Perfectibility and grace in the New Town

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Walter Hussey, the liturgy and the Eucharist

More than 90% of the posts on this site are free to read, but this one is available only to my wonderful Patreon supporters.

To help me keep creating new writing, and to keep most of it free, become a Supporter over on Patreon. You'll get access to everything on this site, and advance access to new posts, hot off the press, all for a mere £2 a month.  Thanks!
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Two priests in the wilderness

Unusually in this series on fictional clergy in twentieth century English fiction, I feature here both an Anglican in England and a Catholic priest in France. They both appear in Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness, first published in 1950. Set in the period immediately after the end of the Second World War, it features three locations, two of which are counterparts in ruin. One, central London, is literally in ruins, as the young girl Barbary runs wild and free in the rubble of the City. (I’ve written elsewhere on the ruined church in fiction and Macaulay’s engagement with ruins.) The other, a fishing village on the Mediterranean coast of Provence, appears outwardly unchanged, but the Abbé Dinant sees societal ruin in prospect, and does what he can, in his compromised way, to avert it.

The abbé is compromised, as many were, by the recent history of Vichy government and German occupation. Faced with a choice between resistance and acquiescence, he chose the latter, as did his bishop; the two both rebuked the local curé for advocating resistance. Like other local notables, the abbé accommodated himself to the brute fact of German occupation, seeking to make the best of the situation while betraying no-one. A restraint on the violence of the Resistance during the war, he has saved many collaborators from vengeance since its end. ‘A man of good sense’ he is, according to a sympathetic, similarly compromised neighbour after 1945: ‘in these days, as before, his chief foe is Communism; he sees it as the devil, and as France’s first enemy, and he is right.’ (ch. 21) Though the Nazis were ‘barbarians and interlopers and the enemies of France, they were at least fighting the worst enemies of religion, civilisation and the true France, those impossible Bolsheviks.’ (ch. 2)

Part of the Communist threat the abbé thinks he sees is to the family, indeed to all the cultural markers of a Catholic France. The national vitality which had helped France recover before was now misdirected. ‘Work, country, family – those great ideals held before us by the old Marshal during the black years – are discredited by his disgrace, and held of little account now that those who always hated him are dominant. [But] they are great ideals, and always when we have turned our backs on them we have deserted our true role.’ Though he rarely expounds them as such, these values are religious ones; the true France – a Catholic France – is in graver danger in 1950 than ever it was in 1940. So, though he restrains himself from talking in explicitly religious terms to his worldly, unbelieving friends, the abbé tries (though without always succeeding) to preserve the outward face of a kind of consensual public morality, to keep all within the house of faith, however loose their attachment to it. ‘To sin in our Father’s house, that, though sacrilege, has its own blessedness. To stray in the wilderness outside, that is to be lost indeed.’ (ch. 20)

St Dunstan in the East.
Image: Peter Webster

While the abbé seeks to keep the roof on the house of faith, in London there is little left of it at all. Barbary and her friend have found in the ruins of a City church a place of play, of inversion and a kind of idle sacrilege; a transistor radio plays jazz, they decorate the walls, and sing distractedly from a torn hymn book (ch. 23). In their ritual they are joined by a thin and grey clergyman, with a ‘lost look in his deep-set eyes, and his mouth was set in lines of pain.’ He proceeds to celebrate communion and, standing where the pulpit once stood, proceeds to preach. But here was no message of reconstructive hope in the ruins, of Christian persistence in a time of trial. ‘We are in hell now’, his oration begins, and it spirals downward in despair and recrimination. ‘Fire creeps on me from all sides; I am trapped in the prison of my sins’. At last he sinks to his knees, shuddering, face in hands. ‘It was true, then’, thinks Barbary in tears, ‘about hell; there was no deliverance.’

Presently Father Roger is fetched by the young priest with whom he lives in a clergy house. We learn that the older man wanders the ruined churches of the city trying to find his own, in the burning rubble of which he was trapped for two days. ‘We all love him, but we can’t always save him from his nightmares.’ Between Father Roger’s derangement and his young brother’s charity, there is yet some small Christian life in the ruins of London and of Christian civilisation.

