There is a church in Fleet Street, almost opposite El Vino, where Richard Baxter used to preach in 1660. Baxter’s reconciling, ecumenical attitude toward churches and public worship is still maintained here, at St Dunstan’s-in-the-West. The first thing you notice is an exotic Rumanian screen, for St Dunstan’s is much used by members of a Rumanian Church in communion with the Church of England. There are gramophone records of Rumanian church music on the table, next to a pile of prayers composed by John Donne (who also preached at St Dunstan’s). This sturdy English church is encircled with chapels for several of the independent Churches which are in communion with the Church of England, Coptic and Ethiopian, Polish (with a figure of the redoubtable Black Madonna of Czestochowa) and Old Catholic.
The Old Catholics are pretty well spread about the world. During the last war they were helpful to Anglicans in Java and even in Nazi Germany: their Dutch and Swiss congregations support an Anglican diocese in South Africa. They have been in full communion with the Church of England for 50 years, and Gordon Huelin’s collection of essays, Old Catholics and Anglicans 1931-1981, celebrates the success of this broad-church enterprise in a pleasant manner which would delight Baxter.
C.H. Sisson writes about Baxter in Anglican Essays, with respect but little enthusiasm. He is reviewing a recent book about him by N.H. Keeble (who was responsible for the excellent Everyman edition of Baxter’s autobiography in 1931) and makes play with the title, Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters. ‘If this is the Puritan man of letters,’ writes Sisson, ‘then, worthy though the model was, we need some other.’ This will seem a mild complaint to Richard Baxter after his fierce clashes with Oliver Cromwell, and his denunciation by Judge Jeffreys:
Oy! Oy! What ailed the old stock-cole, unthankful villain that he could not conform? Richard, Richard, dost thou think we’ll hear thee poison the court? Richard, thou art an old fellow, an old knave; thou has written books enough to load a cart, every one as full of sedition, I might say treason, as an egg is full of meat.
C.H. Sisson, likewise, feels that Baxter wrote too many books and was too broad-church and ecumenical for ‘this realm of England’.
Is it fair to call Baxter a ‘Puritan’? He admired the people called Puritans but thought it ‘an ambiguous ill-made word’. His account of his quarrel with Cromwell does not accord with our usual notion of Puritans. Baxter had suffered ‘a long and tedious speech’ from the Protector, about ‘God’s providence in the change of Government’. Baxter writes: ‘When he had wearied us all with speaking thus slowly about an hour, I told him it was too great condescension to acquaint me so fully with all these matters which were above me. But I told him that we took our ancient monarchy to be a blessing and not an evil to the land, and humbly craved his patience that I might ask him how England had forfeited that blessing.’ This took some nerve. Baxter remarks that he had thoughtfully said ‘monarchy’ rather than ‘King Charles’ for prudential reasons: ‘I was fain to speak of the species of government only, for they had lately made it treason by a law to speak for the person of the king.’ Really, C.H. Sisson ought to have appreciated Baxter’s useful skill with language, his bold loyalty and (especially) his heavy irony – since Sisson himself has similar virtues. Instead, Sisson amusingly compares Baxter with ‘some wise old general secretary of a trade union, of the old school’, who has ‘attained a beautiful complacency’. But then, Sisson used to be a civil servant in the Ministry of Labour. (How like to a Pauline epistle is that form of words: ‘For there is a ministry of labour, as there is a ministry of works ...’ In the modern version we have a department of unemployment.)
No, Baxter would not be called a Puritan. ‘Catholick’ and ‘Independent’ were favoured among his labels. Once he wrote: ‘You could not (except a Catholick Christian) have truelier called me than an Episcopal-Presbyterian-Independent.’ This is relevant to the 1931 Bonn Agreement between the Anglicans and the Old Catholics, when ‘each church recognised the catholicity and independence of the other.’ No easy matter. Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, writes in Old Catholics and Anglicans about the difficulty of trying to be both catholic and independent. But that is what Baxter claimed to be – and thought the Church of England should be.
