Friday, 23 September 2011

Heaven in Ordinary

Today, as one of my clerical colleagues reminds us on Facebook, is what we call the Year's Mind - ie the anniversary of the death - of Bishop Brian Masters. He was Bishop of Edmonton (one of the all-but-independent areas or subdivisions of the Diocese of London) from 1985 to 1998, when he died in office. His funeral mass in St Paul's is said by some to have been the only occasion on which incense has been used liturgically - ie swung about in a thurible or smoking handbag - in that cathedral.

This exception was no doubt made in reference to the fact that he was - and remains - what passes for a modern hero of Anglo-Catholicism.  In a clear line of succession going back Charles Fuge Lowder (1820-1880) and the Victorian slum-priests, he represented that sort of clerical disposition dually focused on the sacraments of the Church and the pastoral care of those entrusted to him by God. This model is, at its best, characterised by sacrifice, discipline, devotion, and personal holiness of life.  Yet is is also predicated on a profound understanding of humanity's fallen condition, springing as it does from identification with a God who identified with us, by coming to earth to live among us - as one of us.  In the Incarnation, the physical has been sanctified.  It is part of our created selves, just as it is part of how those of us in that tradition worship: the incense, the bells, the vestments, and the timeless choreography of the mass signalling an acceptance of our senses and physicality; our human need to touch and smell and see and hear.  Heaven brought to earth, and earth taken up to heaven.

It is sometimes said that the inroads made by Anglo-Catholicism in working class areas between the late 19th century until the Second World War can be explained by the fact that the poor liked the experience of colour and richness of the Catholic religious experience, which took them out of the squalour of their daily lives into an intimation of heaven itself.  I have always rather doubted this.  I suspect, uneducated though they were, they were not stupid.  I'm guessing that they knew that vestments are coloured cloth and incense is burning resin.  What drew them was the lives led by the priests; men who, very often, lived among their people as one of them; in devotion and discipline and simplicity, but most of all alongside them in all the messiness, danger, pain, and human-ness of their lives.

Brian Masters liked a drink (white wine, please) and the company of his priests (perhaps one of what Richard Coles describes in today's Guardian as "nature's bachelors").  He lived simply, but believed that self-indulgence was an inevitable consequence of our human condition, and could and should be forgiven.

He once came to my central London flat, of whose view over the modern architecture of the City I am modestly proud.  He stood on the balcony, sniffed and said: "What a terrible view!"  I laughed and refilled his glass with Sauvignon Blanc.  

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

1 comment:

  1. Presumably, if parents were successful in stopping their children adopting new speech patterns, we would all speak like Chaucer, or the author of Gawain! During her reign, even the Queen's own accent has changed.

    My voice has deepened during my adult life (I think most do?), and lost some of its nasal edge (the latter may be a question of habit, as I always had a way of speaking to deliberately avoid that effect). Of course, we hear own voices partly through vibrations through the skull, so recordings are often a shock. My singing voice sounds rather nice to me, but judging from recordings, must be agony for others.

    I'm interested in the way culture may affect timbre. Spanish women seem to use a deeper register much more than English women. My mother had a 45rpm record of a Spanish children's choir singing carols - you could not imagine anything more different than the ethereal sound of English cathedral choristers; it was much rougher and livelier.