The politics of memory, local and national: the Battle of Bosham Clock

Nestling on one of the reaches of Chichester harbour, the life of the village of Bosham is peculiarly dominated by the changing tide. At high tide the road around the narrow channel becomes impassable; sometimes the cars of unsuspecting visitors are engulfed by the water that changes the appearance and even the sound of the village. Legend has it that it was in Bosham that Canute ordered the tides to cease, yet still they continue to rise and fall.

Although the visitor does not see it when arriving from the main road between Chichester and Portsmouth, the village is dominated by the parish church. Overlooking the meadow that separates it from the quay from which sailing boats are launched each weekend, the church of the Holy Trinity can be seen from north, south and west. Also on the green is the village war memorial, one of the great many made after 1918 which had to be modified, not always comfortably, to accommodate the dead of the second generation; some of those lost in both conflicts were lost to the sea. And despite the apparent givenness of the scene, Bosham was the scene of a remarkable controversy lasting from 1945 until 1947 over how the village dead should be remembered.

Quay Meadow, Bosham.
Image by ianpudsey [CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The dispute centred over a proposed memorial, a new clock face on the church tower. It ended in a hearing in the consistory court of the diocese, in which disputes over alterations to churches were settled, after which the clock was in fact approved, made and installed. The papers of that hearing illustrate the full range of local opinion on how a small community should remember its dead, when grief remained raw.

But this was not merely a local dispute, as the idea provoked a national campaign in opposition that engaged the English establishment at the highest level. Letters to the Times were written; representations were made to the diocesan chancellor (to whom it fell to settle the case). Which should win out: the national guardians of the architectural heritage of the nation, or a local community? And with whom in that community did authority rest?

******

The names of the Bosham dead of both world wars are recorded both on two brass plates in the church, and on the memorial on the meadow: thirty names from the first conflict, forty-two more from the second. Some names appear in both lists; others more than once, such as the three Stubbington brothers, all killed in the second conflict. Among them were the names of sons of both the two opponents in the controversy: the vicar, and the lord of the manor.

The Bosham war memorial on Quay Meadow.
Image: Peter Webster (2007)

The general idea of a memorial clock had been in the mind of the vicar, A.L. Chatfield, very soon after the end of the war, if not before. Chatfield had himself won a Military Cross, and his son, John Anthony Cecil Chatfield had been killed by shellfire near Caen in northern France in July 1944. As well as on the plate in the church, his loss was recorded amongst the dozens of others from his school, Lancing College, a short train ride away from Bosham. He had been mentioned in despatches.

George Bell, bishop of Chichester, was by this time already known as an encourager of the contemporary arts in his diocese. Emboldened by a conversation with Bell during a visit, Chatfield put the idea to the church’s Parochial Church Council in November 1945, and announced his intentions in the parish magazine in January 1946. A public meeting was held in the village hall in early February, at and after which objections were raised; already the key issues were in view.

The local artist Helen Reid objected on the grounds that it would spoil the appearance of the tower (although the design was not yet finalised). Others, she thought, favoured an alternative idea that had begun to circulate, that of a social centre in the village for returning servicemen: ‘wouldn’t that be a practical tribute, for it would be for those who came back to enjoy.’ (This predisposition towards ‘useful’ memorials was widespread in England at this point.) However, she stressed that it would be ‘such a pity to have any strong divergence of ideas over anything as sacred as a War Memorial’ and invited Chatfield and his wife to take tea.

Despite these early signs of trouble, Chatfield was undeterred. In March, on Bell’s advice, the idea went before the Sussex Churches Arts Council, a body unique to the diocese and set up by Bell to advise churches on new works of art. The Council approved the idea in principle, but suggested modifications to the design, sketched by F.C. Eeles, a member of the Council, but also secretary of the national Central Council for the Care of Churches. A revised design then went in October to the Diocesan Advisory Committee, the body with the legal responsibility for regulating alterations to churches, which recommended that it be approved.

