Remembering the English liturgy at Thaxted

Parish Church of Our Lady, St John the Baptist and St Lawrence, Thaxted, Essex

Parish Church of Our Lady, St John the Baptist and St Lawrence, Thaxted, Essex

In my teenage years in the 1960’s I would go to stay from time to time with my aunt and uncle and cousins who lived on the London edge of Essex. On Sundays we would often visit  churches which I had heard of, which is how we came to be at the Parish Mass in the village of Thaxted, on Remembrance Sunday in the late 1960’s.

The church building itself is a stunning late-mediaeval creation, on the scale of a small cathedral. Its huge windows flood the white-washed interior with light (for there is little stained glass) and there is space everywhere, largely thanks to the radical transformation when Conrad Noel was vicar between the wars. He cleared it of the dark Victorian pews, and in their place erected chapels, altars and shrines which burst with delight and colour. There is nothing here from the church furnishers, not a ‘correct’ piece of ecclesiastical brocade; the sacristy is a screened portion of the south transept with a thatched roof! Conrad Noel upset the Bishop of Chelmsford with his uncompromising Anglo-Catholicism (street processions for Corpus Christi and the Assumption) and conservative Anglo-Catholics by his unabashed Communism. (The church has a shrine to John Ball, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt.)

Interior - pulpit and High Altar

Interior – pulpit and High Altar


By the time I went there  Fr Jack Putterill (Noel’s son-in-law) was the vicar. He had dropped Russian Communism, with the revelations of Stalin’s purges, and rather taken to the Chinese version. Mass was celebrated with deacon and subdeacon, and a team of servers, all wearing albs with apparels tacked to their amices. They can be seen in the picture below, standing up like coloured collars. The tall red torches were being carried, and the Mass flowed between the High Altar  – which although very distant in the vast building, was brought closer by the clever use of the long banners in the chancel – and the nave with its splendid 18th century pulpit, painted lectern and Jacobean chairs for the sedilia.


The Mass rite was (I think) the First English Prayer Book of 1549: certainly we began with the blessing of Holy Water, and then the English Litany was sung while the Celebrant sprinkled the people and the whole building. I was fascinated by the use of a big bunch of greenery instead of the bog-standard wood and brass sprinkler seen everywhere else.

During the sermon, in which Fr Putterill gave a vivid description of  Russian rockets ‘as long as this church’, the elderly gentleman in front of us, who looked like Bertrand Russell, turned to his wife. ‘What’s he talking about?’. ‘Russia, dear,’ she replied and then turned to us apologetically: ‘He’s always talking about Russia.’

Chancel, hanging banners and High Altar

Chancel, hanging banners and High Altar

The Offertory Procession had the Deacon of the Mass bringing the gifts from the Lady Chapel wrapped in the sudary veil – somewhat like the modern humeral veil but narrower and longer. The Consecration Prayer at the High Altar looked like a mediaeval painting, with the clergy and servers in the distance, incense rising to the roof, and the almost complete silence broken by the bells at the Elevations. Modern pictures show the High Altar with a wooden panelled reredos and six brass candlesticks. As I remember it, the altar was surrounded on three sides by curtains hung between riddle posts, themselves topped with candles. On the very long altar itself stood only two candles, and two ‘standards’  on the pavement at the foot of the steps. The present six came, if I remember rightly, from one of the Dock churches in East London (St Luke’s or the Ascension).

The English style of the liturgy was never just antiquarianism, although it was far more ‘Catholic’ than the rather safe liturgies of the Cathedrals under the influence of Percy Dearmer. At times it was outrageous and provocative, though perhaps this had more to do with Conrad Noel’s political views. His transformation of the church would not be possible nowadays, with the combined forces of faculty jurisdiction and the Victorian Society no doubt opposing him. Yet his artistic sense and taste were sure: just to step into the church is to be delighted and uplifted. There is nothing showy or especially expensive, and it is not grand. Yet it has a loveliness, and a remarkable timelessness – for it has not dated, and much of it is still as Noel left it. It has a unique English beauty which makes many church interiors seem dull and lifeless by comparison, and many (though not all, as I shall try to show in a subsequent post) modern churches so desperately ugly.


