Thurifer recalls heady days, and goes to see the Queen

Although the sweltering heat-wave of mid-June had abated, cooling zephyrs did not penetrate the walls of St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A large congregation gathered to mark the fortieth anniversary of the priestly ordination of Fr Graeme Rowlands. With banks of candles, swirls of incense smoke, and concelebrants in heavy gold chasubles, it was hot and humid. The Bishop of Fulham presided from the throne, wearing a mitre almost as tall as himself, flanked by Bishops Peter Wheatley and Graeme Knowles.

Bishop Knowles preached a perfectly pitched sermon, disregarding the instructions he had been given. “I am a bishop,” he said. “I ignore instructions.” The baroque splendour – adorned side altars, Schubert’s Mass in G sung from the gallery, birettas and lace – evoked a bygone age of triumphalist Anglo-Papalism. But it seemed entirely appropriate when it was remembered that all this was the inspiration for and the basis of an utterly committed, engaged pastoral ministry.  


In November 1992, a great throng of priests met at St Alphege’s, Solihull, to consider their response to the decision of the General Synod to permit the ordination of women. How long ago that now seems. One of the speakers was Geoffrey Rowell, then Fellow and Chaplain of Keble College, and a distinguished historian of the Oxford Movement. As he made his way to the microphone someone called out, “You can write the last chapter now, Geoffrey.” He went on to be Bishop of Basingstoke and then Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, and died in June this year.

His snide, mean-spirited obituary in the Daily Telegraph was unjust; but the funeral at Chichester Cathedral redressed the balance. The Requiem Mass was celebrated by Dr Warner: “Geoffrey would have loved this,” he said. A full Cathedral, ranks of priests, several bishops, a strong contingent of ecumenical representatives – Orthodox, RC and Ordinariate – former students and ordinands, and many friends were eloquent testament to the influence and breadth of his ministry. Lord Williams preached a searching and moving sermon, both personal and scholarly, which illuminated the life and personality, the mind and heart of the one for whom the Mass was offered.


Windsor Castle is a honey-pot for tourists. The Queen was in residence during Ascot Week, and some were fortunate to see her from windows in the State Apartments as she set out for the racecourse each day: 91 and still going strong. You queue a long time for tickets and the Audio Guide, but once inside there is no pressure on time. It is not unreasonable to anticipate seeing many treasures in a Royal Palace, but this surpassed expectations. The Waterloo Chamber alone was worth the (admittedly high) admission price. Portraits by Thomas Lawrence were familiar from countless reproductions in history books and elsewhere, but here were the originals: all saved from destruction in the fire of 1992, the annus horribilis of vivid memory. Wellington, Blücher, Canning, Castlereigh, George III, George IV, William IV and more; but that of Pius VII was the most captivating and impressive, and is widely regarded as Lawrence’s masterpiece.

Portrayed in the plenitude of his powers, spiritual and temporal, the Pope’s pallid face, wary expression, and eyes fixed beyond the frame more than hint at vulnerability and of the personal pain he endured during his Napoleonic captivity. Rubens, Van Dyck, and Breughel are all well-represented. Just as magnificent is Lutyens’ jeu d’esprit, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, which is beautifully presented. The fire destroyed St George’s Hall, but the restoration has been stunning beyond words. Young English Oak was used in the hammer-beam roof: medieval techniques were employed, so that the young wood has now settled and retains all its glory.


Lord David Cecil is not, I suspect, a name much known nowadays. He was a scion of the Salisburys, and for many years a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and Professor of English Literature in the University. An early telly-don, he appeared on “The Brains Trust” and various literary programmes. His defining characteristic was a rapid, quick-fire, lisping mode of talk. He was the antithesis of another literary critic, F. R. Leavis, of Downing College, Cambridge: a more rebarbative, controversial, dogmatic, and caustic figure.

Moral seriousness was at the heart of Leavis’s criticism, and few novelists escaped his strictures. D. H. Lawrence was one that did. In the long ago days when I studied English, two of my tutors were dedicated Leavisites and, like many disciples, were fiercer and more stringent than their principal. You had to worship Lawrence to be deemed worthy of consideration. I loathed Lawrence, both as a writer and a man; but I could not quite work out why that was.

Recently I picked up a book of reminiscences of Cecil, published after his death in 1985. In an excellent, affectionate article by the writer and critic Paul Binding I found the answer. Cecil had admired Lawrence’s poetry, but detested “his fascination with violence as a means of self-expression”, which made his fiction look something like crypto-Fascism. That is what I felt all those years ago, but had been incapable of articulating. I then remembered that one of my tutors had been given the forename “Duke”, because his father had been a great admirer of Mussolini. Suddenly it all made sense.