N.H. Keeble has written: ‘To those who wished to know which was the true church – “Is it the Protestants, the Calvinists or Lutherans, the Papists, the Greeks, the Ethiopians?” – Baxter replied: “Why it is never an one of them, but all together that are truly Christians.” This was to argue for a church too broad and too comprehensive to be recognisable as a church at all by most of his contemporaries.’
C.H. Sisson, too, finds Baxter’s idea of a Church too broad to be comprehended. It is indeed difficult. The Archbishop of Canterbury remarks on the contribution of Dr Lukas Vischer to the 50th anniversary of the Anglican-Old Catholic concord. Dr Vischer belongs to neither Church: he belongs to the Protestant Office for Ecumenism in Switzerland and he has been Director of the Faith and Order Secretariat of the World Council of Churches. He remarked that there was a sentence in the Bonn Agreement which troubled him: ‘Each communion recognises the catholicity and independence of the other and maintains its own.’ Dr Vischer asked: ‘How can churches be catholic if they “maintain” their own catholicity? Is it not a contradiction in terms to speak of my “own” catholicity?’
The Archbishop of Canterbury is grateful for the criticism. ‘Anglicans and Old Catholics are in the debt of Lukas Vischer for pointing out this fallacy. Catholicity is the relation of the local church to the universal church. Even if we wish to “maintain our own catholicity” we do not have the power to do so except in our relations with other churches. To maintain an isolated independence is, then, to deny catholicity.’ Dr Runcie has evidently enjoyed wrestling with this problem but recognises that many will find it boring. ‘It is not easy,’ sighs the Archbishop, ‘to get contemporary Anglicans to realise that any theology of the church is important. It is a Cinderella subject amongst us.’ He calls in aid Richard Hooker, the ‘classical’ Anglican, using the image of seas and the ocean: ‘As the main body of the sea being one, yet within divers precincts hath divers names, so the Catholic Church is in like sort divided into a number of distinct Societies, every one of which is termed a Church within itself.’ This is all very well for the Archbishop, and those of us who are ready to follow his lead. But it is too ecumenical, too international, for C.H. Sisson, who thinks the Archbishop ought to stick to ‘this realm of England’. The Church, like the Crown and the Commonwealth, is not only a focus of unity but something to fight over – and since I am as broad-church as Eric Heffer I am inclined to suspect Sisson of being almost as narrow-church as Enoch Powell.
C.H. Sisson writes of Richard Hooker in a ‘Little-Englander’ way. He says that Hooker was ‘the classic apologist of the Church of England’. (Sisson’s italics.) It is (claims Sisson) ‘not a sect, but the historic heir of the medieval church; not a worldwide federation of theological opinion, like contemporary Anglicanism, but the one Sun seen, as it were, through the mists of this island – the only way it can in truth be seen, from this perspective.’ He concludes his essay on Hooker with a ‘C of E Rules OK’ verse from George Herbert’s poem, ‘The British Church’ – perhaps the only one of Herbert’s poems in English wherein he failed to subdue his tribal pride.
By ‘Anglican’ Sisson means ‘English’. The Welsh, Scots and Irish may, perhaps, be permitted to eat the bread that falls from the masters’ table. He lists among ‘the disasters which have overtaken the Church of England in recent years’ both the Rome-favouring tendency and the ecumenicism – ‘the retreat from the claim to be the English church, the concern with mere congregations instead of with the whole population, the distracting preoccupation with the Anglican and Roman internationals’.
