‘We perish by permitted things’
Fr Rosenthal wrote Sins of the Saints whilst Parish Priest of St Agatha’s, Sparkbrook. He led the successful resistance in Birmingham during the 30s to the notorious Bishop Barnes. As a result Catholic Anglicanism flourished both in his parish and elsewhere.
The title comes from Hebrews 12.1. The adjective qualifying the word ‘sin’– eu-peristatos – which the Authorised Version translates ‘[the sin] which doth so easily beset us’, is unique and occurs nowhere else in Scripture or classical literature. Rosenthal, and the RV margin, suggest it should read ‘[the sin] which is admired by many’. Not the sins every Christian knows to be wrong – murder, adultery, stealing or false witness – but actions which, though rooted in good intentions that our fellow-Christians rightly applaud, become corrupted by wrong application or over-use.
So let’s visit the people at St Grizelda’s-by-the-Gasworks and learn how despite their virtues – or perhaps because of them (as Rosenthal suggests) – they manage to ‘sin and come short of the glory of God’.
Fictitious but no fanciful
St Grizelda’s and its people are totally fictitious; but they share with your parish and mine a steadfast love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and a loyalty and devotion which laity and priests alike have bestowed over many difficult times past and present.
First let’s meet the Vicar, Canon Browning, and his curate, Father Green.
Canon Browning has been Vicar for nearly twenty years. Retirement is still a little way over the horizon but he’s recently begun to realize that much of what he hoped to achieve when he first came to St Grizelda’s just isn’t going to happen. He’s worked commendably hard, and the numbers at Sunday Mass reflect this by holding up better than most nearby churches. However, he now sees that his primal vision of turning St Grizelda’s into a church bursting at the seams with worshippers was unrealistic. That means also that the chance of another idea at the back of his mind (and nearer the front of Mrs Browning’s), of becoming a bishop or other dignitary, is now very slender. So the Canon and his wife are somewhat disappointed people.
Let’s be fair to them. Hopes, ambitions, and hard work are all, in themselves, good things. A priest who lacks any vision for his parish is a dead loss. To be disappointed when such hopes remain unfulfilled is natural, and something which nobody should be ashamed of – even Jesus was disappointed in his apostles! However, unlike Jesus, Browning’s disappointment seriously affects his relationship with his young curate. It’s not exactly jealousy, but it’s related to it.
The Curate’s Egg
Father Green is a young bachelor, in his first curacy. He’s even more ebullient with ideas and vision than Canon Browning was when he was first ordained. The young people love him. The older ladies wish they were his mother, and the Young Wives simply fall over each other to do things for him.
Father Green can’t understand why his Vicar is often less-than-enthusiastic about his ideas for running the parish. He suspects (privately, of course) that Mrs Browning may have something to do with it. So sometimes Father Green simply takes matters into his own hands and goes ahead with the bright idea he’s thought up without discussing it with Canon Browning. He’s quite taken aback when the Vicar shows less appreciation of his idea than Father Green thinks it deserves however successful it proves.
Now, let’s be quite clear about this. Father Green’s virtues and ideas are admirable in themselves. God knows, the Church needs energetic, popular young clergy like him, who get on well with people of all ages and both sexes. Even a touch of impatience, if tempered with charity, can work wonders when things seem to be getting nowhere fast. What he doesn’t understand is that those selfsame virtues, energy, imagination, and charm, when they are mixed with Canon Browning’s greater age, experience, and unresolved disappointment form a highly unstable compound – which can be ignited by the most trivial spark.
As for his unfavourable view of Mrs Browning (which others at St Grizelda’s share), what none of them knows, and couldn’t know, is that the Brownings have battled for many years with her severe bouts of depression which have sometimes even threatened their marriage. So Father Green’s greatest virtues – his energy, imagination and charm – have resulted in dividing the parish into the pro-Green and pro-Browning factions, something neither of them in the least intended. His virtues, in other words, have become ‘the sin which is admired by many’.
Pillars of the Community
Now let’s turn to some of the lay-people. Meet the Churchwardens, Mr Blunt and Mr Sharp. Both have given long and faithful service to St Grizelda’s. As the Bishop said only the other day, it would be hard to imagine St Grizelda’s without them. He meant it kindly, but some of the congregation wonder whether the time has come for some new people to be given the chance to learn their job.
Long, faithful service can become a problem. It’s admirable – but can easily turn into possessiveness. Vicars come and vicars go, but the laity go on for ever. It’s natural that Sharp and Blunt are dedicated to keeping St Grizelda’s ‘exactly as it’s always been’ – many of the congregation look to them to do exactly that. But it can turn nasty. I’m told that Mr Sharp was recently overheard to say, ‘Trust Blunt and me to deal with Father Green. We don’t need his bright ideas here. We’ve never done anything like he’s suggesting – and we’re not going to start now!’
Every institution, whether it’s a church, a hospital, a school or a monastery, has sometimes got to be changed for its own good. Whilst safeguarding St Grizelda’s interests is the proper job of Sharp & Blunt, those interests are ill-served by their saying ‘No’ to every idea that Father Green suggests. For example, it was he who suggested that the Men’s Group should arrange a car-rota to bring the elderly who don’t live on a bus route to Mass on Sundays – and look at the difference that made to attendance! In some cases their children and even grandchildren now come to church with them – people who have never darkened its doors till now. If Blunt and Sharp aren’t careful their negative attitude will so discourage Father Green that he throws his hand in and abandons the vocation to which God has called him.
