Thaxted ChurchA Vision of the Church

Conrad Noel's "A picture of the Church in the Great State", in Socialism and the Great State; essays in construction, edited by H. G. Wells. New York and London, Harpers, 1912.


Invited to contribute an essay on religion and the "Great State" to Wells' collection, Conrad Noel instead chose to provide an imaginative description of a visit to a cathedral "in the year 2000 or so" (he was ever the optimist!) Not surprisingly, the Cathedral bore a remarkable resemblance to what Thaxted parish church and its liturgical life would become during Noel's thirty-some years as Vicar. Although sometimes expressed in terms influenced by the Roman Catholic "modernists" of his time he made no bones in the essay about his Anglo-Catholic convictions. The latter drew from the editor a rather grumbling footnote which concluded, "It is his personal forecast, from his individual standpoint as a priest of the Church of England; but many will agree with his spirit who do will not approve either of his doctrine or of his ornaments." - - Ted M.
At last I came upon the Cathedral, as we must now call it, for every group of parishes has its bishop who is in more than name a "father in God" to his priests and people, and not, as too often in the past, a feeble person remotely overlording a vast area and following instead of forming public opinion, his mind a tangle of concessions and his days a round of trivialities. The people themselves are nowadays consulted in the election of the clergy, a custom which recalls the choice of Ambrose to the Archbishopric of Milan by acclamation of men and women, even little children, and replaces the intrigue and secrecy of the past. Many "Congregationalists" welcomed the change, and now exist within the Church as a guild, with particular methods and a standpoint of their own. But although there still remain certain small and independent coteries of the pious -- and perhaps not illogically, for their forefathers became separatists from the Unity of Christendom not so much in protest against the private patron as in championship of the private congregation, holding no brief for the common people, but only for the "people of God" -- modern sectarianism has lost point and vitality, for the people believe that the Church is an army for the quickening and confirming of a Kingdom of Righteousness, and that through the comradeship of arms men and women attain a gracious and eternal personality.

To the majority the idea of "free" and competing churches has therefore become meaningless, and is only upheld by the sects themselves on the assumption that Christ did not found a Fellowship, but a number of sky-seeking cliques or comfortable "homes of the spirit." which do business as drug stores and insurance companies for a restricted clientele.

Within the Church itself, however, there exists a great variety of ideas and a greater variety of worship. There are to be found within its organization many companies whose members before the great changes had been dissenters; each has its own shrine or oratory, and emphasizes some one or other aspect of truth, but without breaking away in thought or emotion (heresy) or in organization (schism) from the bond and proportion of the Catholic Religion. In the Cathedral, for instance, there is an oratory dedicated to Wisdom, containing a library of books, where people come for study and contemplation; no public service is held here, but it is the favourite meeting-place for a Guild of the Friends, who use it for purposes of silent adoration. Angel

The common worship of the Church is elaborate, for it is the people's tribute to the supreme Ritualist who is making a rich and complex and visible world with its pageantry of days and nights, and of the varying seasons. But to many of the guilds the ceremonial worship makes no special appeal. They are present at it as an act of Fellowship from time to time, but find their particular satisfaction in simpler exercises of the spirit, in which, indeed, the whole people frequently join.

As to the position and temporalities of the Church, a controversy is raging. I hear that only last week a passionate appeal against Establishment was made from the pulpit of the Cathedral by one of the younger canons. The Church had been disestablished, and to some extent disendowed for many years, and at the present time the churches are maintained and the Clergy supported in different ways. In some parishes the priests work "productively" for an hour or so every day, giving their ministry freely. In others they are supported by a voluntary levy. In others again some small endowment exists. Now, a great number of people, including some of the most lively and public-spirited, are in favour of complete establishment and uniform State endowment; but the preacher of last week, who voiced a vigorous minority, had passionately warned the people against the proposed official union. The price of just government was alert criticism and eternal vigilance, and this criticism had hitherto been encouraged by a vigorously independent Church. I have no notion how this particular controversy will be settled, but it seems possible for people to hold opposite convictions on the subject of temporalities, and, indeed, on many others, without breaking the bond of Christendom.

