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.)
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.’
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.