One of his Anglican Essays is called ‘The Archbishop’s Travels’. He writes, with Baxterian irony: ‘One could almost find it in one’s heart to leave the Archbishop of Canterbury alone with his sorrows, as he awaits the Pope’s visit.’ To Sisson’s mind, the Pope’s visit was pretty painful – but the Archbishop asked for it, with his refusal to recognise that the C of E is just a national Church, his determination to introduce the Pope to the Churches of the Commonwealth the Archbishop so frequently visits. Even as I write, he is drawing attention to the state of Uganda, during his episcopal visitation. Just like Enoch Powell carping about the Queen’s Message to the Commonwealth, C.H. Sisson carps about Dr Runcie’s travels:
Hasn’t it all got rather out of hand? A disintegrated church at home is not healed by fixing its gaze on distant shores and the residual politics of post-imperial times ... England stands at a disadvantage as compared with other components of the United Kingdom – with Scotland, Wales, even Ulster, though this is a more dubious case. I prefer England to the late Empire and I should like it to survive.
C.H. Sisson’s complaints about the Church’s development are not unlike his complaints about bland, thoughtless liberalism in schools and the Civil Service. I do take his point, even if I think he goes too far. Sisson roasts John Rae, the headmaster of Westminster, when he ‘cries, lyrically: “The time British public-schoolboys once spent writing Latin verses is now spent writing computer programmes.” How splendid! How likely to appeal to the investment analyst and the management consultant!’ For Sisson has noticed that John Rae admits that these people (along with many more who describe themselves as ‘company directors’) predominate among the parents of public schoolboys, while Anglican clergymen cannot afford the fees.
Similarly severe is Sisson’s essay on a fellow civil servant, eight years his senior, Lord Redcliffe-Maud: ‘a fine specimen, without a doubt, of the secondary public man of his epoch – of the race of heads of (the right) colleges, Permanent Secretaries, chairmen of Royal Commissions and the like, who live just below the surface of public events and pop up from time to time to give them momentarily an appearance of old-world respectability’. Sisson’s main complaint against Maud is that he has led too sheltered a life (‘Summerfields, Eton, Oxford, Whitehall, with friends at every stage to help at the right moment’) while prating ineffectually about meritocracy and equality of opportunity. This is very like Edward Norman’s complaint about left-wing clergymen – taking it in turns for two hundred years to emerge from their public schools and discover the poor, as for the first time, and propose useless reforms.
If Maud ‘had a weakness’, Sisson offers, ‘it must have been the delusion that he was doing good. Civil servants are, very properly, paid to do what has to be done, which is something different.’ Is it? Why? Maud’s book was called Experiences of an Optimist. Sisson may be suspected of pessimism. His complaint about Maud’s do-gooding is echoed in his complaint against Richard Baxter, three centuries before. ‘As I long as I speak but for my Lord Christ, and for Doing Good, I cannot think I am quite out of my way.’ Sisson comments, pessimistically: ‘But these are large claims, and Good is a dangerous thing to be sure you are Doing. Moreover, good writing has its own necessity, a humble one, no doubt.’
He is hinting that Baxter’s two hundred-odd books were not ‘good writing’, but more ‘a sort of pious journalism’, and he cites Jonathan Swift as holding a similar opinion. However, Baxter’s verses, in emulation of George Herbert’s, are still anthologised, read and even more frequently sung in churches. His ‘pious journalism’ about the class structure of the parties to the English Civil War is much used by modern historians: some of them treat him as respectfully as if he were Thucydides. Dr Johnson told Boswell to read ‘any’ of Baxter’s books, since ‘they are all good’; the doctor also admitted to Reynolds that in his own conversation he often used a ploy that Baxter used in his sermons, always to say one thing that was above the capacity of his audience – ‘and this I did that they might be kept humble!’ Baxter put difficult things even into his hymns – like the famous ‘Ye Holy Angels Bright’ – and that is why they have been regularly ‘modernised’ over the last three centuries.
This is relevant to Sisson’s other essays, about poetry and about the modern translations of the Bible and the Prayer Book which he so detests. His own poetry (it seems to me) is for the eye rather than the ear: but when he deals with religious language, music and memorability are all-important. No ‘unto’ may become a mere ‘to’, no ‘thee’ a ‘you’, no Jacobean trumpet a mere Hebraic ram’s-horn. ‘As it was in the beginning’ (when Sisson was confirmed) ‘is now and ever shall be.’
