Considering a title for this essay, I rather facetiously suggested to my friend, Father Edward Tomlinson, who assisted me with many of the facts for the piece, that I should call it either “Newman’s bums” or “Sacred bottoms.” Father Tomlinson, a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, as am I, is the Pastor of Saint Anselm’s Church in Pembury, Kent, the county always known as the “Garden of England.”
Saint Anselm’s is a curious place. If one were being completely truthful (which is expected of a Christian), it is a rather ugly building—a hall which has been made into a church. Yet it is a church. Over the last few years, Father Edward, his eccentric and able curate, Father Nicholas, who is also a practicing lawyer, and the devout congregation have transformed the meeting hall into a Catholic church, and it actually looks like a church when you enter the building.
It also smells like a church. Incense lingers, partly because the roof is so low and partly because clergy and servers do not believe in Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” where incense is concerned. No need for a “hunt the tabernacle” competition. The celebrants are seated, correctly, to the side of the altar, and the Blessed Sacrament is the central focus of the church. Altar, statues, reredos, and other necessary items, including altar rails, have been “rescued” from antique shops, disused churches, and, in one instance, from the trash left outside an Anglican vicarage. A cruel friend of mine described it as a “collection of ecclesiastical junk,” and he should know junk—his house is like a clerical Aladdin’s cave. Saint Anselm’s is certainly an interestingly adorned cake, but it is possible to sense immediately that it is both a place of prayer and one of authentic worship.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The congregation is not wealthy; in fact, it can be described as a poor parish, but as in so many places the iconoclasm of the wealthy has never been a feature of poor, faithful souls. There seems to be an instinctive desire in those whom the Lord called “the little ones” that churches should look like places of prayer and, if possible, items used in the church should be the best. Saint John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, —a man who lived in abject poverty in his rectory—nevertheless traveled regularly to Lyons to buy the finest items for his parish church. It was Judas who objected to the “waste” of the pure nard used to anoint Our Lord after His feet had been bathed with tears. Judas, of course, was a thief. It is noteworthy that the pennies of the poor built the finest churches and cathedrals in the United States and England, and it is only now, when the population has become middle class and mediocre, that voices are raised about expenditure on the liturgy, usually by those with considerably more money than faith.
Although a diocesan parish, there is little doubt that the refurbishment of the ugly hall into the Church of Saint Anselm’s and the growth of the parish (it is attracting young families and is very multicultural) have been accomplished because the clergy are members of the Ordinariate. Described as a “movement of the Holy Spirit” by Pope Benedict XVI, the Ordinariate (there are three in the world) was established by the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus of Benedict XVI in 2009. This was to allow former Anglicans—clergy and laity—to come into the Catholic Church, bringing what Pope Benedict called the “precious gift” of the liturgical and pastoral tradition of the Anglican patrimony into the fullness of the Church. It is no secret that many bishops and clergy, particularly in England, were opposed to the creation of the Ordinariate. (It has been reported that in 2009 the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires told the local Anglican bishop that he disagreed with the concept; he now holds a higher office in the Church.) Perhaps the opposition comes from the fact that their liturgy is celebrated with solemnity and their preaching is of high quality, or because, as one priest told me, Ordinariate parishes are “little oases of orthodoxy.”
Yet Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, while preaching at the anniversary Mass for the creation of the Ordinariate last year, said that he hoped the Ordinariate would be at the forefront of the re-evangelization of England and that the “precious gift” it gives is a greater knowledge and devotion to the pre-Reformation saints and authentic English spirituality. This is a prophetic word, especially as incoherent, unhistorical, and illogical nonsense is often spouted about images and culture. Decades ago, when minds were calmer and clearer, Maisie Ward, Chesterton’s friend and biographer, wrote: “because Christianity is incarnational, it is universal, but because it is sacramental it is intensely local, found in each country in a special and unique fashion.”
This is precisely what is happening in Pembury and why the fourteen wooden pews which have just arrived in the church are so important. They are, in fact, the “local and sacramental” expressions of something unseen, namely, that English spirituality which will bring whatever revival of the Faith England can hope for, even if it is a smaller, purer Church.
In 1828, John Henry Newman, now Saint John Henry Newman, was appointed as the Anglican Vicar of the University Church in Oxford. He also had the care of the hamlet of Littlemore, some three miles from the center of Oxford. Littlemore had no church, so Newman set about building the parish of St. Mary and St. Nicholas. In 1844, Newman himself installed new wooden pews, which he had also designed, commissioned, and purchased. They are Newman’s pews. In a letter to his friend John Bowden, the future saint wrote, “we have got our new oak benches… and you cannot fancy what a great improvement it is.”
One year later, in Littlemore, Blessed Dominic Barberi received John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, and canonized by Pope Francis in Rome last year.
This year, as part of a “modernization project,” the Anglican Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas in Littlemore decided that the pews should be replaced by chairs. Fourteen of Saint John Henry Newman’s pews have been given to the faithful congregation at Saint Anselm’s in Pembury. They have started a “GoFund” to assist in the restoration and installation, as well as support the future of this important oasis of orthodoxy in the spiritual desert that is contemporary England.
T. S. Eliot wrote that “most people are only very little alive; and to awaken them to the spiritual is a very great responsibility.” Sitting on Newman’s pews might indeed make the posteriors of Pembury third class relics, amusing as that might be, but all that is being done there to reawaken English spirituality, intensely local and sacramental, if not actually starting Newman’s “Second Spring,” might possibly signal the first buds.
To help support Saint Anselm’s, Pembury, please visit their GoFundMe.