The Cathedral Church of All Saints was the old Tudor structure of my childhood, but where was the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings? For there had been added a new Chapel towards the east, a Council-room to the north, and I noticed innumerable other alterations, each showing decision and individuality. These acts of "Vandalism" are defended by the present architects, who point to the audacities of style in successive periods of the Middle Ages, a daring clash of individualities and a supreme harmony. It was as if a Great People, in regaining some secret spring of life, had fulfilled the Unities by becoming as unconscious of them as an athlete is unconscious of a good digestion.

The old niches had their saints restored to them, and many new shrines were peopled with a strange medley of figures: St. Catherine of Siena, and her namesake of Egypt; the Blessed Thomas More and John Ball, of St. Alban's; St. Joan of Arc; the Blessed John Damian, and hundreds more, many of them unknown to me, but likely enough images of martyrs who had fallen in some recent struggle - - artists, artisans, poets, priests, and statesmen. The inclusion among these shrines of pre-Christian and non-Christian heroes seemed to me extraordinary, but the principle of this People is to accent the vitalities of tradition and let the rest go; I was reminded that one of their greatest theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, had woven Aristotle into the Catholic fabric, and that St. Augustine had claimed Plato as a Christian, and that the Catholic Church had baptised images, temples, ceremonial, gods and goddesses, into Christ, laying the whole world under contribution in the building of a Universal Faith, and adoring an everywhere present God from whom all good things come. Even the very Christmas trees, with their gleaming tapers and gaudy colours, which decorated the aisles, reminded one that the peculiarly Christian Feast of December was pagan in origin. Inclusiveness with them springs from no mere toleration born of indifference; but from an adoration of that one Spirit who has not left Himself without witness in any corner of the earth. They borrow freely and absorb into their oen religion elements the most distant and varying; and the more they borrow, the more uniaue does this religion become.

The old gargoyles remain untouched, and new monstrosities leer down upon the passers-by. Among them are the faces of pharisees and sweaters of a past regime. So vividly do certain encrustations of the structure record the struggles of a darker century that they seem like some furious battle suddenly arrested and turned to stone.

The principal porch was draped in deep-rose velvet girdled with golden cords, and against the rosy background stood dark branches of yew in wooden tubs. On entering the carved doors, I was at once impressed with a sense of warmth and incense and worship. One could not imagine such a building deserted; it was surely the temple of a perpetual adoration. Everywhere were chapels and pictures and shrines, gay with flowers and glittering tapers pointing like spears towards the vast roof. Fixed by small black chains to the benches and the base of some of the images were prayers framed in carved wood with wooden handles. In one such frame was shrined the saying: "I give nothing as duties. What others give as duties, I give as living impulses. Shall I give the heart's action as a duty?"

Many are attracted to the Chapel of "Our Lord of Health." Round its walls are pictured scenes of healing from the Gospels and the lives of the saints, and from the Annals of "secular" medicine. Crutches and other memorials of past feebleness adorned its pillars as trophies of divine healing. A guild for the preservation and spread of health meets here, and its members include doctors' and nurses and healers of every kind.

The Chapel of Santa Claus is the largest in the building, and belongs entirely to the children, who have this Christmas-tide decorated it with artificial flowers made by themselves and with sprigs of holly and laurel. The altar was hidden behind a Bethlehem crib roofed with yellow thatch and lighted with a hundred candles. Here is held the daily service of the Catechism, the children choosing their monitors, and even having some say in arranging the details of their worship. They are encouraged to think for themselves, and as much praise is given for a question well put as for a question well answered.

