John Turner takes heart from the letters of a great lay theologian

In retrospect it seems to us to day that sixty or seventy years ago the Church of England was in a reasonably flourishing condition. Yet one Anglican woman, quite famous in the inter-war period, could express her feelings about the Church in a manner far from complacent, and she still has something to say to us in 2001.

Evelyn Underhill (1875 -1941) was well known in the 1920s and 30s as an authority on mysticism and worship, as a retreat conductor, and as a spiritual director, Born in an upper middle. class family, married to a barrister, she had very nearly become a Roman Catholic in the early years of die Twentieth century. However the vehement anti-modernist campaign waged by Pope Pius X caused her to hesitate, and then in 1911 she came to know, and be influenced by, Baron von Hugel, who subsequently became her director. The Baron, who was a loyal Roman Catholic and a distinguished lay theologian, told her that she should not go over to Rome, unless she was ‘so decisively called by God that [she] felt it wrong to resist’. The upshot was that she remained a practising member of the Church of England all her life.

Essential Services

She wrote scores of letters to people who asked her advice on matters to do with mysticism, Christianity, prayer and worship, and some correspondents she directed spiritually. The quotations on which I shall comment. come from The Letters of Evelyn Underhill (first published in 1943, and in paperback by DLT in 1991). In a letter written in 1932 comes this: ‘The Church is an “essential service” like the Post Office. but there will always he some narrow, irritating and inadequate officials behind the counter…’ As well as being entertaining, this cutting of the Church down to size can encourage us when we find ourselves getting worried or upset by some ecclesiastics to-day.

Anyone who is too idealistic in his conception of the Church may sometimes suffer a great deal when confronted with the inadequacies of those who actually are its members and officers. Of course, inadequacy can go so far as to impinge on qualifications for administering the sacraments – hence our need for PEVs. which the Act of Synod has met, But in whichever ‘integrity’, there are bound to be some who give the impression of being ‘narrow, irritating and inadequate’ — probably during the last fifty years in the eyes of various parishioners I have often merited a description of that nature, if not worse. Of course, though more solemnly than Evelyn Underhill, Article XXVI really provided the same encouragement years ago ‘Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament” is the heading, and the Article spells out the thought. For us who are members of FiF the important thing is that the ‘essential service” be maintained and that we avail ourselves of it as we can so long as the Act of Synod remains in force, though it will need modification if women bishops become part of the scene.

Liturgy and Prayer

We would do well to take note also of what in 1940 Evelyn Underhill wrote to another correspondent, mentioning ‘the liturgical revival, which has now rather got the bit between its teeth and threatens to snuff out individual prayer altogether) Here, splendidly mixing her metaphors, she gives a perennially relevant reminder that personal prayer and liturgy are both needed. A little while back an article in New Directions asked how the members of General Synod could employ their time now that they have no longer to debate Common Worship. Perhaps they would do well simply to meet together and engage in meditation and prayer under the leadership of people qualified to guide and help them. Anyhow it is to be hoped that no traditionalist clergy or laity resemble those who attended a Conference held in 1925 about “deepening the spiritual life of the Church.’ ‘When we were all asked,’ wrote Evelyn, ‘to give quarter of an hour a day to prayer for the objects of the Conference, a surprising number were alarmed by this dreadful demand! And after a little discussion there was a plaintive yelp from one clerical collar to presiding Bishop “My Lord ! is this quarter of an hour to be in addition to our ordinary devotions ?”

The subject of personal prayer can serve as a link to my last quotation, which is taken from one of Evelyn’s letters to the man concerning whom she once wrote, ‘He knew more about real prayer than anyone I ever met.’ This was John Chapman, abbot of Downside, who having been an Anglican deacon had joined the Roman Catholic Church and become a Benedictine, On one occasion in 1931 she felt that she ought to explain to him why she had herself remained in the Church of England. In the course of her letter she wrote: ‘I have been for years now a practising Anglo-Catholic … and solidly believe in the Catholic status of the Anglican Church, as to orders and sacraments, little as I appreciate many of the things done among us. It seems to me a respectable suburb of the city of God but all the same, part of “greater London”. I appreciate the superior food, etc., to be had nearer the centre of things. But the whole point to me is the fact that our Lord has put me here, and has never given me orders to move.’

Less leafy

The suburb in which we live may well now appear less respectable than it did in 1931, but if we can claim that in the traditionalist ‘integrity’ we are still part of the “greater London” which is the city of God, we ought not to be afraid to affirm that our Lord has put us here. And while we hold on to the splendid descriptions which the Bible gives us of the Church — Body of Christ, City of God and so forth -, it does us no harm at times to be also less serious about this “essential service”, which may have ‘some narrow. irritating and inadequate officials behind the counter’, just like any suburban Post Office.

There is plenty of sound and encouraging material in the writings of Evelyn Underhill, and the sixtieth anniversary of her death in this year 2001 should be a stimulus to rediscover much that she still can teach us.

John Turner Honorary Curate of St Botholph-without-Bishopsgate

‘The Church is an “essential service” like the Post Office. but there will always he some narrow, irritating and inadequate officials behind the counter…’