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Glimpses of English Christianity 50 years ago

22 July 2016

Fifty years ago today I had some interesting glimpses into the varieties of English Christianity. First I was invited to, and attended a garden party of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. The Archbishop was the Most Revd Dr Michael Ramsey, and the garden party was for representatives of “the church overseas”, which consisted of Church of England missionaries serving overseas who happened to be home, and members of Anglican churches elsewhere who happened to be in England.

Lambeth Palace, official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 22 July 1966

Lambeth Palace, official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 22 July 1966

I had been in England for six months, having arrived in January 1966, and was working as a bus driver for London Transport while waiting for the new academic year to begin, when I would attend St Chad’s College in Durham for postgraduate studies in theology. So I got an invitation and after work I went to Lambeth Palace to meet the Archbishop of
Canterbury – the Archbishop’s reception of missionaries and overseas visitors, so the card said. I turned up at the gate at
3:00 pm, and joined the queue in the courtyard, all waiting to shake hands with the Archbishop. It was bright and sunny after three days of rain. Everyone had little coloured cards to show what part of the world they came from. The Archplus, on shaking hands, said “How dyoo doo?”, and Mrs Plus, standing next to him, repeated the shibboleth.[1] It is apparently a rhetorical question, like the laity’s “Ow you orrite?” — no answer is expected. I wrote in my diary

It sent tingles down my spine to hear the way they said it; it sounded out of this world and untrue. Narnia and Hobbitland and Jorn of Jorna have far more credibility. On shaking hands with the archplus,  we passed into the library, which was filled with a milling throng all having tea.

Feeling isolated and overwhelmed, I crept into a narrow space between the bookshelves and a display cabinet, where I could observe from a relatively safe vantage point. I looked to see who was next to me — a short black man from Malawi. I tried an experimental smile, and he said “Hello”, and thus we got talking, and I found that he lives practically next door to Biddy Bailey, and was a lay reader in the church she goes to.[2]

A little later I was button-holed by a couple of nuns from Wantage, and so had to confess to them that I had at one time been a server at St Mary’s School in Waverley and that I knew Father Comber and all.[3] Then a little later saw Fr Neil Bliss, the man who was at Piet Retief when we were there in September. He does not appear to like Piet Retief, and is a very strange sort of bloke. Then I saw Desmond Tutu, and finally Father Sweet, and hung around with him and Mrs Sweet the rest of the time I was there.[4]

We wandered around the archbishop’s dwelling, with Mervyn Sweet making irreverent remarks about the palace and its furnishings. He wanted to remove a table which he thought would be suitable as a nave altar, and then one of the crosses (of which there were many), from archplus Michael’s private chapel, remarking “I suppose even archbishops pray.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury's Garden Party for the reception of missionaries and overseas visitors, 22 July 1966

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Garden Party for the reception of missionaries and overseas visitors, 22 July 1966

We then wandered round the garden taking photographs, and then there was Evensong and a commendation of  missionaries in the archbishop’s private chapel. We went in late, and sat in the front row, right underneath the pulpit, and the archbishop when he preached looked and sounded excruciatingly funny, being exactly after the image of a caricature
clergyman, looking as if he were about to burst into tears at any minute, and saying his piece in a lilting sing-song clerical voice. What he had to say wasn’t too bad, however, and nor were some of the prayers he said —  praying for peace  in Vietnam, for example.

Revd Mervyn Sweet, former Vicar of St Alphege's Church, Pietermaritzburg, 22 July 1966

Revd Mervyn Sweet, former Vicar of St Alphege’s Church, Pietermaritzburg, 22 July 1966

Afterwards we met briefly an English priest who was shortly going to Cape Town, and then had a look at the immersion font, which had a text about resurrection carved around it. Mervyn Sweet was ecstatic that there was someone in the church who had a theology of baptism, instead of putting in stupid texts about “suffer the little children to come unto me” or pictures of John the Baptist baptising Jesus.

I walked with them over to where they had parked their car, and they said they were going to Merstham in Surrey for their holidays, and said I should go and see them there. After they left I saw Desmond and Leah Tutu again, and we had more time to chat. Their daughter, aged about 2 or 3, was with them, and they said she was called Pussy, and only answered to that, and not to her real name. He said he was assistant priest in a rather posh parish in Bletchingly, and had landed with his bum in the butter. The people in the parish were very kind to him.

Joan Sweet, Lambeth Palace, 22 July 1966

Joan Sweet, Lambeth Palace, 22 July 1966

I went to Leicester Square and had supper at an Indian restaurant there. English cooking was horrible back then and so I often ate in Indian, Chinese or Italian restaurants. But English cooking has since improved, perhaps as a result of so many foodie TV shows with their celebrity chefs.

After supper I made my way to Chalk Farm to a gathering of the Christian Committee of 100. It sounds impressive, but in fact there were only three of us — Peggie Denny, Peggy Smith and me.[5] We were planning a march to the American Embassy to protest against the war in Vietnam, It was in marked contrast with the garden party at Lambeth Palace that afternoon, whose opulent surroundings spoke of wealth and power, and the three of us gathered in a humble flat. Christianity in Britain had many different faces. We decided not to call it a march, but rather a procession, and designed leaflets to hand out to people in the streets as we went, to explain about the Vietnam War, and why Christians should not support it.

_______

Notes

[1] I am not sure if it is still the custom, but back then Anglican bishops used to sign letters and other documents with a + in front of their names, and I seem to recall that archbishops used two. So the Anglican Bishop of Natal (where I came from), Vernon Inman, would sign his name +Vernon Natal and was usually referred to as “Plus Vernon”. I think the Archbishop of Canterbury signed his name as ++Michael Cantuar, but I didn’t keep the invitation card, so can’t be sure of that.

[2] Bridget Bailey was a friend and fellow student from the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. She had graduated in botany and zoology in 1965 and got a job in Malawi. Exactly 10 years after the garden party (ie 40 years ago today) we were on holiday, and stayed with Bridget Bailey’s mother in Bloemfontein.

[3]  The Community of St Mary the Virgin (CSMV) sisters had their mother house at Wantage in Oxfordshire, and also ran a girls school in the nearby town of Abingdon in Berkshire, where the school chaplain was the Revd Thomas Comber. The CSMV sisters also ran some schools and other institutions in South Africa, including St Mary’s School for Girls in Waverley, Johannesburg. Fr Tom Comber had been Anglican chaplain at Wits University and St Mary’s School, and recruited some of the male students as altar servers for the school chapel, where services were held on Sundays for the nuns and the boarders. Two of the girls, dressed in albs, acted as acolytes, carrying candles, but only boys were allowed to enter the sanctuary with the priest in Anglican churches those days.

[4] I was rather relieved to see some people that I knew. Desmond Tutu, who later became Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, I had known as a student at St Peter’s College in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, a few years earlier. The Revd Mervyn Sweet, like Tom Comber, had been a university chaplain in Pietermaritzburg until the end of 1964, and also parish priest at St Alphege’s Church in Scottsville, where the university campus was.

[5] The Committee of 100 was a more radical arm of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) which favoured non-violent direct action. Though it included Christian members, many of its leaders were prominent secularists, like Bertrand Russell, and there were frequent arguments about aims and methods, particularly over whether non-violence was a principle or merely a tactic. The Christian Committee of 100 was formed by Christian pacifists of various denominations with similar aims, though with a more Christian focus.

 

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