There is an official description of my Chaplaincy of St Mary the Virgin, Hautot Saint Sulpice, France in our Diocesan Website. My brother in the priesthood, Fr Jonathan Munn, asked me to write a posting about my ministry in France. Doubtlessly the arrière-pensée, which concerns us all who are British is the current burning subject of Brexit. Anyone who has read the media and various commentaries available with a critical mind will realise that the situation is highly complex and slogans like Brexit means Brexit no longer have any honest meaning. Quite frankly, in my native country, it could be that all the ingredients are in place for a full-blown revolution and civil war. Between the hard-line Tories and the UDP theocrats, the slogans and mantras increasingly leading the country to the cliff edge. I have the impression of something about to break, maybe the killing of the Brexit project, because there is no workable solution, and for the UK to participate in the reform of the EU and its evolution along the lines of Christian and humanist social philosophy.
These matters concern me increasingly, not so much for my own situation in France and Europe, because I am married to a native and have been resident here for years, but for retired couples and families who dreamt of living in France and saved up for a nice house in the country. They may get the short end of a no-deal Brexit stick and find they can only spend three months every two years in France on a tourist visa! There is a lot of anxiety out there, and also among the 1.2 million plus British people living in all the twenty-seven countries of the EU.
There are several groups of British people in Europe, and all are very busy in political action (like the Wooferendum last Sunday in London) and a big demonstration in London planned for 20th October for the UK cancelling Brexit and staying in the EU. If British expatriates suddenly find they have become illegal immigrants and are required to leave the country, what happens to their pets? That is just one symbolic concern in a situation that might never happen, but we are ready for the worst. Our British ambassadors are busy negotiating with the authorities in France and all the other EU countries for the best deal possible to allow us to continue our lives where we have chosen to live, or where a lifetime of circumstances – or God’s Providence – have put us. Michel Barnier has also voiced his concern for us, but much will depend on how the UK deals with the three million EU people living and working there. Everything is as clear as mud! I keep an eye on the Facebook group RIFT – Remain In France Together (Solidarity in Europe), which is a closed group and can be joined on condition of answering three questions. This is to keep the trolls out and maintain a constructive atmosphere. Many are very anxious as we all do the same thing – apply for residence permits and French nationality by getting our papers in order and getting an appointment with the Préfecture to make our applications. The process is very slow.
My ministry at present is to be one of them. I am one person of many of the British diaspora in Europe. Anyone can click on my name on Facebook and see the “corsair” in his boat, but also the fact I am a priest. No one so far has contacted me for that reason, and I remain extremely discreet on the group. It is no place for proselytising. One thing I have discovered about expatriates is that we wanted to be Europeans and cosmopolitan, not narrow-minded bigots with simplistic explanations about everything and a belief that strength, power and wealth are everything. We tend to be a bit left-wing, and that brings me close to the spirit of the slum priests and Christian socialism as it developed before Marx. We empathise with each other. Some are artists with wild minds and aspirations. Others are more ordinary, seeking a sense of wonder and oneness with nature. We are all different, more or less integrated into French life. If we want to be naturalised and have dual nationality, we are expected to speak the language and take an interest in the country’s history and culture!
It won’t bring anyone to the chapel, because institutional religion has all but evaporated and discredited itself. Most will not want to know about little marginal churches, and I have no talent for marketing and proselytism. I am in a world as alien from Christendom as Fr Charles de Foucault living as a hermit among Muslims in the Algerian desert. The modern world is a spiritual desert, and many look for a spiritual life through various alternatives like New Age. The most I can do on the Facebook group is to bring a philosophical reflection to the whole thing. I am unconcerned with things like economics and the nuts and bolts of money and business, but I am concerned with the notion of Europe, the inspirations that brought about the EU as a space of freedom (including movement), of human rights and an end to the wars that have torn Europe apart for centuries. That is a part of my Romantic world view and aspiration to leave a little gift to humanity before I pass away and am forgotten with millions of others. This big picture has tended to relativise my more personal interests and preferences in my life specifically as a priest.
I live in a small village where a few elderly people attend Mass at the parish church when it is celebrated a few times a year. On other Sundays, they can go to Yvetot or Doudeville, where parish life is quite active. It is the modern Roman rite and quite “middle-of-the-road” as French Roman Catholic parishes go. It is estimated that less than 5% of the population go to Mass or have any interest in religion or spiritual concerns. A very tiny proportion would be interested in the alternatives available in independent Gallican and similar churches sharing an Old Catholic theme. There is one in Rouen where roses blessed individually are sold at a higher price than those that are blessed collectively. Eek! I have found that I cannot relate to the independent Catholic scene in France or the Roman Catholic world. It is a lonely existence in one way, but it is liveable if I relate to people as an “ordinary guy” rather than as a priest in clerical garb. Naturally, I would welcome anyone who wants to attend services or asks for some pastoral service from me as a priest, but it doesn’t happen. My own wife has never taken any interest in my commitment to Anglicanism, other than saying that it is more respectable than the French independent churches with their whiffs of sulphur. She has always been free as far as I am concerned to go to any church she wants, but she doesn’t. Religious freedom is a right to be respected!
My ministry is internet-based, and definitely “ethnical”, in English, and unconcerned for the French Roman or independent Catholic scene. It is not my role to imitate modern or traditionalist Catholicism to pull in the paying customers! I certainly sound jaded and cynical, but I know the reality here. I live in France, because I have no where else to go, but also because I believe in the European ideal. I am a believer in “niche ministry”, socialising with people on the basis of common interests, and just trying to be as Christ-like as possible, invisibly like the leaven in the bread.
