Thursday, 1 March 2012

Dewi Sant, Canon Ursell and a Debt to Wales

What could the debt be, that someone of Scottish origin, living in England, could owe to the traditions of the Welsh church and indirectly to the saint whose feast we mark today, St David?  Very simply, my journey into Anglo-Catholicism and from there ultimately into the full communion of the Catholic Church included what one might call a detour into a sphere influenced by the history, if not even then the reality, of the Church in Wales. 

Arriving as an undergraduate at Oxford, I found myself at Pusey House on my first Sunday morning (hence Betjeman's Summoned by Bell having made at least one appearance on this blog before).  Despite having attended Mass occasionally with my Catholic grandmother, I had never seen anything quite like the way in which Pusey House's liturgy was presented.  I rather liked it, and kept coming back, week by week, for the next few years. 

What worked so well on someone to whom that tradition was essentially alien, was that there was liturgical dignity and correctness but no fussiness, uncompromising clarity of catholic teaching but no bombast, friendliness and community without cliques and exclusivity.  It just worked.  It offered a way in to something that an outsider could happily take, the "target audience" if you like was the general population of the University of Oxford with an interest in Christianity, there was no sense of Pusey House being only for committed Anglo-Catholics, although of course those who came in the door often emerged as such.

That approach was down to the Principal in those days, Canon Philip Ursell, then as now the Warden of Ascot Priory.  Canon Ursell had studied and trained in both England and Wales, and served as a curate in Canon Freddy Hood's old parish in Porthcawl, before becoming a University Chaplain at Cardiff and then Chaplain at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

His view was that you could catch the interest of more people if you neither vaunted, but nor indeed hid, some of the more "full throttle" expressions of Anglo-Catholicism, but you let it be known that they were there, and encouraged people to find them in their own time.  For example, the Angelus was said after the Sunday High Mass ended, but only by the clergy and servers in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel : the congregation, listening to the organ voluntary, would be aware only of the sound of distant prayers from the other side of the rood screen. 

Another example : Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was given only twice a year, once at Corpus Christi (from the rood screen indeed), and once at the end of the academic year, following an outdoor procession through the grounds of Ascot Priory.  By the way, the General Thanksgiving, now so much loved and used by the Ordinariate (including at the recent Solemn Evensong, Procession and Benediction at St James's, and even more recently at St Peter's Basilica in Rome), was the prayer at Benediction on those occasions.

The Sacred Triduum was observed, but at Ascot Priory, and with a guest list made up of those of the congregation who would benefit from that most.  Many a new Anglo-Catholic's first confession was made on such occasions.

This confident strategy was born of the same approach that was behind some of the anecdotes of those days, a confidence in some of the Church in Wales of those days, as in some of the Church of England at that time, that it and no other was the Catholic Church in this land.  The Principal told the story of his first Vicar, who in discussion with a young "spike" was challenged as to why he no longer genuflected during the Et Incarnatus :
"By what authority have you stopped genuflecting, Father?"

"The same authority by which you started genuflecting."
Sitting where we sit now, of course, it seems slightly uncomfortable to acknowledge the anecdotes that "converts" from the Catholic Church might very well have been formally "received" upon their arrival in the Church in Wales or the Church of England in those times.  However, that is merely an outward sign of the genuine and sincere belief (whether we agree with it or not, in the context of then or now) that those bodies represented, at least in "sound parishes", the Catholic Church in this Land.

It's all rather different now, of course.  Reports (such as here on Ancient Briton, and here on All Gas and Gaiters) following the untimely death of the Revd Jeremy Winston make that painfully clear.

Let's not be despondent though.  St David's Day has been the perfect opportunity for the Ordinariate to announce the launching of three Ordinariate Exploration Groups in Wales: Cardiff, Swansea and Abergavenny.  There are signs of hope that this wonderful Anglo-Catholic tradition will find itself a new home in which it will be cherished, valued and nurtured.

I owe a lot to that tradition, and see much of it in the Ordinariate.  We must all give thanks for that Anglican Patrimony which Pope Benedict has invited us to bring with us into the Catholic Church.

To conclude, video footage of the Holy Father's visit to Westminster Cathedral in September 2010.  As he processed out, to the joyous accompaniment of Bruckner's Ecce Sacerdos Magnus, he stopped to pray at the new shrine to St David.  The smiles of the congregation just before he arrives at the shrine are very moving, felicitously occurring at the high point of the fortissimo in the setting of the word Deo as the tenor part soars above the others.

St David, pray for us.

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