Saturday, 24 May 1997

All eyes on left
on the new vicar


Over-protective and demanding parents often have children who, as adults, turn their anger on each other. The sight of Ann Widdecombe and Michael Howard publicly playing their part in the destruction of the Tory Party is part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy to British politics.

But if there is a Thatcher legacy that will outlast the Tory leadership race then it must be the humour generated to lighten those years and, in particular, the “Dear Bill” letters in Private Eye.

Private Eye has lost no time in lampooning the Blairs, with a new parish newsletter, St Albion Parish News, edited by Alistair Campbell, complete with a letter from the vicarage by the new vicar who insists on being called Tony, rumours about the vicarage cat, and a profile of “Our New Vicar” – by “Mr Mandelson”.

With all the sleaze and scandal surrounding so many Tories, it was difficult not to pillory the Conservatives when they claimed to be the party of family values. According to Bishop Richard Harries of Oxford, the Conservatives lost the election because they had lost their sense of decency. He did not mince his words in the Church Times: “There was, I suspect, a sense of extreme distaste at the scandals and squabbles of the Tory Party; a sense that something sour and squalid needed to be spat out; a sense of decency betrayed...”

But when New Labour lays claim to Christian values it may be more difficult to engage in banter and criticism. It is a common aphorism, quoted recently by two Labour MPs, Hilary Armstrong and Paul Boateng, that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than it does to Marxism.

Today, the Christian Socialist Movement, with 5,000 members, is the fastest-growing of the 13 socialist societies affiliated to the Labour Party. The CSM was founded in 1960 by Tom Driberg, Donald Soper, George McLeod of Iona and Bishop Mervyn Stockwood. But the roots of the movement go back further to early Christian Socialists such as John Ludlow, Charles Kingsley, and F.D. Maurice and their successors a generation later, including Bishop Charles Gore, editor of Lux Mundi, and Henry Scott Holland, who argued for a Christian economics in which common ownership was the only effective means of dismantling the privileges of inherited wealth and capitalism.

Although it was once said that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer, Christian Socialism had a particular appeal to High Church Anglo-Catholics. In 1923, Bishop Frank Weston explained that appeal: “You cannot worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.”

But the Conservative Party has long ceased to be the Church of England at prayer. At a Tory conference, Margaret Thatcher once referred to the bishops as “a few cuckoos in the spring”. The clashes were numerous: the reports on The Church and the Bomb and Faith in the City, the miners’ strike, the Falklands memorial service...

Canon Paul Oestreicher of Coventry Cathedral claims: “Through the long period of Margaret Thatcher's rule, when the Labour Party was a most ineffective opposition, there was no group of people she more resented than the bishops of the Church of England.”

Times have changed, and the new parliament is interesting for a number of record-breaking figures, including more women and more representatives of ethnic minorities. And now the Christian Socialist Movement is boasting that it has ministers in “almost every” government department, and that the election has put “swathes more” Christian MPs on the backbenches.

The most prominent member of the CSM is the new Prime Minister, a life-long admirer of Archbishop William Temple. Recently, Tony Blair wrote the forward to Reclaiming the Ground, a collection of essays by CSM members in memory of the Labour social historian R.H. Tawney. Other contributors included the late Labour leader John Smith, an elder in the Church of Scotland.

The editor of the essays, Christopher Bryant, failed to enter the Commons on the tide that swept Labour to victory. At Oxford, a young Chris Bryant sparred with William Hague about the nature of Conservatism. Today, Mr Hague (36) is a contender for the Tory leadership and Mr Bryant (35) is reflecting on his defeat by Sir Ray Whitney in Wycombe, where he lost by 2,370 votes despite a 13.6 per cent swing from the Tories.

The Rev Chris Bryant was youth officer for the Bishop of Peterborough before finding a career in politics as full-time organiser for the Labour Party in Holborn and St Pancras and political agent for Frank Dobson MP, the new Health Secretary. For the past four years, he has chaired the Christian Socialist Movement.

The Clerical Disabilities Act 1870 forced Chris Bryant to resign as a priest of the Church of England before he could seek election, although there are no similar restrictions on the clergy of other churches, including the Rev Martin Smyth and the Rev Ian Paisley.

Other contributors to Reclaiming the Ground fared well at the polls and have found favour with Tony Blair. Hilary Armstrong, an active Methodist and former permanent private secretary to John Smith, has become an Environment and Transport minister. Chris Smith, a Presbyterian and vice-president of the CSM, is the new Heritage Secretary. And Paul Boateng is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary.

Other prominent CSM members include the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. And the new Labour MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Paul Goggins, is a former national co-ordinator of Church Action on Poverty.

Although the Church of England may be closer to disestablishment with this new government, never before have so many government ministers admitted their political values have been shaped and formed by their church membership.

Now, the Church Times says, “those who voted Labour will watch Mr Blair with interest to see if he can deliver his manifesto promises at no extra cost to themselves. They doubt it, but their scepticism is good-humoured at present. If the mood persists, Mr Blair will find that they would rather pay more than to see the job only half done.”

And that’s where the watching and waiting will prove interesting.

This opinion column was published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Saturday 24 May 1997.

Tuesday, 13 May 1997

An Irishman’s Diary:

Patrick Comerford

TAGHMON in south Co Wexford is celebrating a handful of anniversaries. Seven miles outside Wexford town, Taghmon was once a corporate borough and returned two MPs until the Act of Union.

