Martin Browning takes a lesson from Kit Smart

Prepare thy blessed feet, and come
With peace angelic shod,
And purge away the dross and scum
That stain the house of God.

Even in the eighteenth century, not everyone spoke quite so frankly about the Catholic Church of this land. But Christopher Smart, Kit to his friends, was frank enough to be locked up in an asylum, and in any case the quoted lines come from his version of the 74th Psalm. That always takes a bit of work to paraphrase, unless we are content to recite with Coverdale, ‘O God, how long shall the adversary do this dishonour? Why pluckest thou hot thy right hand out of thy bosom to consume the enemy?’

By one of those extraordinary juxtapositions, I had just read in New Directions about some Australian clergy (as it happened) who ‘led services in street clothes’. And something which had been simmering inside came to the boil, something else went ‘click’, and I thought it worth pondering on the page. Smart’s the word.

Elsie (not her real name) is over eighty, virtually housebound in her fourth-floor old-style LCC flat. Husband Jim is her lifeline, but he is a sick man. Elsie had been receiving Holy Communion at home from time to time, and when the visiting celebrant was no longer available, he passed her request back to the local vicar. A mere eight months later (yes, you heard) the vicar phoned to fix a day to call, and on that introductory visit he arranged to celebrate the sacrament with her for the first time, just before Christmas.

Come, thou long expected

She told him she was specially pleased with the agreed date. Her only son would have been 55 that day. He had died, sightless, at the age of six. His picture hung above the mantelpiece. So she got everything ready, including herself. That morning the vicar phoned. Could she make it tomorrow? – some people had arrived. They often do – people. She was disappointed, but didn’t argue. Believe me, she can when she wants to.

Next day dawned, and he turned up; yes, that is how I would put it. How she put it was, ‘He came in his jeans and open-neck shirt. Very light-hearted, he was. We didn’t have any of the old prayers, know what I mean? And do you know what when he got in, he said “Ave you got a bit o’ bread?” – just like that, Jim! – ’e didn’t know what to think.’

‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance…’ I suppose Christ did not need special clothes or a silver chalice either; but is this how he would have treated her, I wonder? And if she had been able to join the faithful congregation, what would she find?

Warm welcome?

In that particular church, the only copies of the 1662 Prayer Book are kept on the floor under the bookcase. They may have been used once in five years; not that anything better has been found to replace them. At one service at which the Vicar presided, he left the row of communicants to whom he was giving the Bread and the Cup in order to go and chat to some new arrivals. They did not appear to be sick, paralytic, or even demon-possessed. His assistant was left to re-consecrate as the wine had been insufficient. Or not, as the case may be, for these are the new evangelicals.

Another service, another celebrant; when the visitor turned to communicate the vicar, he said ‘Oh, I helped myself. ‘Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the doctrine and sacraments, and the discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church and Realm hath received the same?’ Or so the Bishop used to enquire at the Ordering of Priests. I must find out what they ask now.

But this is only one of the Sacraments. Come with me to a service of Holy Baptism. This time we are very prayer book – well, at least as to the dipping in the water. No mere affusion here! To this end, therefore, the parents are asked to present the child, at the appropriate moment, stark naked. We recall with mixed feelings the sight of one male child, in full camcorder view, peeing across the chancel carpet in a spectacular arc of infant urine. Happily, or perhaps sadly, no-one was exactly positioned to receive the full benefit of this rich brand of baptismal spray.

Another Sunday, and a slightly older candidate was having none of this dipping business. He squirmed out of control in the vicar’s flapping hands, so that only his bare bottom actually touched the waiting water. Well, I suppose theologically one part suffices for the whole. But somehow the cartoon elements seemed to obscure the sacramental ones. Our Baptist neighbours might have a view on that, too.

We shall not proceed to weddings or funerals. Except that his own marriage service, we were told, was a big laugh; so that’s all right then. But I write not about a man but a mindset. A neighbour of the same ilk (I was there too) boasted during a sermon that his own brand of ‘street clothes’ showed how humble and unimportant he was, compared with clergy who dress up posh.

So the clothes are not casual at all. They are worn to prove something, to make a statement. It had not occurred to him that the message conveyed might be the opposite of that intended. A mate of his followed a reading from Romans 8 with a comic story it reminded him of. Which in its turn reminds me: Did you hear about the vicar who said ‘I shall wear nothing which shall distinguish me from my brother Christians’? The only snag was the accidental clearing of his throat after the word ‘nothing’.

And the habit, so to speak, spreads. Churchwardens show up in faded rugby shirts (Would you accept a second-hand hymn book from this man?). A friend of mine is regularly privileged to hear student sermons on a training course. When their turn comes, the Africans and Asians among them arrive in suit and tie. No-one asks them to. Not so the white natives, who slouch to the classroom lectern in sweatshirts with comic slogans emblazoned on the front, and baseball caps (the new biretta?) on their heads. Ho ho! And the vicar I started with has been known to sport his jeans and open neck for some rather spectacular events, flanked by black church leaders resplendent in Caribbean or Nigerian robes.

Telly Dressing

But there is one occasion when street clothes are just not good enough. At the great sacrament of our time nothing but the best, including suit and clerical collar, will do. For, just once in a while, one of the trendies is invited to appear on TV. Nothing of course takes precedence over that; neither home communions nor even people who arrive. Why dress up for the telly? ‘So everyone will know I’m a clergyman.’ Well, well.

So I turn again to mad Mr Smart and his psalms. One problem was that he prayed too much; a crime reported by Dr Burney to Dr Johnson in May 1763. ‘I did not think he ought to be shut up,’ said Samuel Johnson. ‘He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.’

I hope he prayed for the clergy. I try to. But sometimes one is left with a feeling of such helplessness that New Directions seems the only answer. So let us end, as we began, with part of another Psalm version (22) from our crazy praying smart saint Christopher:

O my God, my God, receive me,
Why am I no more thy care,
Why dost thou recede to leave me
In a state of pain and pray’r?

Lord, thou hearest not, thro’ illness
As I weep upon my knees;
All the day, and in the stillness
Of the night I have no ease.

But there is no diminution
Of thy holiness and grace,
Through all change and revolution,
O thou praise of Jacob’s race.

For the friendless and unable
He disdains not to supply,
Nor rejects them from his table,
But attends whene’er they cry.

With communicants assembling
To thy church, my praise is thine;
And my vows with fear and trembling
To their pray’rs I will subjoin.

God shall give the poor in spirit
Bread with everlasting peace;
Faith and praise shall realms inherit,
Where their pow’rs shall never cease. Amen!

Martin Browning is a London-based journalist.