I have my website As the Sun in its Orb dealing with the liturgy and The Blue Flower. My ministry is essentially one of study and teaching. That’s what many priests do. I also have the Use Of Sarum Facebook Group with nearly a thousand members. It was joined today by the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and we have many distinguished members, clergy and academics. The Blue Flower was inspired by my falling in love with the Romantic movement and a singular world view that has persisted ever since the end of the eighteenth century. That is my little world, far from ideal, but one in which I strive to leave humanity with that “little gift” before I go away when God decides the time has come.
What do I do specifically as a priest? I celebrate Mass and the Office in my little chapel, alone with the Almighty and with the Angels and Saints – just like Fr Charles de Foucault in his desert hermitage. The Use of Sarum fired my imagination when I became a Roman Catholic in 1981, and my dream was nothing other than many Romantic dreamers of the nineteenth century and a few present-day enthusiasts. The very area where I live engendered the Use of Sarum which was largely based on that of Rouen, a city I can drive to in about 45 minutes in good traffic conditions. The Use of Rouen is totally forgotten, even by the traditionalists. A few are interested in the Use of Paris and the Lyons rite. The last of the Norman customs died with Fr Montgomery-Wright. See this charming documentary. I spent several months with him and Christian (the young man with Down’s Syndrome) in 1982.
Celebrating Sarum in Normandy seems as natural as the Ambrosian rite in the Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland and Austria, as one local culture melts into its neighbour. I don’t have to live in Wiltshire! Millions of years ago, what is now Sussex and Hampshire was ripped away from Normandy, and the sea flowed into the cracks and made the English Channel. What lies both sides shares a common culture.
I take pride in my work of promoting the Use of Sarum and getting others interested in it, not only from the point of view of study and “British Museum religion”, but also the idea of reviving a Catholic tradition on a par with the pre-novus ordo Roman rite (reflected in our English Missal and Anglican Missal) but also many other local rites and customs. I think I am at liberty to say that our Metropolitan Archbishop has shown an interest in my work, and my Bishop is definitely positive about it and supportive. This is also a part of my little gift, as I remember a dear friend, Fr François Crausaz, the Swiss priest who died tragically young with the idea that we are here only to sow the seeds, not to reap the harvest, to give and not expect any reward. That is our vocation, to find the knowledge of God and share it with those who are ready to receive the gift.
There it is in a nutshell. I live in a time in which an old Gnostic idea has relevance – of sorting people into those who know and are spiritual, those who are honest, decent and follow principles and rules, and the vast mass of materialists without much more than an animal soul. To those three, I would add the five or six percent of truly evil people, the psychopathic demons who take as many as possible with them to hell. That sounds very hard, but experience of life brings me to understand many things about fallen humanity.
From my sheltered home in the Normandy countryside, in the midst of the cows, apple trees and linen flax fields, I watch the world. I offer my poor prayers for my country that deserves better than what is coming. I live in the same fear as French people in the 1790’s or Germans in the 1930’s or Russians as their empire crumbled under the weight of nihilism and Lenin’s revolution. I may live to see the end of the Monarchy in my country, strife and conflict between the haves and have-nots, the general revolt against a political establishment where the right-wing is identical to the left-wing – all the same old self-interest, lies and deceit. People are angry and only reason according to the principles they learned from their culture or lack of culture. Nothing is certain in this country where we have only known peace and stability since 1945. All I can do is to offer a philosophical perspective as best as possible – and pray. We fight not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against the rulers of the darkness of this world. Those words of St Paul continue to inspire us and give us courage for the spiritual war ahead. Indeed I am afraid despite any number of exhortations to fear not. I am a priest, but I am also one of you, one of them, one of us.
It is heartening to think of the Use of Sarum quietly, steadily lived, like a candle re-lit, 45 minutes from the cradle of its forebear Use of Rouen, where a pilgrim or lively-minded tourist just might encounter it, as knights errant a priest-hermit in the great French Arthurian romances or their ‘heir’, the work(s) of Sir Thomas Malory.
Re-lit, living and lived, even if that involves a contribution of scholarly reconstruction, as I understand the revival of the Cornish language (or modern Hebrew) did.
Somehow, reading and reflecting on this, Thomas Hardy’s “In Time Of ‘The Breaking Of Nations'” came to mind:
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
I don’t know who makes how much use of work horses, where, or where one is still permitted to burn things like “couch-grass” (the smoky autumns of my youth, in Ohio (leaves), in Lincolnshire (stubble), are now long gone), and Hardy does not mention Use or Rite, and yet…
Having thought of that Hardy poem, I soon encountered in the detective story I was reading in the train en route to liturgies, this play with the first stanzas of Gray’s ‘Elegy’, by the titular character (exiting a stately house in the Cotwolds) in Honeybath’s Haven (1977) by J.I.M. Stewart writing as ‘Michael Innes’:
There was a solemn stillness broken only by the distant sound of Hondas and Suzukis on which weary ploughmen were speeding homewards along unfrequented bypaths and minor roads surrounding the estate. The effect of all this was composing […].
I wonder if this is an example of what Charles Williams called ‘defeated irony’, in that there really can be something composing in the familiarity of such modern vehicular noise become a part of country life without simply destroying its beauties and imaginative power (as the locomotive had become a part of it, a century and a half earlier)?
I encountered someone recently (perhaps Fr. John Zuhlsdorf?) regretting that the pejorative sense had overshadowed the simple, proper sense of ‘priestcraft’, and now think of, for example, Ruskin and of Morris and the ‘arts and crafts’ movement and how the Use of Sarum revived is down-to-earth, workaday, ‘craft’ in that simple, dignified sense – and yet, as such, ‘romantic’, rich, deep, whether any wanderer appears to witness, participate, appreciate that, or not.