My youngest son has a poem of Sisson’s in the form of a wall-poster, expressing a complaint about public worship. It is called ‘The Methodists’ and is obtainable from the Inky Parrot Press, Oxford Polytechnic. The poet complains that (‘when I was old enough’), he went to the ‘Men’s Bright Hour’ at a Methodist Church.
The minister with the bald cranium
And floppy side-pieces prayed in confusion:
His prayers were preachings and his preaching prayings
And what he prayed for was the unemployed ...
The men whose hour was said to be bright
Sat round morosely, but they sang out loud
Approving the statistics in the prayers:
‘O Lord, who hast all this information ...’
This form of public worship might not offend Richard Baxter. His favourite quotation from George Herbert was this:
Gold and the Gospel never did agree:
Religion always sides with poverty.
But it seems (if his poem is at all autobiographical) that Sisson found this form of ministry too low and was drawn to the Anglican communion by our apparently perfect manner of worshipping our God. If so, he is a latecomer (like Evelyn Waugh in the Roman communion) and cannot bear the weighty, haunting music to be varied.
He is not alone. All over the south country, from Wallingford to Trafalgar Square, I have seen notices outside churches bearing the magic or holy number ‘1662’, to indicate the date of the Prayer Book in use. In a moderate ‘wet-Tory’ way I support the efforts of Sisson and his friends to make the parsons use the 1662 Prayer Book and the King James Bible; but I am too ‘broad-church’ to want to throw out all the modern versions. They make you think, when you might have been lulled by the old music.
For instance, on the ninth Sunday after Trinity, a churchgoer may hear the parson read: ‘Let your bearing towards one another arise out of your life in Christ Jesus. For the divine nature was his from the first; yet he did not think to snatch at equality with God, but made himself nothing, assuming the nature of a slave.’ This is obscure – but so is the old familiar version: ‘Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.’ Having three modern versions in my house, I looked up the passage and found they were all struggling. ‘He did not cling to His prerogatives as God’s Equal’ (1947). ‘He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped’ (1973). ‘He did not think that by force he should try to become equal with God’ (1976). So I looked up the Greek. They are all struggling to translate the Greek word ‘arpagmon’, which usually means ‘robbery’ or ‘rape’. It did occur to me that it was just possible that ‘arpagmon might be a copyist’s mistake for ‘apragmon – which means ‘no work, leisure, off-duty’. In which case, the difficult sentence might be translated: ‘He did not think that equality with God meant mere idleness.’
Whatever scholars may think of my amateur emendation (and, of course, I would love to know), my point is that new translations read in church make the congregation think. Sissons campaigning for 17th-century language is to be commended: but his pessimism is overdone. The Bible and Prayer Book are stronger than he suggests, and the Church of England is more influential, even authoritative – especially in the local government of our inner cities. Sisson will look on the dark side – growling against the BBC’s religious-magazine feature programmes, without noticing the regular Evensong from the cathedrals.
Sisson has not written as many books as Richard Baxter, but he has over twenty to his credit, including eight hard-worked translations from French, German, Italian and Latin. I value his Catullus of 1966, but more for the ‘pictures’ than for the music. He seems not to want to emulate the regularity of the poets he chooses to translate: one of his Anglican Essays, entitled ‘Poetry and Sincerity’, seems to suggest that our language has reached a ‘stage’ in which regular metre and rhyme are not natural. He does not want a modern poet to ‘separate his language from ordinary language by a conscious patterning’: such an ambition, he says, ‘reflects a critical milieu in which too much is made of the separateness of poetry from ordinary speech on the one hand and from good workmanlike prose on the other ... To liberate the language, even ever so little, from the shadow of what has become familiar, and walk a few paces on firm ground, is still the business of the poet, as it always was.’ (That sort of ‘liberation’, I suppose, is just what the modern revisers of the Bible and Prayer Book are attempting.) If we glance at two of his most recent translations, we note how firmly he resists any temptation to echo his authors’ music.
