A society which has lost its memory

Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay

On my recent visit to Rome I took to read ‘The Towers of Trebizond’ by Rose Macaulay. Two themes are intertwined: the hilarious world of an Anglo-Catholic mission to Turkey led by Father High Chantry-Pigg and Aunt Dot on her camel; and the guilty affair between Laurie, the narrator and her married lover, Vere. The novel ends tragically: if you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it, but be prepared for heartache.

The novel, magnificent though it is, would be difficult to understand nowadays, for it inhabits a world familiar with the customs and the teaching of the Church of England, and particularly its Anglo-Catholic revival.  And the memory of this world has been almost entirely erased by other forces. In the literary world, and in the media in the 1950’s and early 60’s, there were  respected and yet popular voices – by no means all professional theologians – who introduced their readers and listeners to Catholic attitudes and Catholic belief. One thinks immediately of John Betjeman, whose poem ‘Christmas’ was read year after year at countless school carol services, and which taught the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist more subversively than a thousand sermons!

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the
steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was
man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The deliberate marginalisation of Christianity is nowhere better seen than on our TV screens. It is not a matter of totting up the number of hours of ‘religious broadcasting’, nor even of the coverage given to attacks on Christian beliefs and our way of life. It is the way in which unbelief has become the default position for the key characters in every drama. Huge attention is paid to the detail of historical dramas, the costumes, music and customs. But when it comes to the Church, anything will do – does it not occur to producers to ask the clergy of the churches they use about what a priest might be wearing before they put him into a surplice with a green chasuble and red stole on top – all for a funeral service! Worse than this is the lines that clergy are given to speak. I thought that calling people ‘my son’ had gone out with Friar Tuck and Robin Hood. True, there are exceptions – and they are remarkable because they are few and far between.

The Nusing Sisters of St John the Divine - as seen on TV

The Nusing Sisters of St John the Divine – as seen on TV

The brilliant portrayal of the Nursing Sisters of St John the Divine in 1950’s East London, in the series ‘Call the Midwife’, springs to mind. Moments of silliness, of course, like ‘Saint Nonatus’ and Father Joe Williamson confused as an Irish (Roman) Catholic priest, but taken as a whole, positive – and accurate. I should know: I worked as a seminarian in Poplar Parish and went to Mass in the Sister’s chapel.

But it is the relentless puruit of the liberal agenda which really gets up my nose. It’s no longer even a hidden agenda:  Black-American-woman-bishop-murdered-suspicion-turns-on-male-monk-who-wants-to-stop-women …. (I switched off at that point) and all this in the otherwise excellent ‘Lewis’.

So here’s my suggestion to the scriptwriters for an alternative ‘Morse’, a series which I love and watch and re-watch on DVD.

The Remorseful Day

The Remorseful Day










It’s the penultimate episode, “The Remorseful Day”,  the episode in which Morse dies. Early in the scene Morse quotes from a poem by A E Housman. Here it is in its entirety.

How clear, how lovely bright, 
How beautiful to sight 
Those beams of morning play; 
How heaven laughs out with glee 
Where, like a bird set free, 
Up from the eastern sea 
Soars the delightful day  .

To-day I shall be strong, 
No more shall yield to wrong, 
Shall squander life no more; 
Days lost, I know not how, 
I shall retrieve them now; 
Now I shall keep the vow 
I never kept before. 

Ensanguining the skies 
How heavily it dies 
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound 
Not further to be found, 
How hopeless under ground 
Falls the remorseful day. 

Of course, Morse is a non-believer, as is Lewis, and many episodes contain ‘passing remarks’ which reveal this. (Though what about Hathaway and his mysterious past when he was going to be a priest?)  So when Morse dies there is to be no memorial or religious service of any kind: Morse has made that clear in his will. But I envisage another ending which goes something like this …

… the heart attack, though serious, has not killed Morse. He wakes late at night in his hospital bed. Calling the nurse he insists that she send for a priest whom Morse first met during one of his cases, and recently saw again at one of his old College celebrations. The nurse telephones, apologises for the lateness of the hour, and explains the situation. The priest tells her that he will be there within the hour.

He arrives on the side-ward. It is about justice that Morse wants to talk, ultimate justice, without which the whole of his life, he feels, and all that he has tried to do, will be wasted. The priest speaks of God before whom every man and woman must stand on the last day, when the secrets of all hearts will be revealed. Then there will be judgment and justice. But the priest continues that in God there is not only justice but mercy, in a way which human beings can barely grasp. In the death of the Son of God the awfulness of human injustice and failure which has haunted Morse all his life is overcome by the boundless loving-mercy of God.

