First Person

Young and High: An Ecclesiastic Memoir

churchFrom time to time, those of us who like picking through the “book bargains” at an op shop or church fete might come across a volume with a small silver-and-black sticker in the lower right corner of the inside front cover with the words “Diocesan Book Society” on it. Booksellers’ labels of this sort are a thing of the past, superseded by barcodes. Anyone who doesn’t remember them, picking up this book, might think at first that the label was that of a library, to which the book had never been returned, or that possibly it denoted a long-gone literary society, where members discoursed on their latest reading and bibliophiles could savour bindings and buckram, like oenophiles sniffing and sipping at the Vintage Club. But social though it was in a certain sense, the Diocesan Book Society was no club. It was a retail bookshop. The book from the bargain stall with its faded sticker will most probably be a work of Anglican ecclesiology or devotion, such being the works in which the DBS, as it was known to initiates, had been established to deal. The “Diocesan” referred to the bookshop’s owner, the Church of England (that was still the name) Diocese of Melbourne, whose cathedral, St Paul’s, thrust its crocketed neo-Gothic spires heavenward across the street.

Even in its heyday in the 1950s the Diocesan Book Society was hardly a household name. This reclusive shop in the centre of Melbourne had no street frontage or shop window. To reach its aerie on the fourth floor of a grey concrete building in Flinders Lane called Regency House you had to take a lift. When the lift was out of order you either climbed the stairs or came back another day. Regency House is an imposing name, far more imposing than the building itself, whose foyer and corridors were dark and gloomy. Flinders Lane was then the centre of the “rag trade” and among the other tenants of Regency House were a frock manufacturer, a firm of cotton spinners, a button merchant and a dealer in tailors’ trimmings, small importers and manufacturers’ agents and, two floors below the Diocesan Book Society, the workroom of the Orchestrelle Company, purveyors of the player pianos and perforated paper rolls that brought the delights of the keyboard to the musically unskilled in many a suburban home.

No conservationist voices were raised in protest when Regency House and its neighbours came crashing down in the late 1960s in a Blitz-like demolition to make room for Melbourne’s City Square, an ill-conceived area of public space subsequently snatched back from the public to become the site of an obtrusively ugly hotel. Consigned to dust with Regency House was the quaint laneway known as Regent Place with its poky shops and cafés—the Old London Tea and Coffee House, the Little London Gift Shop (British names had the retail appeal in those days that Italian ones have today), the Number 2 Coffee Lounge, Tim the Toyman and the Peter Piper bookshop. Also demolished was a host of better-known establishments such as the Cathedral Hotel, an Italianate palazzo on the corner of Swanston Street; Wynn’s Wine Bar, London Baby Carriages, the Test cricketer Lindsay Hassett’s sports store, Green’s Building, which housed the Australian Soviet Friendship Society (where apologists for Stalin, bearded and literary, foregathered) and the Queen Victoria Buildings, mansarded and exuberantly ornamented in Second Empire style, with a statue of Her late Majesty in a niche high above and, down below at street level, Queen’s Walk Arcade where men’s outfitter Henry Buck had his august and thickly carpeted premises. A much mourned loss around the corner in Collins Street was Ernest Hillier’s stately 1920s chocolate shop and soda fountain, with its lady cashier presiding from a high panelled bench like a magistrate in court. All went the way of Nineveh and Tyre to clear a whole city block for what was trumpeted as Melbourne’s answer to Trafalgar Square.

The Diocesan Book Society had closed some years before its premises were demolished. It was never actually thronged with customers; ignorance of its existence excluded passing trade, and a high proportion of those who ventured up in the lift wore clerical collars. Vicars went there for their theological books, and church organists to buy their sheet music. I, neither vicar not organist, became a customer because for a time I belonged to a species rare then and I should think extinct in this post-Christian era, the schoolboy Anglo-Catholic.

There were several of us at my private school, the non-Anglican Wesley College, all older than I. They were in the sixth form and I was in the fifth when we became friendly at a school Student Christian Movement camp—I suppose we saw ourselves as a kind of aesthetic leaven in the lump of earnest Methodist social consciousness which constituted (I now recognise to its credit) official school Christianity. I was attracted by the Anglo-Catholics’ jokes about eccentric clergymen and their amusing “churchy” talk. All things to do with churches interested me. I liked looking at them as buildings and seeing what went on inside them. As a very small boy I used to draw elaborate pictures of Gothic churches with soaring vaults and multi-vestmented services in progress. These were usually admired by adults for their draughtsmanship, until I reached an age at which, according to unasked busybodies, I ought to have been spending the time playing football or cricket or engaging in some other manly pursuit, when the subject of my sketching began to be regarded as evidence of religious mania or worse.

