Monday, November 5, 2012

The Harpenden Parish Magazine

As soon as I saw her, I knew that I had to have her.

She was lying in a box on a bargain stall outside the UCD Campus Bookshop. The UCD Campus Bookshop is pretty much an exercise in daylight robbery, and even the books on their "bargain" stall can be fifteen euro or so. But the sweetheart who caught my eye was going for a mere three euro.

What was she? She was a bound volume of old Anglican parish magazines. To wit: The Harpenden Parish Magazine, running from August 1904 to February 1915. Really, what red-blooded book-lover could fail to have his pulses set racing by that?

It is possible, Dear Reader, that you don't know where Harpenden is. Wikipedia tells us: "Harpenden is a town in Hertfordshire, England. The town's population is just under 30,000." (It must have been significantly smaller at the beginning of the twentieth century, because the rector writing the Parish Notes in these magazines is very pleased to get an Easter service attendance of a hundred or so.)

There is no pleasure in the world like that of old books-- really old books, books with yellowed pages and a musty scent and the aroma of a vanished era hanging over them-- but old periodicals are better yet. An old book is a lone voice, coming to us across the ages; but an old periodical contains a whole medley of voices within its pages. It swarms with life. And in the case of the Harpenden Parish Magazine, it is the life of a single parish that survives within its crinkly pages. It is a round of births, marriages, and deaths, parish fundraisers, magic lantern shows, Lad's Brigade outings, lectures by foreign missionaries, all culminating in the cataclysm of the First World War, which throws a tinge of tragedy over the whole. These magazines have all the warm, poignant appeal of How Green was my Valley by Richard Llewellyn, Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas or Thomas Gray's Lines Written in a Country Churchyard-- but with the added savour of reality.

As reading material, I find them utterly compelling, but also very sad. They make me sad because they remind me how today's Church of England has betrayed its forebears. One thing is obvious from reading these Harpenden Parish Magazines; these were serious Christians who attempted to live a life true to historical, orthodox Christianity. And they worked very hard at it. Again and again, the clerics of Harpenden Parish urge their parishioners to a serious reformation in Lent, or to more regular worship, or to support the parish charities or the adornment of their places of worship.

Who (aside from an ardent secularist) can see the wreck of English Christianity without feeling an icy grief? Think of how much effort went into the creation and preservation of a Christian England; not only the early missionaries and martyrs, but all the millions of nameless rectors and vicars, all the housewives and Sunday school teachers and unlettered peasants and fishermen and artisans, down all the generations, who strove to conform their lives to the Gospel, who squeezed out their meagre pennies to keep a roof above their local church, who kept the light of faith burning through plague and civil war and industrialisation and all the twists and turns of English history-- all to end in today's Church of England, which has flung orthodox Christianity to the wind and has all but passed into utter irrelevance.

As a Catholic, of course I believe that the greatest disaster to befall English Christianity was the Reformation. But the Church of England was a Church that once seriously claimed to retain the apostolic succession, to be a branch of the worldwide Catholic Church. How can we not be dismayed to see its degeneration? And because of my deep-seated anglophilia, I have a certain fondness for historical Anglicanism in itself; I cherish Orwell's image of "old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist". So reading these old issues of the Harpenden Parish Magazine fills me with a special wistfulness.

Perhaps I am the only person who now owns a copy of these magazines. (I did email the current Harpenden parish to see if they had any, but there was no reply; possibly they were all too busy attending gay rights marches or Transcendental Meditation classes.) It is a moving thought, that all that is left of this parish's life in those years might be between these salmon-coloured covers, sitting on my bookshelf. I regularly remember these long-deceased parishioners of Harpenden in my prayers.

So, what sort of thing might you come across in these magazines? Well, under the heading "Church Missionary Society", in the issue for April 1908, we find this:

"Dr. Tisdall gave a very interesting account of 'Mohammedanism', from his personal experience of Persia. He showed very clearly that though Mohammedans believed in only one god, their conception of that god is so debased that far from being a pure religion it is one of cruelty and sensuality, and one which degrades, particularly the position of women."

Now, it is a good thing that inter-faith relations have become more sensitive and diplomatic since that time. But I can't help feeling that the writer here takes Islam, and the differences between Islam and Christianity, more seriously than the multiculturalist of today.

