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Author of divine chronicles

by
30 July 2021

Kate Macdonald introduces Rose Macaulay’s account of an Anglican service in the 1930s

Church Times

IN 1935, the British novelist Rose Macaulay published a second collection of essays and journalism, Personal Pleasures. She had begun her journalistic career in the 1920s and had made herself a name for her wit, her intellectual curiosity, and her feminism. She was an Anglo-Catholic, yet had withdrawn herself from communion. Very few people knew that this was because she was in an adulterous relationship with a married man, which would not end until his death in 1942. But she continued going to church, and also attended other services for other denominations. In Personal Pleasures, she wrote four essays on “Church-Going”, describing her experiences at an Anglican church, a Roman Catholic service, a Unitarian service, and a Quaker meeting. Here she writes about an Anglican service.

 

HOW dignified, how stately, how elegant, with ranks of tapers wavering gold against a dim background, while boys’ voices lift the psalm Audite haec, omnes high above the pealing organ to the high embowed roof, to linger and wander there among ten thousand cells. Through the windows richly dight, slant crimson, violet, and deep blue rays of October evening sunshine; it touches the round heads and white surplices of little singing boys; it glints on the altar, dimming the tall, flickering flames, gleaming on the heads of thoughtful clergymen who listen to the quire’s chant. For he shall carry nothing away with him when he dieth: neither shall his pomp follow him. For while he lived he counted himself an happy man: and so long as thou doest well unto thyself, men will speak good of thee. He shall follow the generation of his fathers: and shall never see light. Man being in honour hath no understanding: but is compared unto the beasts that perish . . .

The soft and melancholy chant dies on a falling lilt. The clergy, quire, and people sit down in deep oak seats, all but the lector, who rustles to the lectern, adjusts his pince-nez, and says gently, “Here beginneth the first verse of the sixth chapter of the Book of Micah. Hear ye now what the Lord saith: Arise, contend thou before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice. . .”

The musical Eton-and-Cambridge monotone, just not parsonically pitched, strolls on, relating the Lord’s controversy in the mountains with his people. I turn the pages of my Prayer Book, read the charming rubrics; read the Preface, of 1662, so gentlemanlike, so suavely urbane. It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her Publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes. . .

And then, Of Ceremonies, why some be abolished and some retained. . . And moreover, they be neither dark nor dumb ceremonies, but are so set forth, that every man may understand what they do mean, and to what use they do serve. . . And in these our doings we condemn no other Nations, nor prescribe anything but to our own people only: For we think it convenient that every Country should use such Ceremonies as they shall think best to the setting forth of God’s honour and glory, and to the reducing of the people to a most perfect and godly living. . .

 

MEANWHILE, the Eton-and-Cambridge voice is gently putting searching inquiries, becoming reluctantly menacing. Are there yet, it asks, the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is abominable? Shall I count them pure with the wicked balances, and with the bag of deceitful weights?. . . Therefore also will I make thee sick in smiting thee, in making thee desolate because of thy sins. Thou shalt eat, but not be satisfied

. . . Thou shalt sow, but thou shalt not reap; thou shalt tread the olives, but thou shalt not anoint thee with oil, and sweet wine, but shalt not drink wine. . . That I should make thee a desolation, and the inhabitants thereof a hissing. . .

It has grown too violent, this mountain controversy. Here endeth the first Lesson, and so to the Magnificat. One feels that it was time.

These violent Hebrews: they break in strangely, with hot Eastern declamation and gesture, into our tranquil Anglican service, our so ordered and so decent Common Prayer. A desolation and a hissing: those are not threats that our kindly clergy like to quote, even against those of their flock who have abominable scant measures and wicked balances. Milton railed against “the oppressions of a simonious, decimating clergy”, but, though they cannot help (since they must live) being decimating, they are no longer so simonious, and are a kindly race.

 

AS TO these services, which they long since so gracefully adapted, so fitly, beautifully, and ceremoniously translated and assembled, they are — as Sir John Suckling pointed out three centuries ago — fit for the attendance of even the fastidious Cato, who was disgusted by those of his own age and country. “Then,” complained the shocked Sir John, “the Ceremonies of Liber Pater and Ceres, how obscene! and those Days which were set apart for the Honour of the Gods, celebrated with such shews as Cato himself was ashamed to be present at. On the contrary, our Services are such, as not only Cato, but God himself may be there.”

Or so, at least, we hope. No doubt the Romans hoped too that Liber Pater and Ceres were present with them at worship, and that their lectisternia were enjoyed by the reclining and feasting deities. Be that as it may, and whatever the gods may think of it (and one must endeavour not to fall into arrogance in this matter of divine attendance at our worship), for my part I greatly admire and enjoy the Anglican order.

Though of course there is, from time to time, a sermon. . . But it seems that this cannot, in any Church, be helped.


Kate Macdonald is the editor of
Rose Macaulay, Gender and Modernity (Routledge 2018), and the publisher at Handheld Press, who will be publishing a new edition of Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life on 10 August at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70).

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