I have at last discovered where the real Church of England has been hiding out. This has taken some time. I moved to Eastbourne last May and for the last ten months I have been trying to find a place to worship where prayer remains valid. In the process I have come across a great variety of tomfoolery, religion so trendy it sets your teeth on edge, sackless thespian parsons who put the stress on all the wrong words: one said, every week, “He took bread and gave IT to them.” Liturgies at once so tedious and infantilised they might have been written by a partnership between the circumlocution office and Enid Blyton’s Noddy. One church so fastidiously committed to interior design it could have had its own stall at the Daily Mail’s ideal homes exhibition: instead of Epistle and Gospel candles, one on each side of the altar, rather a candelabra all at one end. And then the politically-correct prayers about “rights” and right-on causes, the intercessions elaborated into something resembling the grand tour. They forget, these clerical politicos, Evelyn Waugh’s saying, “Praying for Nicaragua when you live in Tunbridge Wells is the first sign of madness.” There are many other such signs following: the Peace, which is invariably the noisiest part of the service with all its froth and phoney friendliness; the aisle-dancing; the bloody guitars; the inane and unmusical choruses which repeat half a dozen time words that were not worth singing once.
Well good bye to all that.
I have found the real Church of England alive and well in the parish of St Thomas A Becket, Lewes. And it only takes me three-quarters of an hour to get there, door to door. I take the train. But honestly, I’d go if I had to walk it. The Service is Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion and nothing else – except the welcome addition of four traditional hymns. No burbling on with imbecile mentions of parishioners whose birthdays fall that week. No more of that sickening new version of the Prayer for the Church in which the bishops have accorded themselves precedence over the Queen. English in all its lapidary simplicity and easy-goingness.
The priest is a priest. He has presided there for thirty years and he is well past retirement age. There is no vicarage. Fr George lives in his own house in the parish. He is not paid. I said Fr George but he is known to all his parishioners as Brother George – because he was once a monk who left the monastery to come to Lewes to look after his mother when she became frail, and he has been there ever since. Sage and the nearest thing to a saint I’ve ever met. He preaches with disarming plainness and invariably about fathomless truths. So easy and all unaffected. One of the reasons he comes across so well – quite apart from the learned holiness of the man – is that his words echo those found in the real Bible and the real Prayer Book. There is no jargon, no pretence, no thespian frolics, no thrashing around to force a link between St Paul’s Epistle and what they were banging on about on the BBC news bulletin; and no affected sincerity. He is the complete natural, a man as at home inside his own skin as i have ever come across. There is a tangible bond of love between Brother George and his people: the real thing, all calm and unstated, not the hyper-inflated emotionality and sickening touchy-feelyness which is the aroma filling the air in so many parish churches.
The proper words. Scholarliness. Honesty. Brotherly love. I am healed of my ten months’ distemper by the mere touch of the hem of his garment.