedral.
But I didn't actually find it very easy even to get inside. As so commonly nowadays, there were people guarding the way in; their expressions that elusive Anglican combination of Welcome and Give Us Money. The usual large notice explained how much it cost, by the minute, to keep the Cathedral open. But I had three decades experience of students badgering me either to 'sponsor' them or to give them 'an extension'. The way to treat impertinent importunity is to look apoplectic; and the best method I know of doing this is surreptitiously to chafe one's face. This makes it go red. Wide-open eyes complete the impression of barely controlled ferocity.
So I swept dyspeptically past the vergerettes, unpestered and unrobbed. You will easily guess what it was that I had come to revisit: in the North aisle ... just past the Chantry Chapel of Bishop ffoliott ... there it was. A simple monument designed and executed in the very best taste. The broken column; the stark words "My beloved wife!" And, round at the side, unobtrusive, the name Westmacott ... it must have been just about the last monument the old gentleman produced. Pedants among you may even calculate that he carved it some years after his death.
But there had been one change since last I stood in Barchester remembering the comedies and tragedies in which Priscilla Proudie had played so large a part. Beside her monument, there was now a simple modern altar, with two lit candles upon it. I moved out of the way just in time to avoid the sharp end of a verge: the Dean's Verger was clearing the way for Mrs Dean herself, the Very Reverend 'Danny' Danvers. I took up a retiring position beside the inconspicuous slab commemorating Mr Septimus Harding huius Ecclesiae quondam Precentor, and watched her liturgical style. Very decent; much more "Catholic" than that of many of the Roman Catholic clergy I have seen liturgising. Not Staggers, but very probably Cuddesdon. And nothing polyester about her chasuble. Watts in a name? Of course, I did know a bit about Danny ... they say she preaches a literate and elegant sermon; that Rowan "spoke well" of her doctoral thesis on S Gregory of Nyssa. Nowadays, of course, nobody thinks any the worse of her on account of the break-down of her first marriage. She is tipped to be one of the first Women Archbishops. And she'll undoubtedly be far and away a better Primate than any of her Brethren as alterius orbis papissa in sede stercorata Cantuariensi. The quality of the Bench of Bishops is nowadays so abysmally low in the Church of England (Cotterell has got York!!!); not surprising, really, considering what the job has become. (It's the same with regard to headmasterships in Public Schools: nobody who's any good wants the job any more so it goes to failed Deputy Heads, a saddened and saddening class of men.)
You can have no idea how satisfying it is to be in Full Uncommunion with the remnants of the failed Anglican ecclesial experiment. It no longer matters to me if they have women in their ministry, any more that it matters if the Sikhs do. What a wearisome old wrangle all that was! And, every year, new evidence is provided that "the vivifying principle of truth, the shadow of St Peter, the grace of the Redeemer" really has left it. People ask if one misses the C of E. What?! Miss "the City of Confusion"? "The House of Bondage"? "Old Mother Damnable"?!?
But I'll tell you what I do miss: the Church I was formed by half a century ago, now departed like a dawn mist. Mascall hurrying down the Cornmarket and the papier mache baroque high altar in the old ball-room at Nashdom and the Farrers presiding over the flashy horrors of Keble; Walsingham and the fifteen Rosary altars each with its early-morning sacerdotal murmur; and at Mags my confessor and director John Hooper ensconced for hours in his confessional just behind Our Lady of Joy ... across his feet his dog uncanonically listening to every privy word.
I have several times visited Father's grave in the Sisters' burial ground at Posbury St Francis (after Mags at Oxford he went to be their Warden), and I once preached a Priests' Retreat ensconced in the sitting-room there which contained his Library. (I hear, by the way, that Sister Giovanna has moved out and that the property is sold. I wonder what happened to the Statue of our Lady of Light, which commemorated the vision seen by Mother Foundress when the Community was at St Hilary; and to Prebendary Hooper's books).
But, back in those last, vanished, sunset, days of the Church of England, perhaps the best thing of all was simply finding an unlocked country church at the end of a muddy lane, perhaps with a brass or two, or even a hatchment on the wall,
And there on the south aisle altar
Is the Tabernacle of God.
There where the white light flickers
By the white and silver veil,
A Wafer dipped in a Wine-drop
Is the Presence the Angels hail,
Is God Who created the Heavens
And the wide green marsh as well,
Who sings in the sky with the skylark
Who calls in the evening bell,
Is God Who prepared His coming
With fruit of the earth for His food,
With stone for building His churches
And trees for making His rood.
There where the white light flickers
Our Creator is with us yet ...
But fulsere vere candidi nobis soles ... quod vidimus perisse perditum ducimus ...
I slipped out of Barchester Cathedral, quite unobserved, and with no moist eye.
Danny is welcome to her spoils.