The clock in Bosham church tower.
Image: Peter Webster (2007)

In the meantime, an alternative memorial scheme was being put in place, following a further public meeting in May. An appeal was instituted in July to fund (in this order): the addition of the names of the war dead to the existing village memorial (a very common practice); the reconditioning of a play area nearby, and to raise £2500 for a new village social club. The manifesto document of the fund still at this stage stressed its non-denominational character; there was no wish to cut across memorials that the churches in the village might wish to make themselves.

In February 1947, the statutory invitation for objections to the granting of the faculty seems to have been the trigger that turned a smouldering local dispute into a full-scale fire. The argument was made that the church was a Saxon one (which was correct, in part) and as such any addition to it would be too incongruous; one correspondent thought it a ‘desecration’. Chatfield responded that, although the church was indeed very old, the cladding on the tower in fact dated from the nineteenth century. Even if that had not been the case, ‘if your Norman and Early English Church builders had all declared Bosham Church unique and added nothing for us today – I’m afraid there would be very little for us to be proud of – do please try to see things ahead – it is only fair to the future generation.’

Others suggested that, whatever form it took, ‘a war memorial should have the general approval and support of the parish as a whole and not be a source of dissension thereto’. Several hundred names that had by now been added to a petition against the clock. Chatfield, however, believed them to be mostly those of day-trippers and of the growing number of temporary holiday residents in the village. Were the wardens and PCC to be overridden in parochial affairs, he asked, by outsiders who ‘merely indulge themselves in occasional residence at Bosham for any purpose other than that for which a church was built and continues to exist?’ Implicitly implicated in this was Rupert Guinness, the second earl Iveagh, lord of the manor, who was listed among the principal objectors. Iveagh’s father, the industrialist Edward Guinness, had been created the first earl in 1919 and bought the lordship at some point after that. The family seat was in Norfolk; the second earl himself was resident near Woking, some fifty miles away.

These particular arguments of principle were given a particular intensity by the presence on both sides of those who had been bereaved. Chatfield received several letters from the bereaved, both in favour and against. Chatfield wrote to Iveagh with a list of 33 names of the bereaved who were supporting the scheme, urging him to drop his ‘wholly inadequate, also extremely inconsiderate’ objections. ‘To proceed with any proposal’ Iveagh replied ‘in the face of strong opposition from so many, including those, like myself, are among the bereaved, introduces an element of discord, wholly at variance with what should be our feelings in regard to a memorial. While the present generation lasts, it would emphasize discord, when a memorial should be an expression of unity of purpose.’ The plaque in the church bears the name ‘Elveden’: Iveagh’s son Arthur, viscount Elveden, killed while part of an anti-tank regiment at Nijmegen in the Netherlands in February 1945.

The stone in the churchyard below the clock face. The text reads;
‘I ring for you the passing hours
Dweller and stranger on your way
I ring remembrance for the men
Who died to win your liberty
And though the warriors’ sun be set
Its radiance lingers with us yet
Turn here to prayer before you go

If this had been the extent of the dispute, it may well be regarded as merely an unusually bitter local disagreement; the issues of principle involved were repeated in other places. It was however further complicated by the intrusion of influential national opinion. Resident in the manor house next to the church was the architect Grey Wornum, and it was apparently at Wornum’s instigation that a letter was sent to the Times, objecting to an ‘incongruous addition’. The letter suggested that the various watchdog bodies had been caught napping, and that the last line of defence was to dissuade the diocesan Chancellor, Kenneth Mead McMorran, from granting the faculty. ‘Time is short, and if this last defence is to be effective it is desirable that public opinion should reinforce local opinion. To that end, Sir, we address you and your influential readers.’

Wornum had been assiduous in gathering signatories; as well as Iveagh, the list included the prominent architects A.E. Richardson, Charles Holden and W.H. Ansell (the latter a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects). Another signatory, the architect Lionel Pearson, had designed the memorial for the Royal Artillery at Hyde Park Corner. Also on the list were Sir Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy; the Slade professor of fine art at UCL, Randolph Schwabe, and the former director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Sir Sydney Cockerell. The letter was followed by several others in support, expressing the hope that ‘the opposition to the scheme may be overwhelming, and that we shall hear no more of it.’