At the end there is silence, which is broken when Morse says, ‘You’d better do your job then, and get me ready to face this God of whom you speak.’  The camera backs away as we see the priest bending over the bed and the murmur of Morse’s confession – and the voice-ver with the words of Housman: 

Days lost, I know not how, 
I shall retrieve them now; 
Now I shall keep the vow 
I never kept before. 

We move to the day of the funeral, for another and much more serious heart-attack has taken Morse. Lewis and Morse’s boss meeting outside an Oxford church, puzzled. ‘I thought Inspector Morse didn’t believe in all of this’  says Lewis. Inside the congregation gathers, we see Morse’s coffin with the Paschal Candle beside it, and the priest explaining his call to the hospital, before the last and fatal attack, and Morse’s insistence with the nurse as witness that his funeral is to be here. ‘In the end Inspector Morse came to believe in justice, and in the God of justice whose name is also  Father …”

So the camera moves from the coffin to a close up on the lighted Paschal Candle, and  the baritone solo,  ‘Libera me Domine, de morte aeterna’,  from Faure’s Requiem.

paschal candle


About Scott Anderson

Formerly an Anglican priest (ordained 1975) received into the Catholic Church in February 2012, and ordained to the Diaconate on 27th July 2013. I took early retirement, and divide my time between London and northern France. I am deeply committed to the Ordinariate as a gift of the Holy Spirit in the search for unity. Like many Ordinariate members I feel a personal gratitude to Pope Emeritus Benedict, together with loyalty to our Holy Father, Pope Francis. My blog tries to make a small contribution to the growth of the Ordinariate by asking questions (and proposing some answers) about the 'Anglican Patrimony'. I have always been fascinated by the whole issue of growth and decline, and therefore concerned for appropriate means of evangelisation in western Europe. I believe that the Holy Spirit is constantly renewing the People of God and that we must be open to him. My love of music and motorcycles will occasionally surface in my posts. On Saturday 19th October 2013, I was ordained to the Priesthood at Most Precious Blood, Borough, by the Most Revd Peter Smith, Archbishop of Southwark, for the service of the Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham. I continued to serve the Ordinariate group and Parish at Most Precious Blood until the end of 2014. Subsequently, I helped in the care of the Ordinariate Groups at Hemel Hempstead and Croydon, and in the Archdiocese of Southwark, until the beginning of September 2015. With the agreement of my Ordinary, Mgr Keith Newton, the Bishop of Amiens appointed me Administrator of the Parish of Notre Dame des Etangs (Pont Remy) in Picardie, France. This appointment is to last for a year, to give the Bishop the opportunity to assess the future of the parish.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A society which has lost its memory

  1. Harry says:

    Ah, if only, yes there is still a mystery around Hathaway’s background which one episode did touch on. An alternative plot, Morse lives on in retirement and at the last when the priest is called to the hospital it’s none other than Hathaway.
    Forgive the sillyness.

    • Forgiven! It’s a wonderful idea for the novel I don’t have the skills to write. Does anyone want to suggest writers who are not afraid have characters who are ‘ordinary’ Christians, and who deal with the great themes of forgiveness, justice, redemption from a theistic standpoint?

  2. gussiebetty says:

    I really enjoy your blog which I have just discovered.I wonder if you are Father Scott from Willesden,who said a Latin Mass for me on Boxing Day one year?
    Charlotte still attends St Andrews and I go at Xmas but there are no other services now and also no piano or organ.We still sing but it is agony as many pitches and tunes blend.Daphne Sayed

    • I’m afraid it’s me! I did have the opportunity to say Mass in Latin from time to time while in Willesden Green: something I loved to do as it is a very prayerful language. It’s also a useful for international liturgy, and I think it has been a good move to encourage people to learn again the Gloria and other parts of the Mass in Latin and to singable chant like ‘de Angelis’. This is what we do at Precious Blood Borough, though within the familiar setting of the modern vernacular (English) Mass. I think back to the early days of the reform in France when familiar latin chant was mixed with fresh new music from Lourdes and Taize.

  3. A flippant memory! I recall a certain parish priest of St Andrew’s going in to the Lady Chapel (where they were filming some scenes for Waking The Dead) and rearranging the candles etc to make it real, rather than someone’s sideboard!

    • … and I recall that same priest (!) in the early 80’s, desperately trying to persuade the makers of ‘A Prayer for the Dying’ to put rubber plants into their re-creation of an East End Catholic Church. Shock horror from the artistic director, who insisted on vast floral arrangements from some West End florist: result, huge expense, no authenticity. But thanks for the memory, as they say.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s