In my wanderings around the Cathedral I came upon a certain oratory with many kneeling figures rapt in prayer, penitents awaiting their turn to make confession; for the new People is intensely practical, and their religion is not merely an affair between the private soul and the private God, but between the individual and a God-penetrated Society and its minister. They believe that Man has not only power on earth to commit sin, but power on earth to forgive sin, and they glorify God Who has" given such power unto men." They think in terms of fellowship: goodness is that which helps; evil is that which injures the community. The most secret vice by decreasing or deflecting the energies of service is a sin against the whole family of God, and requires the forgiveness not only of God, but of man. In an anti-social age everything from religion to business had become distorted, neurotic,excessively introspective, but now the sacraments were again the witnesses and effectual signs of social grace. The people generally has regained a robust conscience, genuinely sorry for its stupidities, its cruelties, and its egomanias; but ready to make a clean breast of them and shake them off. Religion nowadays is more deeply rooted in the eternal realities of human nature than ever before, and has inspired people with the paradox of humility and audacity which one sees in adventurous lovers and all who drink deep of the fountains of life. They feel the things eternal underlying the things temporal, and are in close converse not with a Jesus and Saints of a dead past, but with a Jesus and Saints who, by their heroic struggle as recorded in the past, have won to that heaven which is close at hand. Far from denying a future beyond death, they hope for it, and already by their friendship with those who have passed through its gate live in "the rapture of the forward view." They laugh good-humouredly at the sick people of the twentieth century who blamed the Church of their day for not lusting for life, and themselves were so little in love with it that they rejoiced at the prospect of annihilation. But when convalescence came, there came back with it the lust of everlasting life. To work for the good of the race is excellent enough, but the work will gain in vigour and enthusiasm when it is no longer the service of a race of summer flies who are to perish in a few moments, but devotion to enduring human beings with the infinite possibilities of infinite worlds.

AngelHad this People developed a new ethical sense, or to what extent are they merely reverting to an earlier standpoint for a time engulfed in the abysses of Christo-Commercialism? Two or three things stand out clearly: they worship no barren and abstract deity called Morality; morality was made for man, not man for morality. They love and worship people, and not principles; their religion is the intimacy and fellowship of friends; their casuistry springs from the fount of worship.

Their teaching of the children is firm and simple, and meets with swift response, for it rings true to some natural grace in childhood, which is always present in some degree or other, however deflected or overlaid or intermixed with alien elements. It was through my presence at the daily "Catechism" that I began to see that they are convinced of the fundamental soundness of human nature and of the divinity of every human birth. Centuries back this conviction had been acknowledged as an essential doctrine of the Christian Church, after the long battle between Apol1inarius and S. S. Hilary and Athanasius. And for all this, they do not minimise the distortions of mind and soul. Evil and grace are both acknowledged, but the generosities of grace are suggested as natural to man, and evil is regarded as the inhuman interloper. This is well illustrated in their use of the word "lust," which has recovered its original significance of the natural bodily desires, hunger, thirst, sex attraction, energy, rest, recreation. Lusts are dark and distorted only when uncontrolled and indulged to the injury of the community or the self; hunger becomes gluttony; thirst becomes drunkenness, and physical desire unchastity. In this connection they tell the old story of the shipwrecked swimmer encumbered by his sack of gold, asking if the drowning man owned the gold or the gold owned him. The Church rejects the doctrine which would treat the gold, or the hunger, or the sex need as inherently evil, and children are thus taught to distinguish between the use and abuse of those natural desires which are, in fact, believed to have in them some positive element of goodness. The physical appetites are likened to high-spirited horses, valued for their very lustiness: the business of the driver is not to destroy, but to control them, and this is also the business of life's charioteers. The Church has thus reverted to and is now developing a healthy and more adventurous element in its tradition. Complete suppression of some one or other desire is counselled in exceptional cases, and such a policy is illustrated from the anti-Oriental standpoint of the New Testament. This essential but exceptional abstinence is believed to have its attendant danger, because the converted sensualist may invite into the temple of his soul seven other demons more deadly than the first, for drink has slain its thousands, but pharisaism its tens of thousands. The puritan convert too often devoted the remainder of a maimed life to preaching the gospel of dismemberment among the sound and healthy. The leader in so un-catholic a crusade should surely have been the fox of the fable who, wisely exchanging a tail for a life, is forever counselling total abstinence from tails as the duty of all members of his magnificent species. The present casuistry does not discount the discipline of pain; but no road is either to be chosen or avoided for its painfulness, the way of the cross being sacred, not because of its difficulties, but because of its purpose. Neither pain nor pleasure is regarded as an end in itself, and it is pointed out that the Christ said of Himself not, I am come that they might have I pleasure, nor, I am come that they might have pain, but "1 am come that they might have life." They often quote the story of the artist whose soul's desire was to paint a joyous picture and bequeath it to posterity. But he lived in a Calvinist city, and the government threatened him with crucifixion if he dared to paint it. If there be any other way out, the artist will take it, and he cries: "If it be possible let this cup pass from me"; but he cannot play the traitor to that joy within him, which he is to scatter among men, and for its sake he is content to go the way of the cross; and the blood of the martyr becomes the seed of the Church.

