Project Canterbury

The Royal Abbey.

By Norman Powell Williams.

London: Society of SS. Peter and Paul, 1916.

GO into Westminster Abbey at the present day, and what do you find? A vast temple, built for the practice of the Catholic religion, designed for the continuous celebration of the Mass and the Divine Office by a great community of Benedictine monks now gutted and dismembered, and controlled by persons who, whatever their learning in the Hebrew tongue and the technicalities of Jewish eschatology, have clearly no more idea how to use a great church than an ignorant fisherman would have as [3/4] to how to navigate a Dreadnought. Imagine a great battleship, with her guns dismounted, her engines choked with rust, her decks removed, her crew reduced from seven hundred of Britain's alert and efficient sailors to a handful of half-naked fishers from the Hebrides and you have a lively parable of the condition of our English Cathedrals and great churches at the present day.

Enter the church by the North transept door. (You must choose your time carefully, because unlike the great Byzantine church of the Latin rite further along Victoria Street, which is open from 6.15 a.m. to 9 p.m. the building is only accessible during the forenoon and afternoon. [4/5] The Chapter know only too well that the poor who crowd to Mass in the early morning at Westminster Cathedral are not likely to be found besieging the doors of Westminster Abbey at 7 a.m., in their zeal to venerate the statues of Disraeli and Palmerston; and they naturally only open their church at the hours which are convenient to tourists and trippers. [It should be added, in fairness, that the church is also open for the daily Mass at 8 a.m.]) You push open the swing door, and a strong smell of mouldy hassocks smites upon your nostrils. At first sight, you may imagine that you have stumbled by mistake into one of Madame Tussaud's galleries. A long vista of gesticulating marble [5/6] statues confronts you examine them. Perhaps you expect to find, in a Christian church, representations of our Saviour, his Mother, and his Saints. Not a bit of it! here you will find nothing but statesmen in togas and perukes silently declaiming secular rhetoric in the house of God, admirals pointing complacently to bas-reliefs representing their victories, generals lounging against marble cannons, pagan genii, with wreaths and extinguished torches, leaning upon broken pillars with their message of No God, no life beyond the grave, and eternal despair. Turn into one of the north transeptal chapels, and what do you see? Not the sacred effigy of the Crucified, the symbol of [6/7] eternal self-sacrificing love--not the sweet form of our Lady of Pity--but the hideous skeleton shape of Death emerging from the tomb, levelling his dart at the young girl whom her husband, with grief-distorted face, would fain save for a few brief moments from the abyss of personal extinction. Read the inscriptions--frigid and pompous catalogues of the virtues of the deceased, but not a single cry for mercy and pity on the departed soul; innumerable references to the King and Parliament, but few to God or Christ. "Our National Valhalla" the place has been called, and if the reference is to the cold, classical, and purely secular building which stands on the [7/8] banks of the Danube, enshrining the effigies of Germany's great men, without the faintest suggestion of the existence of God, or of another world, the phrase has undoubtedly been well chosen.

Walk a little farther, until you stand beneath the lantern which crowns the crossing. Ah! here at last are some signs of religion. Eastwards, rises up the sanctuary with its stately screen, its high altar decently vested, standing there as of old, its sedilia and credence, and most, if not all, of the appurtenances for the majestic rendering of Divine worship: westwards, stretches the choir, with its stalls returned against the _pulpitum_ or great screen. The daily capitular High [8/9] Mass has been unknown for three centuries: but the Divine Office is still sung, though, most preposterously, the ancient vigil service called Matins, which should be sung "at the beginning of this day," has been transferred to the forenoon, hours after the busy world outside has begun its day's work. Nor, from the point of view of devotional effect, can the two tedious and insipid concerts, with their feebly elaborate Magnificats and anthems, which each day are rendered by a choir of paid singers, compare with the sonorous roll of the sevenfold Office of the Western Church, sung to the majestic Plainsong, which is her authentic voice, by a large community of men self-consecrated [9/10] to God and Religion under the habit and Rule of St. Benedict. Nevertheless, we must admit that the skeleton of the old scheme of worship, of Mass and Office, is still there, in however meagre, mangled, and attenuated a form, and it would be unfair not to recognise the fact.

But how shrunken is the stream of liturgical worship, that river which makes glad the city of God, compared with the broad flood of praise and devotion which once filled every corner of the vast fane! The casual visitor can see, at a glance, how the tide of worship has ebbed from the multitudinous chapels, leaving them high and dry, with darkened and broken altars, choked with the [10/11] monuments of the great ones of this world witnessing, in their pathetic desolation, to the conspicuous discontinuity of "moderate Anglicanism," which knows not how to use these great fabrics, with that Ancient Faith for which they were built.

Once there was a time when every corner of the Abbey Church was alive with priests offering the holy Sacrifice, with communicants approaching the Table of the Lord, with penitents frequenting the tribunal of penance, with worshippers kneeling before this shrine or that, as their devotion led them: when the walls were clothed with gorgeous colour, and the atmosphere was fragrant with incense, and the twilight of the chapels was lit up [11/12] with lamps and votive tapers, standing out against the dusk like flaming sheaves of golden stars, and the tranquil spirit of prayer brooded over all. Now bareness, coldness, and deadness reign everywhere, except perhaps in the Sanctuary, and in the chapels of the Confessor and of Henry VII, where the altars have been restored. The murmur of the Rosary is replaced by the ceaseless tramp and chatter of thousands of tourists: from the altarless chapels is heard, not the voice of the sacrificing priest, but the bawl of the verger explaining the details of the vaulting to his flock of trippers. And the Blessed Sacrament, once enthroned in its hanging pyx over the high altar, is gone; the Shekinah [12/13] has been banished from the mercy-seat, the soul of the great building has fled. Little wonder that it is not found necessary to open the church at 5 a.m. or to keep it open till 10 p.m., for the benefit of would-be worshippers; little wonder that we see a notice proclaiming that one of the smallest and gloomiest chapels is "reserved for private devotion," and implying thereby that the rest of the building is kept open merely as an interesting architectural monument; little wonder that the whole atmosphere of the church, as it stands at present (and with the exception of those parts which we have specified), is one of paganism, secularity, coldness, and death.

"Can these dry bones live? O Lord God, thou knowest." Wretched as is the present aspect of the church, there was a time when it was far worse: it is something that the Immaculate Sacrifice of the Lamb of God is daily offered once more within its walls, though the crowds who once thronged the altars of the Royal Abbey are now represented only by a few devout ladies. Sooner or later the lay folk of the English Church will rise in their might and cry, "Give us back our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised God, in its former glory: pluck down the cold grinning effigies of secular statesmen, restore the altars, banish the bawling vergers, beadles, bumbles, [14/15] money-changers, and sellers of doves: bring back the Blessed Sacrament, and the solemn daily High Mass and Office; let the Sacraments of Confession and Communion be freely dispensed therein; and let the church of St. Peter be no longer a lifeless shell, but a living organism, pulsating in every part with the deathless energy of Calvary, no longer a mere national tomb-house, but a Christian temple, reared to the honour, not of Pitt or Canning, but of the Lord of Hosts."

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