REMEMBERING PERCY DEARMER
To admire Percy Dearmer, in our present state in the Church of England, is not very fashionable. When you bring his name up in conversation concerning matters liturgical, you will instantly hear comments about “British Museum religion” or “good taste by the book”. Despite such disapprobation, however, I am a firm admirer of Percy Dearmer and The Parson’s Handbook in all of its fourteen editions!
Educated at Westminster and at Christ Church, Oxford, Dearmer was ordained in 1891. His first desire, following ordination, was to find a manner in which to communicate, at a popular level, the liturgical life which he believed was practised in England during the late middle ages and during the time of the compilations of the first Prayer Books. This, in his mind, could set a standard for contemporary usage. The Parson’s Handbook, first published in 1899 with subsequent editions in 1965, was a fulfilment of this desire. It is not overstating the case to say that The Parson’s Handbook help to set the liturgical style of the Church of England for almost two generations. We currently seem to believe, however, that we have now outgrown the exact instructions and, indeed, even the suggestions given within it covers and, as “congegationalism” has grown rife in the Church of England, each parish priest now constructs his own liturgical ethos, usually according to his own fancies and his own taste. Unfortunately, the particular priest’s fancy today is all too often uninformed and generally lacks a sound academic grounding or aesthetic basis.
When Percy Dearmer took up the living as Vicar of St. Mary’s Primrose Hill, he stated a dictum for the liturgical life of the parish: “You must give people what is good and they will come to like it”. If we but had the courage, this is a dictum which might well be followed today with profit. During his time at St. Mary’s, Dearmer introduced “the beauty of worship”. Reordering the sanctuary, with the help of some of the leading artists of his day, he introduced sanctuary lamps, riddle curtains and full and ample vestments. Plainchant was introduced and soon the attraction of the beauty of worship filled St. Mary’s to capacity each and every Sunday.
I cannot help but wonder, when, during the last year, I saw capacity crowds attending the Pugin and Morris exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and crowding in to see, at least in part, the treasurers of the church set out for viewing, why we have abandoned our natural heritage and have given it over to the secular ‘arts community’. If thousands upon thousands make their way to such exhibitions, and come away from those exhibitions genuinely and deeply moved, why have we abandoned the treasures of the Church that Dearmer and his generation laboured to bring back to us? Please understand, I am not making an appeal for the churches to become museums – too many are like that already! What I am seeking is a well ordered approach to liturgy and church furnishing which will express the beauty of worship and which, by its very nature, will help to draw people to ‘the idea of the holy’.
Is it too much to hope in 1996 that there is still such a thing as “good taste” or “good order”? The question is not about ritual – high or low, it is about communication of the holy in a manner in which people can detect genuine care and concern given to all that is done, said, and presented. As always, “God is in the details”. The need for guidance is obvious. I would agree with Percy Dearmer when he wrote, ” …whether the ceremonial used is little or much, the services of our Church should at least be conducted on the legitimate lines, if only that they may be freed from what is anomalous, tawdry or grotesque”. This, I believe, remains a message for our day, if only we will pause to hear it.
Dr. Arnold is Principal of St. Chad’s College, Durham