Thurifer goes to Mass
A lacuna in the Diary last year left no opportunity for a tip of the biretta to the centenary of suffrage for women. The exigencies of the publishing deadline meant that I was unable to make a comment on a concert last November which included a performance of the Mass in D by Dame Ethel Smyth. Despite family opposition, she was determined to make her career in music. After private tuition she studied at Leipzig Conservatory. She fervently supported the Suffragette Movement, composing their anthem which, it is said, she once conducted through the bars of her cell as fellow inmates sang it during exercise in the prison yard below. She had Anglo-Catholic leanings for part of her life. The Mass had an interesting genesis. Composed while staying with the exiled French Empress Eugenie, it was first heard in a run-through while at Balmoral as guests of Queen Victoria. Its first public performance was in 1893, but it was not heard again until 1924, conducted by Arian Boult. Its concert history has been sporadic thereafter. Her religious affiliations waned thereafter as well and although she did consider converting to Rome she said that those temptations were sweated out in the writing of the Mass. Unusually the setting ends with the Gloria, in accord with the BCP. It is of its time and bears the imprint of the great oratorio tradition of the late nineteenth century. It requires huge orchestral forces and four soloists (who do not have much to do) and, although worth hearing, once is probably enough. The opening Kyrie was particularly good, with an intensity in its supplication that was moving. The later movements lacked that inspiration. She was created DBE in 1922 and died in 1944.
Very loud and shouty at times, the Mass certainly kept you awake. Not so for someone three rows in front of me at an excellent and lively lecture, very well delivered by a noted thespian. Not loud enough, however, for one member of the audience who not only fell asleep but who snored quite vigorously for several minutes until the person to the right gave them a surreptitious nudge. For some of us he had exhibited English reserve and reluctance to intervene for rather too long.
I vividly remember a sermon preached by Bishop Michael Ramsey in the early 1980s to the Northern Catholic pilgrimage to St Cuthbert’s Shrine in Durham Cathedral. It was about the Holy Land of Northumbria and its saints. Notably St Cuthbert but also St Aidan, St Bede the Venerable (whose tomb is in the Galilee Chapel of the Cathedral), (King) St Oswald (whose head lies in Cuthbert’s coffin) and St Benedict Biscop. This came back to me when I visited the exhibition at the British Library, ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’ (on until 17 February). There is a section dedicated to the Golden Age of Northumbria which produced the Lindisfarne Gospels and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Angelorum) written c.731. Both are exhibited and it was thrilling to see them. There is much else besides, culminating in a copy of the Domesday Book. Of course, the highly ornamented initial letters and other illustrations are stunning but so is the various hands of the scribes. Thrilling but also frustrating. Although the exhibits are beautifully lit and have generous descriptions, they are, not unnaturally, in glass cases. Those of us who still love books and have not succumbed entirely to the digital alternatives, do so because of their tactile nature. Part of the experience of reading from books is to hold them, to feel, smell, turn pages, turn back, feel the weight and texture of the paper, browse through to allow the eye randomly to fall on something that delights our disconcerts. For an exhibition of such treasures this is, I allow, unrealistic, but it is a measure of the success of the exhibition that it instilled that longing and regret.
London and south-coast Anglo-Catholicism may no longer be what it was, but news reaches me that St Paul’s, Brighton, one of Fr Wagner’s churches, now linked with St Michael’s (that satisfying combination of Bodley and Burgess), is undergoing something of a revival. It was part of my introduction to Brighton Anglo-Catholicism in the mid-1980s. It was a remarkable Saturday. It began with High Mass at St Bartholomew’s, the Noah’s Ark of the town (now city) for the Fountain Group. This, as I remember it, was founded by the then parish priest, Fr James Holdroyd, and its members believed that all the ley-lines in the country met at a point on the Old Steine Gardens near the seafront. Propriety prevents specificity. These lines, it was supposed, aligned religious sites and landmarks that were not accidental, nor random, but were paths with spiritual significance. I was taken along to witness this decidedly odd celebration and having been told something of Fr Holdroyd’s eccentricities, I was not disappointed. The theme of his bizarre sermon was ‘Arthur Scargill, Agent of Darkness’ (it was the time of the miners’ strike) delivered with a manic intensity. Perhaps fortunately, we needed to leave after that oration to arrive in time for the Gloria at St Paul’s, West Street, where the then vicar, Fr John Milburn, was celebrating the twenty-first anniversary of his ‘Pastorate.’ This was decidedly more straightforward with fine music and contemporary concelebrated liturgy that still managed to look much like a High Mass.