The effect of this pressure was felt in Bosham. One of Chatfield’s most vocal correspondents despaired of the fact that the vicar would not accept the judgment of such a group of ‘eminent signatories’ as those of the Times letter. It wasn’t only Chatfield who was to feel the pressure; enquiries were made to the Diocesan Advisory Committee by Walter Godfrey, of the National Monuments Record. The secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings also made an enquiry to the chancellor’s office, but was warned that the matter was sub judice. Undeterred, the Society’s chairman, Viscount Esher wrote directly to Macmorran, strongly deprecating the proposal, and was instructed again that the matter could not be discussed.

So it was that George Bell’s chancellor was caught in a near-perfect storm. The village locally had been divided over the appropriate form of memorial, and of the proper relation of beauty and utility; in play was the issue of the right relation between a church, its parishioners and an historic building; all this was mixed with a liberal portion of local grief. As Macmorran made clear in his judgement, he had in addition been caught between a correctly administered process of deliberation by experts within the diocese on the one hand, and the precipitous intervention of national bodies on the other; a case in which different parts of the ‘establishment’ were in disagreement. He was to rule, in June 1947, in favour of the former, and against those, like Esher, who ‘ought to have known better’ than to try to pressurise him.

Bosham at low tide.
Image by ianpudsey (CC BY 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Few in the village now know of the story of the ‘Battle of Bosham Clock’, and it seems that memories of the dispute faded relatively quickly. Only three years later, in 1950, Grey Wornum was also to lose a child: his daughter, Jenefer, who had lived at the manor, drowned in the sea off the Australian coast at the age of 23. It would seem that he made his peace with the church enough to design a set of gates in her memory, described in a nearby tablet as his last work before his death in 1957. And so the clock, weathered now as its designer had anticipated, still looks out at the tide as it rises and falls in Bosham Channel.

The papers relating to the consistory court case may be consulted at West Sussex Record Office in Chichester. To learn more about the national involvement of the Church of England in war memorials after 1945, see this article from 2008 on war memorials, bombed churches and the Church of England, 1940-7.

War memorials, bombed churches and ‘Christian civilisation’

I usually summarise my articles here, but this older one has not had such a summary before now as it predates this blog. As I’ve had cause to revisit it in the process of thinking about London’s blitzed churches in fiction, here’s a digest.

Title: Beauty, utility and “Christian civilisation”: war memorials and the Church of England, 1940-47
Published: Forum for Modern Language Studies 44:2 (2008) 199-211
Read the final version (proofs)

The years following the end of the First World War saw an effusion of memorials to that war, to the extent that scarcely a village, school or regiment was without one. The impression that might be gained from a journey through much of rural England is that the stone cross, placed by the village green, was the predominant form of memorial chosen by English communities after 1918. In contrast (it has been argued) the years after 1945 were characterised by indifference, and indeed hostility, towards the building of further monuments in stone. Nick Hewitt has suggested that this ‘sceptical generation’ desired ‘practical’ or ‘useful’ memorials, such as playing fields, community halls or educational scholarships. The ‘artistic establishment’ was by 1944 out of touch with a utilitarian public. This article considers just this establishment and the part played by the Church of England in its deliberations.

It examines the moment during the last years of the war and immediately after, during which the interlocking ecclesiastical, artistic and governmental establishments began to imagine the general shape of memorialisation, and the part the bombed churches of London and elsewhere might play. It shows that there had been a much more lively debate on memorials than the eventual inventory might imply. Debate centred in particular on whether or not a beautiful but “useless” memorial was an appropriate response and (if it was) in which style it ought to be executed. Clergy, artists and architects and the committees and bodies that facilitated their interaction were keenly interested in the relationship between beauty, utility and the reconstruction of “Christian civilisation”.