Friday, 1 August 2014


Anglo-Catholic Congress 1922
As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is heralded in the media, I find myself pondering the bravery and near foolhardiness of the men who went to the Front, and the rhetoric of those who sent them there. Radio 3 has broadcast some fascinating stories about the use and abuse of the arts in the War, and indeed the almost bloodthirsty nationalism of some of their artists. Schoenberg and Ravel, for instance, glorified the War until they actually encountered it, which rather altered their perspectives. Even Stravinsky lost his appetite for the strident avant-garde of his youth, and after the War returned for some time to a more steady, even nostalgic, classicism.
The same was true of religion. The distinction between those clergy who stayed at home whilst preaching the virtues of just war, encouraging young lads off to their graves, and those who went out with them to minister to them, is particularly on my mind, since I have recently been commissioned as Chaplain to the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Army Cadet Force. Many of those boys would have been no older than the girls and boys I will minister to in the coming years.
Those priests who joined them (179 of whom were killed in action) began to see their religion with rather different eyes from those who stayed behind, and so did much of the civilian population at home. Many of the clergy at home continued to preach the old Protestant prejudices against praying for the dead, frequent Communion, the use of candles, incense and ritual; but in the face of the spiritual needs of those who fought, and those who mourned, this all seemed dry and sophistic.
Before the War, it had been downright unrespectable to be an Anglo-Catholic: some priests were arrested and imprisoned just for having candles or a cross on the altar, and the Army's Chaplain General at the beginning of the War was highly suspicious of Anglo-Catholic clergy. By the end, though, it was their heartier and older religion which took seriously the theological doubts and spiritual needs of a devasted nation. Anglican congregations throughout the land began openly to celebrate Requiem Masses, and for the first time in centuries English composers, such as Benjamin Britten, wrote new settings for the rite.
The 1920s were the heyday of Anglo-Catholicism, and while that fire has sadly somewhat abated, much of what we take for granted in our cathedrals and even quite middle-of-the-road churches -  such as seasonal colours and vestments, candles, crosses, Home Communion, and weekly Eucharists - was the direct result of that awful war. The relatively new languages of modern art and music, Reformed religion and analytic philosophy ushered in the new world order of the twentieth century, to be sure; but for all their confidence could not express the depth of human emotion needed to live through that order. For that, the English people needed a return to older ways. Some might say we need them still.

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