A Rectory and Street Lamps

In my mind’s eye a priest sits in his study. He’s already retired but is helping out in the parish. He’s helping me. I am in turmoil. We’ve not long moved into the area. It is in a North London suburb which has grown up around a village and its mediaeval church. I am enchanted by the area, the churchyard with its loamy earth and  leaning headstones – and the yew trees and private gateway to the old rectory. I love the intimate, landscaped garden, nearby, of a former industrialist and local benefactor, which is now a public park; and the clock on the church tower which sounds the quarters and the passing hours. After years of life in the ribbon development of west London’s outskirts we have found a place with a heart.

We have brought with us a settled custom of worship from our former home. I think it was based on the 1928 Prayer Book. We are comfortable with it and its 17th century rhythms and cadences.

But here, in this traditional setting, we are in for a rude awakening. All the certainties of ritual and language which had been the signposts and anchor of our faith were being overwhelmed and revised by the process of liturgical reforms. And in this parish, the ancient church, its grounds and buildings were regarded as ‘plant’ and the old rectory was condemned. In the church, if a candle went unlit or an altar cloth was removed, one could not know whether either would be restored. The choir existed under a cloud of disapproval. Nothing was stable. Attendance at church became an ordeal.

Looking back I think I could be called intolerant, even fanatical in my resistance to the changes. And that was wrong. I was already involved in a local environmental campaign and to this I added a plea that if the old rectory had to come down it be replaced by some kind of social housing. I was and am happy that a very pleasant sheltered housing scheme was built there.

But looking back, I think I made life hell for the then rector, who was only following the trend from the top of the Church. Maybe I upset his supporters, those who basically wanted to feel safe and believe that things had not changed. Also my family suffered from the ferocity of my campaign.

I am grateful to the old priest who, I think, understood my concerns. He tried to point me away from all that towards something permanent in me. We talked of a midlands city we both knew. I mentioned a tree-lined lane there, in the October dusk, where the glow of the street lamps was diffused through the evening mist.  He pointed to the contrast between our tiny selves and the immensity of what we perceive and sense. And as I write I remember again a West Country estuary and the view across it.

He also suggested I should write about these things. That was more than 40 years ago. I hope I’m getting there.

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3 Responses to A Rectory and Street Lamps

  1. Change is always stressful and most (if not all) tend to appear entrenched and curmudgeonish when faced with things that threaten to shake their well-worn traditions, preferences and memories. That’s always hard. In my little life, it’s a routing thing, and I find myself resentful or resistant to anything that’s become a valued part of life.
    I think that, however, especially in religion there is a real place for holding fast to tradition. I don’t think that Christianity in particular should change its face with the times. Fashion and politics may well do that (though I hazard the roots of these probably haven’t changed, ever) but the longest-lasting message of all time probably demands the slowest of all change.
    And so I find myself, at least probably for Americans would be, in a church with a bit of a backward step of practice, with a fairly rich liturgy, dependence on things like recited creeds, carefully weeded hymns, prayer through Scripture and much (much, much) reading of Scripture. It’s not in keeping with the rearrangement of practice in contemporary church. Preservation of the message and ministry interferes with “improving with the times.”
    All that to say, a pastor who stands for the “old” way, as well as a layman, is probably more than justified in being crusty and intractable.

    • lleweton says:

      Yes, thanks for that; I think, to be fair, that it can be argued that one should not make an idol of the liturgy. As I recall, this was the argument of the ‘re-formers’ of the 1960s. But the words of C.S. Lewis ring true to me in the first of his ‘Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer’ – my copy, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1964. In that he says: ‘As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance ……The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.’

  2. Agreed. Both extremes are to be avoided. Carelessly or blindly conserving the liturgy is just as bad as not thinking and bolting to keep up with the culture.
    Forms betray context, I believe in the latter. It’s a difficult thing when the Social Gospel has blurred the lines to the point that spiritual fruit is undiscernable from salvation by works.
    Of course we’ve always had that. Sort of like traditions. 🙂

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