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.
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5 Responses to Remembering the English liturgy at Thaxted

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this vivid and (to me) astonishing glimpse! Some quick ‘searching’ tells me that Conrad Noel was vicar before there was a Diocese of Chelmsford, and had written his three ‘political’ books before he became vicar (two of them are scanned at Internet Archive, as well as the intriguing-looking Byways of Belief (1912) and England, A Nation: Being the Papers of the Patriots’ Club (1904) to which both he and Chesterton, among others, contributed!). So, to which Bishop of Chelmsford are you referring: John Watts Ditchfield, Guy Warman, or Henry Wilson? And do you happen to know of any connection between Noel and Charles Willams’s pageant play, Judgement at Chelmsford (1939) (I eagerly ask before trying to dig up my copy or any relevant notes)?

    • I was doing much of this post from memory, having lost my copy of Conrad Noel’s biography. One of the downsides of retiring early and entering the Ordinariate was a serious culling of books bought and acquired over fifty years: there just isn’t room for them! The story about the Bishop’s objections to the Marian festival was once quite well-known, but I cannot tell you which Bishop. I remember the story that, at the last minute, he telegrammed Noel requesting him not to hold the devotion, and when people came into church there was a notice in front of the statue, which read, ‘Pray for the conversion of the Bishop of Chelmsford to the Catholic Faith.’

      When I was vicar of St Edmund’s Forest Gate I used to take Holy Communion to Muriel Dale, only daughter of Fr Henry Dale. Fr Dale had been vicar of St Andrew’s Plaistow, in East London, and had been placed under the ban by (I think) Bishop Henry Wilson in the 1930’s. Chelmsford Diocese had obviously been a lot less tolerant of its Anglo-Catholics than say, London under Winnington Ingram. If you find a connection between Noel and the pageant play, do let me know. I cannot recall anything from the biography.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you for these further (and lively) details! Casting about me for why Conrad Noel seems such a familiar name, I blush to see how thoroughly I have forgotten most of the particulars in chapter seven of Chesteron’s Autobiography (1936), to which its index leads me (once more) – the sense of familiarity was (alas) about all that remained. In what need I stand of being both reminded and instructed! Thank you for sharpening the sense of what I do not know while so enjoyably teaching me new things!

        I am not sure how quickly I shall manage to sound my unculled depths of books and papers with reference to Judgement at Chelmsford, but I will try to bind myself to let you know whether I find any connection or not. Grevel Lindop’s forthcoming biography of Williams is bound to bring untold riches of new detail about all sorts of connections, perhaps ones with Noel among them.

  2. Harry says:

    I have memories of some controversy surrounding Thaxted in the late 1970’s? I did make a point of visiting the church when I was in that part of Essex. From their web site that they maintain a tradition of ‘Christian Socialism’ which seems much in line with the Anglo Catholic movement in the inner cities; my own brief encounter with this was in Camden, where Fr Basil Jellico was active in housing reform and founded the St Pancras House Improvement Society which was responsible for the large scale improvement of slum housing in Somers Town. I used to walk up from Euston, turn right at the Church and through the estate to Royal College Street. Sorry to say that I didn’t ever have a chance to go into the church, but I did manage to go to Old St Pancras several times for the RVC opening service at the start of the academic year.
    I’m intrigued by your comment about the ‘safe liturgies’ under the influence of Percy Dearmer as the photo you have is very reminiscent of one in Dearmer’s ‘Parson’s Handbook’, my first reaction was that the photographs in the book may have been taken in Thaxted Church. Some years ago when I took over as sacristan in a church in South London, I found that the bottom drawer of the vestment chest was full of humeral veils (sudary veils?) in every possible liturgical colour, including sack-cloth. When I asked one of the long standing servers about this I was told that they were used by the MC during the offertory a very long time ago. His memory was that the MC had held the paten in the veil at some point during the consecration, as the sub-deacon would in the old Tridentine Rite? But he didn’t mention the gifts as you describe.
    Thanks for the memories.

  3. Sorry this is so late. There is a 17min. film on the internet,I think through the University of East Anglia, A RIPE Harvest: Harvest in Thaxted,(the exact title may be wrong) made in 1938, with a few glimpses at the end of Conrad Noel and a packed church.It’s worth GOOGLING it and watching.

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