Deliberate effort towards fulness of life is counted praiseworthy and necessary, for the convalescent must take his exercise, however painful and ungainly the effort may be, though this very ungainliness should remind him that he is still in some measure under the dominion of disease. When eventually the convalescent soul by conscious effort has regained health, actions spring spontaneously from a rich and genial human nature, and he understands the meaning of the light burden and the easy yoke.

This naturalness and spontaneity they see in the saviours of men, but everything they think and feel about the saviours, they think and feel as a possibility for themselves. Jesus Christ seems to them more human than humankind; so they call Him divine. He is supposed to hold the key of an over-mastering (eternal) life which is to be the heritage of men as they emerge from the half-formed, malformed sub-human life with which they are often enough content, and become Man. They speak of Jesus Christ as the first fruits of the human harvest, and as the first-born from the dead.

There was a good deal of controversy in twentieth century about the "finality" of Jesus; but this doctrine is no longer obtruded, possibly not even believed, not at least in the paralysing sense of past centuries. They do not separate him from mankind, or from the heroes of men; it is men who, by their lack of life, separate themselves from Man.

They feel that the life of Christ, as contained even in their written fragments, is baffiing in its many-sidedness, its richness, and its ferocity, its geniality and its austerity, its tenderness and its audacity; but rather is it His life as a present God illustrated in that localised and limited life of the past, which is adored. The orthodox theologians, both past and present, have not expected to find everything in the written pages, but look for the extension of a life once manifest in Galilee in the subsequent lives of the family of mankind. They look to the life of the good time coming, the life of the golden age, "the world to come." Some writers have spoken of this consummation as "The Second Coming." They point to certain sayings in the scriptures as containing in germ the later doctrine of the Catholic Church on these points of faith. They do not pretend to find in the written gospels of the Christ after the Flesh, the God-life of mankind drawn out, extended, illustrated in every detail and from every angle. For they have never been bibliolaters. They have never thought that ink or parchment or written words could possibly give full expression to the Word, Who Is God. Nor do they conceive it possible that Jesus of Nazareth, the Very Man of Very Man and Very God of Very God, in a ten months' ministry, or at most three years, could live the long life of the perfect dramatist, the perfect artist, the perfect singer, the perfect agriculturalist, the perfect bricklayer, the perfect dancer, the perfect statesman, the perfect mother.

All art is not only self-expression but self-limitation, and the art of God the Creator implies a restriction, in which may possibly be found the key to the problem of evil. They believe that God the Word or the "God Expressed" limited Himself within the strong channel of a forcible life narrowed to a particular purpose, but that as he lay a babe in his mother's arms he filled and still fills the world with his presence, ever striving to express himself within the limitations of this or that heroic being; hence the importance of seeing God in men and women, and of the worship of the saints, no mere copies, but originals, distinct and multitudinous facets of that jewel of great price which is God.

