I was dipping into a new book that has crossed my desk, The Wit and Wisdom of Fr George Rutler and came across that lovely old prayer by St John Henry Newman:
O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen.
Suddenly I was overwhelmed with grief at what has been lost. More specifically what I have lost. This beautiful prayer is one of my favorites and I used it almost every Sunday evening leading Evensong as an Anglican country vicar on the Isle of Wight.
For those of you who don’t know what this is all about, “Evensong” is the quaint old term for evening prayer–the Anglican form of Vespers. In composing the Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer conflated the two monastic offices of Vespers and Compline and added space for more Scripture readings. This non Eucharistic service developed over the years with the addition of hymns and, when a choir was available, beautiful choral settings–the psalms being sung to the simple and lovely Anglican chant and the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis being set to music by the finest English composers.
Even in a village church like mine without an accomplished choir Evensong was a quiet, contemplative and beautiful service of prayer and worship. Being flexible, it was also dressed down and simplified for use in church daily.
I had gone to England after Bob Jones University with an admittedly eccentric, but beautiful dream. I wanted to be a “country parson” like George Herbert–to retreat to a parish in the heart of the English countryside and there to serve the people simply and humbly. I’d keep a garden, mind my own business and perhaps write some poetry. Was that such a bad thing to desire? I don’t think so.
Happily, my dream actually came true. I studied at Oxford, found my way through the maze of the Church of England hierarchy and bureaucracy to be ordained. After serving as an assistant priest (curate) in a parish I served as a school chaplain at Kings College, Cambridge then went to the parish of Brading with Yaverland on the Isle of Wight. Everything I had looked for was there. We lived in a nice old vicarage house with a big garden and I was in charge of two thousand year old churches. It was a lovely life.
(The illustration for this blog post, by the way, is of Yaverland church of St John the Baptist–built in the eleventh century. Next to it is the Jacobean Manor house where my patron Mrs Monk lived. Her father was a benefactor of the pre-Raphaelite painters and the house was full of their artwork including a portrait of Mrs Monk as a young girl.)
Most evenings I would stroll down the high street from our vicarage to my ancient church, ring the bell and meet a handful of parishioners who would join me for Evensong. From this parish I married. We had two children. It was perfect. I was all set for the life I had dreamed about.
But women’s ordination put the dynamite under all that. Swept up in politically correct ideologies, the Church of England (as she had always done) was busy adapting herself to the spirit of the age. My own spiritual life was moving closer and closer to the Catholic faith, so along with about 800 other priests and countless laypeople, when the Church of England General Synod decided to ordain women we swam the Tiber. I have written elsewhere about this particular issue, but the short version is that our decision was not simply about the ordination of women, but about authority in the church. When good Christians are divided on an issue how shall it be decided? It is clear that the Catholic Church has a far better and stronger system of authority–not just the pope, but the whole infrastructure, age, universality and competence of the Catholic Church to decide on issues of great importance.
The Church of England and the establishment in England celebrated the ordination of women with the usual self righteousness of the ideologically driven. So concerned to be tolerant, kind and loving to minorities, no one acknowledged the broken dreams, broken parishes, broken futures of all those clergy and laypeople who followed their consciences and were driven from the church they loved and served. We went quietly, but at that point a certain stream of orthodoxy and tradition left the Anglican church and she has continued, pell mell, down the path of contemporary heresy.
So that little prayer sparked a moment of personal grief at what we lost, but also a more general grief for the dear old lovely Church of England. Now most anything goes. Women’s ordination really did open Pandora’s Box. Divorce and remarriage? That’s ok. Gay priests? It is celebrated. Clergy co-habiting (of any gender and sexual preference). No problem. Women bishops? It is celebrated. Trans-children? Affirm them.
Was I naive to tootle off to England to pursue a rural idyll? Yes. Shouldn’t a man be idealistic in his twenties? Was that idyll my idol? Probably. I give thanks that I am now a Catholic and when we took the step of faith to leave it all and launch out into the sea of faith in the barque of Peter we had no idea where it would eventually lead. Do I wish I had remained an Anglican vicar? Of course not, but I still grieve over what was lost even though I rejoice in all that was given and gained.