We visited St. Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, an Anglo-Catholic parish in South Kensington, for the mid-day Mass.
The steepled stone church evokes a village church, with its gables and glass, its garden. Built in 1867 and nestled in a genteel neighborhood of neat white townhouses, the church has been home to Anglo-Catholics for many generations, but when I discovered it was T.S. Eliot’s home parish (he was Church Warden for twenty-five years) I was even more entranced. St. Stephen’s website listed daily Masses, the sign of a devoted and devout vicar, and I was encouraged that the church still retained the great poet’s legacy of vision and word.
We entered the vaulted nave and I gazed at the high altar, the tall white columns bordering the long nave and connected by pointed arches rising to rose-painted walls and clerestory windows. In contrast to the ethereal rose and white, dark wood pews anchored the length of the nave, leading to the chancel where a golden reredos stood above the altar and tabernacle. The light a bit dim with the gray and chilly outdoors, I could still imagine sun slanting through those windows onto the altar. But even today, the sense of intimacy and reverence, of the immanent and the eminent, united in this church. I had a comfortable feeling of coming home.
We found Father Bushau in an office off the south transept. He was most friendly and happy to receive my little novel Inheritance, and a second copy for Mrs. Eliot, a parishioner here. We chatted about the Church and all of the turmoils, challenges, and confusions facing her today, and agreed T. S. Eliot had it right in his poem-prayer, “Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still/ Our peace in Thy will.” Each of us must decide day to day. Each of us must, through prayer and sacrament, through faithfulness, seek to do His will, and be happy with that grace given. At present, Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England are tempted to join the Roman Catholic Church, taking advantage of Pope Benedict’s offer of a separate “Ordinariate.” But Anglicans, especially Anglo-Catholics, are a history-loving people and slow to change their place of worship, loving their churches of stone and time, so I think matters of belief may not be first priority, but second to setting and beauty.
We stayed for the Mass, appreciating the opportunity to worship together with a few weekday faithful, appreciating the honor, veneration, and adoration shown in the liturgy, with vestments, word, and prayer, and appreciating the witness St. Stephen’s provides in London. We will not forget this church – and Father Bushau – in our prayers.
I paused to take a photo of a plaque recalling T. S. Eliot’s time at St. Stephen’s, and I wondered what he would have thought of these immense changes in his Anglican Church. Then I recalled his prophetic words inThoughts after Lambeth (1931):
The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization and save the World from suicide.
Yes, I thought, grateful for the church and for this man of grace, we must redeem the time.