But the historic Christ is the norm and illustration of the life of God and Man, the ever-present God inspiring men with the same secret of vigour and originality. The saints are taken as illustrations of the million-sidedness of God, latent and suggested in the life of Jesus Christ. As to images and pictures, their scriptures suggest that the idol is in itself a thing indifferent, for it may be the splendid representation of some heroic god, or the dark fashioning of a devil, whose service is that "Avarice which is Idolatry." What gods of wood or stone you make matters not; the God that matters is the god you set up in your heart. The Calvinists never made a stone image of the thing they worshipped. If they had, the children would have run shrieking from its presence. None the less were they idolaters. It is hardly necessary to record the difference between the paintings and images in the churches of to-day and the "religious art" of the Dark Ages [the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries]. The gentlemen1y drawing-room Christs, the simpering Madonnas, the feeble self-immolating saints are things of the past, for the portraits and images are brave and heroic, and the prevailing conceptions have revolutionised religious art.

Procession in Thaxted ChurchIn the huge nave Matins was being sung. Many of the Jewish psalms had been retained in the Liturgy, but to the Christian Psalter had been added blank verse and free rhythms of later date. The chanting by men's voices seemed to me archaic, and I was better able to appreciate the hymns set to folk melodies and sung by children. It seemed strange that the first lesson should be selected from a modern writer, but the second was from the New Testament. People were still coming into the nave, bringing their chairs from a stack by the west doors, and sitting where they liked, except that a pompous-looking beadle, gorgeously arrayed, kept a wide alley for the great procession. The decorations presented a daring scheme of colour. The tall pillars were wreathed with evergreen and many-coulored silken materials; between them stood the bright Christmas-trees, and over the entrance to Chancel loomed the Rood with its Calvary. But for the figure of the Crucified, and for the processional Cross, I saw neither crucifix nor cross throughout the building. It was through the grave and gate of pain, as represented on the Calvary screen, that we passed into the joyous life beyond, The wearying repetition of the same symbol was held to mark the impoverishment and decadence of the Catholic idea. At each festival an appropriate image would be placed upon the high altar, or some picture hung above it. But for this image flanked by two candles spiked in candlesticks of crystal and silver, the long altar-table was bar of ornament and the eye was attracted not to the lights upon and above it and clustering at its sides, but to itself, enfolded in a sun-like frontal blazing with jewels. The chancel was hung with flags, faded and tattered trophies of brave crusades. On these flags were painted various emblems, the wheels of Catherine, the gridiron of Laurence, the lions of Mark, the spears of George. I could see, from my seat by one of the pillars, a side chapel with a simple stone altar with two candlesticks of ebony, and between them an ivory Christ, like a young Greek shepherd, bearing on his shoulder not a lamb, but a goat, a symbol of the final restitution of all things. Before this altar, priests and laymen were vesting, and here were congregated boy and girl choristers, acolytes, taperers, robed, some in white, others in purple and blue and gold. A surpliced priest approached the lamp hanging before the high altar and brought light down among the crowd, the men and women in front lighting the tapers they held in their hand and passing on the light from neighbor to neighbor, from row to row, until the whole building was a swaying forest of fire. This ceremony symbolized the fulgent enthusiasm of comradeship, kept ablaze by the handing-on of the torch from neighbor to neighbor and from one generation to another. To have witnessed this wonderful sight almost compensated me for the midnight mass of Christmas Eve that I had missed, the mass at which nearly the whole district made communion, and which opened with the procession of wise men with their gold and incense and myrrh and shepherds with their lambs. This function had been preceded by a drama of Bethlehem, acted under the huge vaulting of the Middle Tower by people of the town and their children, a drama in which humour and solemnity jostled one another in strange congruity.

The Communion Service was in many respects like the service of my childhood, but instead of the negative commandments of the Jews had been substituted the positive commandments of the Christians, and in the prayers for the Great State there has been inserted a memorial of the Confederacy of Nations composing it. The doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, or of the One-in-many, runs through their whole conception of life, suggesting not only the complex personality of the individual, the trinity of the holy family in father, mother, child, but the international and composite unity of the State, the many nations gaining and not losing individuality by each generous advance towards World-fellowship, by every casting off of insularities and parochialisms.

Just as the many nations are confederate in the State so are the parishes confederate in the national church, and the national church in the international Catholic Church, sending representatives to the great assemblies at which presides the supreme pontiff, the President of the Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Democracy. In the prayer for the Whole Church, mention was made of all its officers chosen and consecrated for various functions and administrations in the same.