Another long-serving member is the Treasurer, Mr Banks, a retired accountant. He has meticulously kept the accounts for many years without so much as a penny going missing. But so enthusiastically has he safeguarded their money that parting with any of it has become for him like having a tooth out; getting him to sign a cheque is a painful ordeal for all concerned; unpaid creditors are a nightmare!
Now let me introduce you to some of the women.
The lady over there is Martha Driver. She’s one of those indispensable people who actually gets things done. She used to be a Sister at the Hospital, and before that, Matron in a Boy’s Preparatory School. Now retired, she has time on her hands, and her single-minded commitment means that there’s never a moment when she isn’t doing something at or for St Grizelda’s.
Martha’s hospital experience convinced her that unless someone is ‘in charge’, standards will slip; and as School Matron she learnt that men remain like schoolboys all their lives; so their self-discipline needs constantly ‘affirming’, as she calls it. This means that she keeps a close eye on what Browning and Green are doing, or, more probably, failing to do. With the laity, Martha knows from experience as a Sister Tutor that unless, like her nurses, they are made to do things properly the lazy ones will leave the unpleasant jobs to others. Secretly, Martha thinks Mrs Browning is a bit like that, because she does so little in the parish. How different, alas, from dear Mrs Willings (a previous Vicar’s wife) who always did exactly what she was asked!
So what about Mrs Driver? Well, her commitment to what she does and gets other people to do are admirable; but such managerial skills are only one of the things a parish needs. Her matronly approach, so invaluable in a hospital, people in the pews find off-putting. So she’s ended up running nearly everything herself: Mother’s Union, Young Wives, Stewardship Committee, PCC, Flower Rota – you name it. ‘If that’s how you feel then you’d better find someone else!’, she says when criticized. Her critics quickly fall silent believing (quite mistakenly) that without her, everything would grind to a halt. So those who might have relieved Martha of some of her tasks have stopped volunteering, leaving just a handful of people – those who rather enjoy being bossed about by her – doing all the donkey-work.
On her knees
Now let’s meet Miss Mary Neale. Like Martha she is totally committed to St Grizelda’s. But whereas Mrs Driver is always looking for what she calls ‘practical solutions’ to problems, Mary says, ‘Well, I think we should pray about it.’ And what, you may ask, is wrong with that? Well, nothing is wrong; but no amount of prayer will substitute for the elbow-grease which Martha so generously provides.
Take, for instance, cleaning the Lady Chapel floor. When Martha first asked Mary if she’d be responsible for it, Mary agreed enthusiastically – she’s always felt the Lady Chapel was her ‘spiritual home’. But recently she’s spent more time kneeling on the Lady Chapel floor and praying for St Grizelda’s (including Mrs Driver of course) than scrubbing it. Only last week, I’m told, an entire family of mice were found to have taken up residence under the altar. However, it needs saying that Mary has selflessly supported Mrs Browning during her depressions – depressions which Martha, like many others, has known nothing whatever about. So neither Mary nor Martha has got it entirely wrong; they just haven’t got it quite right.
Slowly means holy
Now let’s meet Miss Crotchet the organist. Her life’s been dedicated to making the services dignified and reverent. With her half-dozen singers she shares Sharp and Blunt’s determination that St Grizelda’s should remain ‘just like it’s always been’. This includes Miss Crotchet’s lifelong belief that in the matter of church music ‘holy means slowly’. So Crotchet, Choir, and Wardens have unwittingly become a Resistance Group to Father Green’s ‘bright ideas’, especially ideas about hymns. (Incidentally, the Alliance are quite mistaken in their belief that present-day services at St Grizelda’s are ‘just like they’ve always been’. It’s barely twenty years since the last Vicar, Father Broom, swept away their more archaic liturgical practices and established the worship pattern they know today).
Finally, let’s meet Mr Horder the Sacristan. He’ll be delighted to show us the vestments and plate, which the Church has acquired over the years. Nobody could be more diligent about their safekeeping, and woe betide anyone else who tries to get them out, put them away or polish them. What more could anyone ask?
Well, Mr Horder’s attachment to what he sees as ‘his’ possessions is such that the prospect of replacing any of them resembles bereavement. So St Grizelda’s has frayed frontals, chalices needing re-gilding and albs whose lace hangs in shreds like flax off a distaff.
* * * * *
The sins of St Grizelda’s saints aren’t anything forbidden in books of morality. They fall short of the glory of God over things which are in themselves virtuous but have been allowed to get out of proportion or perspective. As the Latin proverb says: ‘Perimus licitis’ – we perish by permitted things.
So try this exercise on yourself: What do you see as your most admirable virtue? It may be your conscientiousness, generosity, punctuality, patience, care for others, or your readiness to accept criticism; then look more closely at it and consider whether, despite its being ‘admired by many’, it may also be leading you astray like the saints we’ve met at St Grizelda’s.
Francis Gardom is assistant priest at St Stephen’s Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.