According to the local historian Tom Williams, chairman of the Taghmon Historical Society and editor of the society’s Journal, Taghmon was founded 1,400 years ago in the year 597 by Saint Fintan or Munn, who gave the village its name – Teach Munn or Munn’s House.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Taghmon’s best known curate, the Rev Henry Francis Lyte, author of the hymn ‘Abide with Me.’ And to add to the celebrations, St Munn’s Church – rebuilt in 1818 two years after Lyte left the parish – was reopened and rededicated two months ago after an extensive rebuilding and renovation programme following the disastrous collapse of the roof and ceiling last autumn.

Special Edition

The church stands on the site of the cell of Saint Munn, who died in 636. By the year 960 the monastery was derelict, but the remains of an old Celtic cross close to the church is said to mark the saint’s grave.

To mark the anniversaries, Archbishop Walton Empey launched a special edition of Tom Williams’ journal last month. The journal also acknowledges the contribution of the parish to the 1798 Rising.

Among the British troops sent to Ireland in 1798 was Captain Thomas Lyte, who settled first at Dunmore, Co Galway, and later at Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, with Anna Marie Oliver, who claimed to be his wife, and their three sons. However, at the age of nine, the young Henry Francis Lyte was abandoned when his father married Eliza Naghten in Roscommon, ran away from both Anna Marie and his debtors, and settled in Jersey, where he had eight more children. Anna Marie moved back to England, leaving the three boys to fend for themselves, and she soon became destitute.

Henry was alone and without any means of support, but the Rev Robert Burrowes, headmaster of Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, took a special interest in him. Burrowes, who had resigned as Archdeacon of Ferns and Rector of Adamstown, Co Wexford, at the height of the 1798 Rising, paid for Lyte’s schooling at Portora and encouraged him to go on to Trinity College, Dublin.

Despite poverty, difficulties and hardships, Lyte did well at Trinity, won three poetry prizes, was elected a scholar, and changed his mind about studying medicine, turning his attention to the ministry.

Against all the rules, he was ordained a deacon and priest in 1814 and 1815 within months of each other at the age of 21. Through Burrowes’ contacts in Co Wexford, Lyte was appointed curate of Taghmon, where the new Rector was the Rev Simon Little. Little had succeeded Canon Robert Hawkshaw, whose family gave their name to Hawkshaw's Bridge nearby, and who was Rector of Taghmon during 1798; later his son Samuel married Ellen King, whose father owned Scullabogue Barn, scene of one of the worst atrocities during the Rising.

A Dreary Curacy

Lyte described his 18 months in Taghmon as a “dreary curacy” and too remote from town life, and moaned the loss of “the comfort, the society and the carelessness” he had explained of the constant intrusions, the long dinner parties (!), and the time he had to give to neighbours and parishioners.

But the spiritual outlook and religious values of the unhappy curate were changed as he watched the death of a neighbouring rector, the Rev Abraham Swanne, and took over his duties in the parish of Killurin. Swanne died on February 8th, 1816, at the age of 44. His faith in the face of death, and the effect of his death on his three tiny children, transformed Lyte and brought him close to a mental and physical breakdown.

One of his last acts was to chair the Easter Vestry in Killurin in 1816. Soon after he left for the Continent to convalesce in France and Italy. In Jersey, he met his father once again, and was godfather to his own half brother, Thomas Henry Lyte.

Henry Francis Lyte never returned to Taghmon; instead he settled in the south of England, where he met and married Anne Maxwell, daughter of a Co Monaghan clergyman and a cousin of the Maxwell Barry family who gave their name to Newtownbarry, now Bunclody, in Co Wexford. With this marriage, Lyte received a welcome legacy that allowed him to pay his debts to Burrowes and to live in comfort for the rest of his days.

His last parish was Brixham, where he was vicar for 23 years. There his reputation grew as a hymn writer, and his famous works included: ‘Praise My Soul the King of Heaven’; ‘God of Mercy, God of Grace’; and ‘Pleasant are Thy Courts Above’.

Greatest Memorial

Lyte’s health never recovered fully after his experiences in Taghmon and Killurin, and he spent long winters in Naples, the Tyrol and Switzerland, away from his family and his parish. During his last serious illness, in September 1847, he wrote his last and greatest hymn, ‘Abide with Me!’, inspired by the view of the ebbing and flowing tides from his vicarage and his own failing health. By now he was afflicted with TB; he sent the manuscript to his wife from Avignon, and proceeded to Nice, where he died on November 20th, 1847.

Today, Lyte is commemorated by plaques in St Munn's Church, Taghmon, Westminster Abbey, at Portora, in Brixham, and at his birthplace near Kelso in Scotland. But his greatest memorial is ‘Abide with Me!’, one of the most popular hymns ever written. The words, which have brought comfort to many with their message of permanence amidst decay, are sung at funerals and Remembrance Day services around the world and are a regular feature at Wembley cup finals.

The Rev Derek Milton, Lyte’s successor as vicar of All Saints’, Brixham, hopes this year’s anniversary of ‘Abide with Me!’ and Lyte’s death will help save the church where Lyte was vicar from 1824 to 1847.

All Saints’ contains many memories of the poet priest, including the pulpit he preached from, but has fallen on hard times. Mr Milton says the church needs around £100,000 but the parish has an annual income of barely £20,000 and All Saints’ is having to run faster and faster just to stand still.

“The Gospel can’t be financed on fresh air and faith alone. All we are doing is paying our running costs,” he says amid the encircling gloom of late 20th century finances.

On the other hand, the rescue and reopening of St Munn’s Church in Taghmon brings particular joy to Canon Norman Ruddock, who is not only Rector of Wexford but can claim to be Lyte’s successor as his parish now includes both Taghmon and Killurin.

This feature was published as ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in ‘The Irish Times’ on 13 May 1997.