Beautiful as is the singing of the Gospel from a lectern down among the people, and the little procession which precedes it, I was more impressed by the procession of the Offertory or Offering of the Fruits of the Earth, a procession which, winding in and out of the people, gathers some of them in its train; the laity bringing the offerings of Nature and the works of man's hands towards the altar; following them comes the deacon, his hands muffled in a long silk veil, bearing the sacred bread and wine, universal emblems of the products of art and nature.

Although this People insists on the eternal values of the present life, it seems to be inspired by a conviction of an after life transformed beyond the capacity of our present apprehension. They do not believe that the dissolution of death either destroys personality or with miraculous suddenness transmutes it. The majority of men undergo a process of purification, being cleansed by the fires of conscience fanned in the furnace of the terrible God of Love. They do not think that this process necessarily takes place in the arena of this earth; reincarnation is only one of many legitimate speculations, and by no means a popular one, for theologians realise that this earth is in size a mere speck of dust in the vast network of worlds that form the Universe. They no longer dogmatise as to place, but as to process. They teach that a few pure and courageous souls pass after death into the over-mastering life of God's Omnipresence, and find their heaven in co-operation with Him in the work of creation. Our entrance into this heaven is barred by stupidity and corruption, and for all there exists as a dread possibility, the outer darkness and the weeping and gnashing of teeth, though of not even the Judases of the earth are we to think of this possibility as a certainty. The presence of the whole company of heaven seems to pervade and invigorate the people, and prayer to all saints and for all souls is a never-ending fount of energy in the life of the Nation.

From the moment when the Child is initiated by Baptism into the life of the Fellowship until the last rites of the Church are administered in the hour of death, the sacraments of friendship are his nourishment, and the graces of fellowship uphold him. Present at mass from earliest childhood, he make his Communion only after having received the Sacrament of Confirmation, that effectual sign the royal priesthood of mankind, "The Coming of age of the Christian." In the Sacrament of "Holy Order" some are consecrated as delegates and spokesmen of the whole human priesthood, and this parish Mass of Christmas one felt that the Consecration of the bread and wine at the hands of the bishop was not the act of a sacerdotal caste, but of all the people; for, as the great bell tolled at the supreme moment, not only the congregation, but the whole country-side was linked together in that act of adoration, when the everywhere present God is made manifest in the friendship of those who eat and drink in common, and in the nourishment and energy, the gaiety and intoxication of life as symbolised by the life-giving bread and the genial wine.

In spite of what might be called the pantheistic, or more accurately the polytheistic, elements in the religion of the Great State, it all roots down into an intense conviction of the Being of the One God. The ethics are lively and practical, because Morality is not worshiped as a fixed and abstract divinity, but is looked upon as dependent on and in relation to people. It is kept from becoming static and stagnant by the Communion of Saints. Behind these innumerable personalities of sinners and saints, personalities ordinary and extraordinary, there is believed to exist the ever-present and personal God. The term "personal" is bravely used, not because His Being does not escape the net of all language, but because He is felt to be in converse and communion with men. Transcending personality, He must yet be appropriately expressed in the highest terms they know, the terms of their own humanity in its most human moments. For the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

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Something of the "sound" of Thaxted worship can be gleaned from Hymn 112 in The Hymnal 1982. Its composer, Gustav Holst, (1874-1934), who as a young man played the harmonium at outdoor meetings of William Morris's Hammersmith Socialist League, was Conrad Noel's Choir Director at Thaxted. His Hammersmith Suite echoes his early Socialist commitments, and his This have I done for my true love is dedicated to Conrad Noel. It is, perhaps, a sign of my own predilections that I can best enjoy Holst's Hymn of Jesus by closing my eyes and imagining a procession of the Host in Thaxted Parish Church. See also Percy Dearmer's "Now quit your care" (Hymn 145 in The Hymnal 1982), and Taking the Kingdom by Song in these pages. - - Ted M.

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