The High Road – An Irishman’s Diary on Anglo-Catholicism

St Mary Magdalen in Oxford St Mary Magdalen in Oxford

St Mary Magdalen in Oxford St Mary Magdalen in Oxford

 

The chance discovery of a notice on the Church of St Mary Magdalen in Oxford for Solemn Evensong and Benediction, in the presence of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, gave us a quite unexpected glimpse of another, more spiritual England, removed from Saturday shopping and the Brexit turmoil.

Clouds of incense greeted us when we entered “Mag’s”, as this ancient church is commonly known, and the solemn procession was already under way, with Williams in a gold and red cope bringing up the rear.

It was already clear that this would be a high church Anglo-Catholic service, with all the “smells and bells”.

The church was almost full, but a smiling woman helpfully directed Shane O’Toole and myself to a pew right in front of the large and enthusiastic choir.

Beside me was a young man wearing glasses, who joined in the hymn-singing with great gusto and fervour. I couldn’t join in, never having been able to sing a single note.

As a recovering Irish Catholic, I also felt it would be hypocritical of me even to try, as I don’t believe in any of it. Shane, who had just been made an international fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, spotted the notice about the service and put it up to me that we should attend. I’m very glad that we did.

It had all of the trappings of Anglo-Catholicism, including a sculpture of the Virgin and Child, another more modernist statue of St Mary Magdalen, and right above where the choir was singing, with two candle-holders in front of it, was a mournful portrait of Charles I, identified in Latin as “king and martyr, defender of the faith”.

Oxford was a royalist stronghold during the English Civil War, whereas Cambridge was on the side of parliament. As a former press fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge, for Lent Term in 2008, I felt a bit like a traitor on my first visit to Oxford, knowing that it was always referred to in Cambridge as “the Other Place” (and vice versa).

Shane had arranged for the brilliant Dublin-born architect Niall McLaughlin to give us a tour of his extraordinary elliptical chapel at Rippon College in Cuddesdon, about 9km from Oxford. It was commissioned by an old order of high church Anglican nuns, even though many of its theological students are in the low church category.

The Bishop of Southwark, Right Rev Christopher Chessun, had no doubt which side he was on. In his sermon at the Evensong in Mary Mag’s, he said: “As for many of us, it is a place which I know and love well, and where, many years ago I was nurtured and formed in the Catholic Faith, albeit Catholic Anglican Faith”.

Recalling his mentor, Fr Charles Smith, who was the church’s vicar then, he said: “When visitors to Mags from overseas on experiencing the Sunday liturgy asked him in some amazement whether this really was Church of England, he retorted without a moment’s hesitation, ‘This is the Church of England as God intended her to be’.”

The reverence shown for the consecrated host was quite remarkable, and everyone present bowed their heads when it was held aloft in front of the altar and its colourful reredos, replete with multiple statues of saints. And afterwards, we were all invited to partake in a convivial glass of champagne to celebrate another spiritual evening.

We even met the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who is now simply known as Fr Rowan Williams. Shane mentioned having visited the Rippon College chapel, noting that it had been designed by an Irish architect. Naturally, he knew it and said of Niall McLaughlin that “he’s working for us now”, designing a library for Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he [ie Rowan Williams] is Master.

Ironically, St Mary Magdalen’s was renovated in 1841 by George Gilbert Scott, who was also architect for the neo-gothic Martyrs’ Memorial monument just north of the church. It commemorates three Anglican bishops who were burnt at the stake nearby in 1555 for “heresy”, during the reign of “Bloody Mary”, Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter.

It was erected in 1841 by local Protestants who were alarmed by the growing influence of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement, as evidenced by its inscription, which says that the three bishops – Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley – had borne witness to “the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome”.

Based on what we experienced at Evensong that Saturday in Oxford, Anglo-Catholicism is still thriving, whatever its detractors might say.

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