THE lockdown has sharpened a few Anglican claws, but nothing that I have seen so far is in the same class as a mocking poem that G. K. Chesterton produced in his pre-Roman days.
If I say that an English priest in the Marches with “lots of Welsh blood in him” reminded me of it to mark the Church in Wales centenary, many of our readers will guess which it is: “Antichrist, or the Reunion of Christendom: An Ode”.
An opponent of the Bill for Welsh disestablishment, the Conservative politician F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, had described the Bill as having “shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe”.
As my correspondent, the Revd Andrew Body writes, “It was this which provoked Chesterton’s wonderful response.” The poem reads:
Are they clinging to their crosses,
F. E. Smith,
Where the Breton boat-fleet tosses,
Are they, Smith?
Do they, fasting, trembling, bleeding,
Wait the news from this our city?
Groaning “That’s the Second Reading!”
Hissing “There is still Committee!’
If the voice of Cecil falters,
If McKenna’s point has pith,
Do they tremble for their altars?
Do they, Smith?
Russian peasants round their pope
Hear about it all, I hope,
Don’t they, Smith?
In the mountain hamlets clothing
Peaks beyond Caucasian pales,
Where Establishment means nothing
And they never heard of Wales,
Do they read it all in Hansard
With a crib to read it with --
“Welsh Tithes: Dr Clifford Answered.”
In the lands where Christians were,
In the little lands laid bare,
Smith, O Smith!
Where the Turkish bands are busy
And the Tory name is blessed
Since they hailed the Cross of Dizzy
On the banners from the West!
Men don’t think it half so hard if
Islam burns their kin and kith,
Since a curate lives in Cardiff
Saved by Smith.
It would greatly, I must own,
Soothe me, Smith!
If you left this theme alone,
For your legal cause or civil
You fight well and get your fee;
For your God or dream or devil
You will answer, not to me.
Talk about the pews and steeples
And the Cash that goes therewith!
But the souls of Christian peoples . .
Chuck it, Smith!
A reckless player
WHILE Lord Hugh Cecil, Reginald McKenna, and Dr John Clifford are regular cast-members in the Church Times of the early 20th century, I had never troubled to find out more about Chesterton’s target.
“Smith was of course capable not only of hyperbole, but studied rudeness,” Mr Body writes. “In response to a judge saying ‘You are extremely offensive, young man,’ he replied: ‘As a matter of fact we both are: the only difference between us is that I am trying to be, and you can’t help it.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that the devout RC writer Maisie Ward, in her authorised life of Chesterton (which is the only one to hand in my inner-suburban fastness), makes no mention of the “Antichrist” poem, though she does indicate that the background was Chesterton’s disillusionment with politicians after the Marconi scandal and the ensuing criminal-libel case in which Smith was involved in the prosecution of Chesterton’s brother Cecil.
Birkenhead, who became Lord Chancellor, made it to 58 before his liver packed up on him. The Church Times had shared his antipathy towards the disestablishers, but, after his death in 1930, felt obliged to be frank about an apparent ally. “Lord Birkenhead always played recklessly with life. And in the end he lost.” His philosophy had been that self-interest “must be and ought to be the mainspring of conduct”, and — non nisi bonum notwithstanding — no good ever came of that.
The Revd David W. BondWE HEAR so much about “live-streaming” that it’s vital to correct any false impression that this is all that the clergy are doing (apart from such other duties as are permitted) in these interesting times.
Canon David Nichol, of Stourbridge, for example, is using a Paper Pot Maker that he was given to turn old newsprint into plant pots to grow seedlings in. He has discovered that our newsprint is “much more robust than that used by The Guardian”. The Church Times is being recycled to help get the garden growing, “something we are all urged to do whilst keeping our social distance”.
More demanding, since it involves “crawling along the loft floor with your 150mm-diameter-core drilling bit, drilling a hole through the gable end wall”, is the Revd David W. Bond’s chosen pastime.
An NSM Curate (his term) in South Hetton, Durham, he is an “ex-ventilation engineer with British Coal”. So he has been installing a ducted ventilation system for the bathroom. It is the sort of activity for which a double-breasted Sarum cassock, evocative of the priest tilling his glebe, is clearly adaptable.
He also mentions: “While the coronavirus pandemic is a dreadful time for all, I am pleased to report that lay members of the congregation are taking an active role in broadcasting a weekly service to maintain the spiritual presence in our lives. The elderly are being cared for, and members make frequent telephone calls to all on the electoral roll.”
The Revd Sabine Tenge-Heslop, a third-year SSM curate (her term: see how careful I am), and her husband, Bill, who is now retired after 38 years in the diocesan office, have embarked on a ministry of litter-picking. “We don our high-vis vests, grab the litter-pickers and the blue bags kindly provided by Durham County Council, put on gloves, and go along the roads in our neighbourhood.”
Bill Heslop and the Revd Sabine Tenge-Heslop
They have collected stupendous amounts of litter, aluminium cans, and glass bottles, and reported fly-tips, which were “swiftly removed by the County Council”.
Mrs Tenge-Heslop hums Graham Kendrick’s “Servant King” while she goes about doing good, and proposes it to all as “a sacramental and meditative activity. . . There is enough litter out there for all of us.”
IN THE hope of not joining the choir invisible yet, I have been taking most of my exercise, though hardly enough, when it’s not too busy outside, enjoying not only the famous open spaces within walking distance in south London, but also the Zen delights of row upon row of Victorian villas, now mostly too posh to have net curtains, but bedecked with children’s rainbows.
One evening, venturing through deserted streets to Northcote Road, Battersea, I noticed that the Baptist church had left the lights on in its Gothic tower, so that the stained glass — coloured squares, nothing superstitious — shone like a beacon of hope.
It cheered me, anyway, as I noticed that the sheet-music shop had gone and that the branch librarian felt it necessary to state that no valuables (the Book of Kells, perhaps?) were kept in the building.
In a side street dotted with niche businesses, doing their best to weather the storm, a specialist in themed children’s treats had posted the following message on its door: “The fairies are going to miss your happy, smiley faces . . . for now. We want to help keep you humans safe and it’s going to take more than fairy magic, although our fairies are trying their best!”
No one can say that we aren’t all in it together.