In the issue for November 1904, we get this interesting description of a meeting for the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts:

"The speaker gave a most interesting account of his experiences during the late Boer War, he being one of only six resident English priests who were allowed to remain in the Transvaal after war was declared. They remained on condition that they signed an oath of neutrality, and refrained from using in Church the prayers for Queen Victoria and the Royal Family. In order to see that the condition was complied with, two Boer soldiers stood inside the church with loaded rifles. Mr. Vyvyan signed the oath, but told them he should break it when the English arrived; this the Boers took no exception to, telling him that the English would never come there. With regard to the other condition, a pause was made in the service when the forbidden prayers were reached, while the congregation could use them in silence....

"Another incident was the attempt on the part of some of the enemy, who were escaping with Kruger, to take the Missionary's kitchen stove. On their arrival they were told to call in the morning, meanwhile the native Kaffir servant worked hard all night keeping up a big fire, with which he made the stove so hot that when the Boers came for it they could not possibly move it. This state of affairs was kept up by the servant's industry for a whole week, till they gave it up as a bad job. This story was related as an example of what the native Christians will do for the English, who brought them Christianity, and to whom they are strongly attached."

The Temperance movement was influential at this time, and there are many references to Temperance events in the parish. In the issue for December 1905 we are told:

"On Wednesday we had the advantage of two very forcible addresses by the Rev. F. Swainson, in which he likened sin in general and intemperance in particular to the loathsome and almost incurable disease of leprosy. As the words of a man who had himself experienced fiery temptation, and is now working amongst a set of people to whom total abstinence is entirely advisable, his uncompromising utterances were duly appreciated."

A long way from 'Thought for the Day'!

Imperialism had not yet become a dirty word, and the people of Harpenden unabashedly celebrate Empire Day:

"At the County Council Schools, Colonel Durnford, the Chairman of the Managers, gave the young people an address on "The growth of Empire", and later, when all were assembled in the playground, an address on "The Flag" was given by the same gentleman. Patriotic songs were heartily sung, and the children afterwards dispersed to spend the rest of their holiday away from school."(July 1906)

There is a sterling defence of denominational education in the September 1906 issue, which is very interesting (and perhaps, to us today, surprising) in its choice of arguments:

"The aim, therefore, of Churchmen should be to make clear their ideal of Christian Education. Just as in secular matters, the aim of schooling was to teach a child to think clearly and broadly, to express itself fully and clearly, and to train its character as a citizen, so the aim of religious education was to make the child think fearlessly and broadly on religious subjects, to teach it a dignified and adequate expression (in prayer and worship) of its religious life, and to train it to be a loyal member of Christ's kingdom on earth. Education of thought was secured not merely by learning facts: the child is encouraged to ask questions, to learn to get to the bottom of things, and in the variety of lessons the mind is expanded to wider interest. In the same way, in religious things the child learns to meet intellectual difficulties in after life. A full teaching of an unmutilated creed, and the laying before the child of a broad survey of Christian faith as mapped out in the Church year was not possible with undenominational education. Education in religious expression was taught by familiarizing with the Services of the Church and storing the memory with hymns and Psalms which would, in after years, become hallowed by association."

How interesting that denominational education is here defended as leading towards freedom and indpendence of mind, rather than away from it! But how insightful, too!

I could quote and quote and quote; and, indeed, I have every intention of blogging more selections from these magazines. But I think it is inevitable that I should finish on a grimmer note; I think that anybody, turning the pages of this magazine, would turn to the War numbers with a morbid compulsion, curious to see how the shadow of World War fell upon the quiet life of Harpenden.

It is sobering indeed to read how the very real virtues of these people-- their sense of duty, patriotism and nobility-- impelled them, along with their countrymen, to rush to the support of the flag in this most questionable of causes. In the February 1915 issue, Reverend Kean M. Pitt writes:

"I am glad that the list of those who have joined the Army from Harpenden still swells. Though at present the crucial question "Why did you not join?" may possibly be evaded or ignored, it must surely be realised that it is no light matter thus to be interrogated; nor is it a question that will die out with the coming of peace. As long as the young man lives the question will present itself directly and indirectly, it will ever be sounding in the inner consciousness of the man, "Why did you not join?" Good for that man, if he is of suitable age, if he is able to give to himself and his countrymen a real honest and valid reason. If not, I do not envy the life of the man who without real tangible reason, evaded the present call upon his manhood".

Oh Lord, may the good Christian people of Harpenden, every one of the names mentioned in the pages of these magazines, find their way to the eternal banquet!

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