The Chanson de Roland was written in stanzas of ten-syllabled verse which, Sisson writes, ‘may call for as many as 20 or 30 rhymes or half-rhymes in a stanza – an absurdity in modern English and one which is bound to distort the language so that anything like a natural directness is lost’. So, for the sake of natural directness, he uses roughly eight-syllable lines with very rough rhymes.
The French above all are agreed
Ganelon should die in agony.
Four chargers are brought out and
Tied to Ganelon’s feet and hands ...
Ganelon is lost, his ligaments will
Be stretched intolerably until
All his limbs are torn apart
And his blood flows on the green grass ...
Of this atrocity and others Sisson writes: ‘These things are not as far from us as we should like to think, but they are pleasures from which we avert at least our conversation. The solution of using a garbled and sham antique language, which no one ever spoke, to suggest that people were different in those old times is not open to us ... One has to live with the assumptions of heroic legend without finding them all that strange; and in fact they are not that strange.’ His ‘natural directness’ may be appropriate to such grim matters.
Is his style quite so suitable for the measured verses of Du Bellay?:
En quelle saison
Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison,
Qui m’est une province, – beaucoup d’avantage?
Plus me plaist le sejour qu’on basty mes aveux,
Que des palais Romains le front audacieux,
Plus que le marbre dur me plaist l’ardoise fine ...
At what time of year
Shall I see my not magnificent house which is more
To me than a province, though that may sound silly?
The little place built by my ancestors
Pleases me more than Roman palaces,
And all this marble is nothing to my slate ...
We might prefer to this roughness G.K. Chesterton’s smooth version:
Mightier to me the house my fathers made
Than your audacious heads, O Halls of Rome;
More than immortal marbles undecayed
The thin sad slates that cover up my home ...
If so, we should remember that other poets, like Michael Schmidt, hear in Sisson’s verse ‘a dominant and subtle rhythm that owes its expressive freedom to a close reading of the work of Ezra Pound’.
It may seem surprising that so bold a translator should be so angry at the modern versions of the Bible and the Prayer Book. One reason is, of course, his reverence for the established versions: but another is his sense, as a ‘modern’ translator, that the new style is not modern at all, but old-hat, like that of ‘the Daily Telegraph or some other “quality” paper’. Another reason is his self-assurance in his sense of rhythm. Comparing the old and new Prayer Books, he writes: ‘Perhaps only a trained palate would observe the difference here, and markedly prefer the older version ... As to rhythm, the Confession drags along like a lump of dead meat; but those who do not see that cannot be made to see it.’
He is in the right of it, I dare say, but he does sometimes sound like Jonah prophesying the fall of Nineveh, when that city needed only renovation, or reformation. Baxter has a story about his preaching at St Dunstan’s (before the new Prayer Book of 1662 was authorised) when some bricks fell down from the roof and the congregation dashed out, leaving scarves and shoes, fearing that the Wrath of God had come upon them. Baxter sat in his pulpit waiting for them to come in again – whereupon some of them stood on a bench and broke it with their weight and ‘the noise renewed the fear again, so that one old woman was heard at the door asking forgiveness of God for not taking the first warning, and promising, if God would deliver her this once, she would take heed of coming thither again.’ But Baxter, practical man, interpreted God’s message more optimistically and ‘put the parish upon a resolution to pull down all the roof and build it better, which they have done with so great reparation of the walls and steeple that it is now like a new church, and much more commodious for the hearers.’ I hope that C.H. Sisson will look at Richard Baxter again, and take heart from his optimism in a time when the Church of England was, surely, in worse danger than it is today.