Sic transit

I am somewhat suspicious of ‘moments of disclosure’, when, as Ian Ramsey used to say, ‘the penny drops’. Not for me ‘The Doors of Perception’. I leave that to Aldous Huxley (if anyone now remembers him) and those bright young Twenties things.

So you will take everything in this month’s ‘Way We Live Now’ cum grano salis, especially when I tell you that an entry on the web-site of Australian pop-singer Kylie Minogue has deepened my awareness.

Am I, you will ask yourself one of those clergymen who spend more time surfing the net than surfing the parish? The answer is: No. I was searching for information about the projected purchase by the perky little starlet of one of the most fascinating of Victorian country houses.

Tyntesfield, near Bristol is a building in which I have an interest which goes well beyond its architectural qualities. The house was built by one William Gibbs (born 1790), whose memorial plaque in Keble College Oxford I passed every day in term time, on my way to the college Mass.

‘William Gibbs of Tyntesfield’, as he called himself, was the head of the firm of Anthony Gibbs and Sons, one of the entrepreneurial successes of Victorian England. After a lack-lustre career in Madrid and Malaga, Anthony Gibbs founded, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a London company trading with Spain and Spanish America. It was not long before the American trade overtook the Spanish, and by the 1840s the company was established as the principal importer of bird-dung into the British Isles. ‘Guano’, the thick encrustation of droppings on the rocky islands of the Pacific coast, was the preferred nitrogenous fertiliser of forward-looking nineteenth-century agriculture. (The company later moved into sodium nitrate as the supplies of droppings were exhausted.)

William bought a small country estate called Tyntes House, a few miles west of Bristol, and set about converting it into a gothic fantasy of considerable proportions. The architect was a West countryman, John Norton (pupil of Benjamin Ferrey). He used a fine local sandstone, but the turrets and towers which looked out over the Somerset country-side were, metaphorically, built of dung.

Anthony Gibbs had been a high-and-dry Anglican, the younger son of a squarson. But William came under the full influence of the Oxford Movement, and gave it his enthusiastic support. He built churches – St Michael’s Paddington, St Michael’s Exeter and St Mary’s Flaxley, Gloucestershire. And he furnished his new house with a vast chapel by Arthur Blomfield (himself the son of a bishop) and based on the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

There the resident Tractarian chaplain ministered daily to the spiritual needs of the Gibbs family, pursuing his theological studies meanwhile in his chaplain’s quarters situated at the top of a tower based on the Old Town Hall at Prague and looking out over the gilded copper dome of the conservatory, ‘after the model of S Marco at Venice’.

The crowning glory of William Gibbs’s beneficence was the construction of Butterfield’s great chapel at Keble. There in younger, and I confess happier days, I heard the sermons of the great Austin Farrer.

The descent of poor Tyntesfield from prosperous piety to ‘celebrity’ parties seemed to me, as I gazed at the screen, an emblem and an epitome of so much that has happened in Catholic Anglicanism over the last century.

Keble College itself, intended as an enduring memorial to the life and values of John Keble, is now a wholly secular institution. The college livings (many of them, like my own, donated by the founders of churches in the hope of securing thereby a succession of priests devoted to Catholic orthodoxy) are now effectively in the hands of a liberal. Whether the present chaplain will have a successor must surely be in doubt.

Pusey House (down St John’s Street and across St Giles) was likewise intended as a lasting memorial to Edward Pusey. But there again, the family silver is hardly what it was. The intention was to provide for a body of priests who would pastor undergraduate members of the University in the event of the secularization of the colleges. Now that almost total secularization has belatedly been achieved, the House (a splendid late work of Temple Moore) is mostly occupied by St Cross College, and has neither the facilities nor the resources to perform the task for which it was founded.

But why concentrate on Oxford when every diocese in England has a tale of woe to tell? Take our own dear Southwark, for example, and the empire built up by the great Charles Edward Brooke. (Sewing cotton was to the pious Brookes what bird dung was to the prayerful Gibbses.)

St John the Divine, Kennington (a towering achievement of GE Street) still remains – but with an electoral roll of 132 and falling one wonders for how long. The rest of Brooke’s commanding vision – the primary school, the secondary school for girls and the teacher training college for young women are more or less in tatters. The College was amalgamated with Goldsmith’s College twenty years ago and has sunk without trace. The trust established to administer the funds accruing from the sale of the buildings and site is now in the hands of trustees who share few if any of Charles Edward’s views and values. The secondary school is indistinguishable in management and ethos from any other state school. Only the primary school comes near to fulfilling the founder’s aspirations.

Time, of course, moves on and one should not expect anything but change. (‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change; and to be perfect is to have changed often’ said the saintly John Henry). But with change must come continuity. (A theme on which Newman dwelt at length in his famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine). What has happened too often in the history of the Catholic movement – perhaps even of the Church of England as a whole – has been not development but abandonment; retrenchment has replaced creativity, timidity has clouded vision. Even those who have not joined Richard Holloway in the Gadarene plunge into secularism have felt content, proud even, just to hang on.

When Kylie throws her house warming party then Jason, Robbie, Posh, Becks and Sir Elton should, in my view, dance warily – for they are, almost literally, treading on our dreams.

Geoffrey Kirk is a former Scholar of Keble College, a former resident of Pusey House and a former curate of St John the Divine, Kennington. He is the Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, a Keble College living.