From the time I had a bike I loved riding around the suburbs and peering into churches. Anglican churches tended to be open every day then (Roman Catholic churches always were) and there was a thrill of expectation as I stepped into the porch of some bluestone fane with its notices and bell rope and a single glove left on a table awaiting a claimant, its set of shelves on the wall beside the door with neatly arranged rows of the Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient & Modern and its three or four unsold copies of last week’s Anglican gathering dust. (That journal deserves a footnote of its own. The Anglican was published by one of Australia’s few true eccentrics, Francis James, and edited by his wife Joyce. James, an RAAF pilot who enlisted in the RAF at the time of the Battle of Britain, was a war hero, his face badly burnt when he was shot down over France. From 1969 to 1973 he was imprisoned in China as a spy. In 1960 his Anglican Press was the target of a takeover attempt by Frank Packer, whose minions tried to occupy its offices near Sydney’s Central Station by force. There were unedifying scenes, and pictures in the paper of bishops and other directors of the company jostling the assailants and barricading the entrance.)

It was bliss to me to push open the felt-padded inner door that led from a church porch into the nave and survey a whitewashed nineteenth-century interior where specks of dust floated in the red, blue and yellow light that streamed down from plate-traceried windows and the air smelled of damp plaster, brass polish and wilting flowers. Or I might find myself in one of the dimly lit, red, dark-brown or yellow brick both inside and out churches, some of them minor masterpieces, with which the busy architectural practice of Louis Williams had furnished pretty well every Melbourne suburb, sometimes twice over, from the time of the First World War.

Many of the churches I visited were unfinished. The older ones, begun before the financial crash of the 1890s, often lacked their intended tower or spire. The newer ones had generally been planned in stages, to be completed as funds accrued, a pious ambition thwarted by rises in building costs after the Second World War; so that the transepts or apse or tower so confidently depicted on the architect’s drawing hanging in the vestry had had to be abandoned or built to a cheaper modified design.

I observed that some churches were more plainly furnished than others, that although all had organs and pulpits and various amounts of stained glass, the Roman Catholic churches were much more elaborately fitted out with intricate marble altars, forests of candles, gaudily painted statues and big crucifixes on which the figure, all woebegone expression and mouth turned down at the corners, was painted a deathly grey-pink and rather too realistically wounded for comfortable contemplation, no doubt intentionally. Methodist and Presbyterian churches, or the few I managed to get into—they were never accessible outside service times—had the organs and pulpits but no statues or candles and instead of an altar a wooden table unadorned except perhaps for a Bible open on it.

Anglican churches varied in their appointments, depending on where they stood on the spectrum of what Anglicans call “churchmanship”—whether they were High or Low Church, or, as most were, “middle of the road” (except in Sydney, which was outside my territory, where they were all Low). High, in a nutshell, was more like the Roman Catholics. Low, or Evangelical, was as un-RC-looking as it could be made, representing the stream in Anglicanism that emphasised the reformed nature of the Church of England (the “Protestant reformed religion” as the Coronation service calls it). Middle was sometimes more like one, sometimes closer to the other. You could always tell where on the spectrum a church stood by its furnishings, especially those in the sanctuary. If the altar had a big brass cross on it and two flower vases, or no cross and a capacious brass collection plate, that was Low and very Low respectively. More usually there were two candlesticks as well as a cross, indicating that the churchmanship was “moderate”. If it was a little Higher there was a red sanctuary lamp hanging overhead, although at that time generally without a reserved sacrament for it to signify. A bit Higher again and there was a crucifix above the pulpit and the sacrament reserved in a cupboard on the sanctuary wall called an aumbry (for the communion of the sick, it was explained; not for any kind of worship or adoration, which would be reprehended as idolatry). Higher again was Anglo-Catholic, with six candles on the altar and a tabernacle for the sacrament in the Roman Catholic manner: Low Church bishops loathed tabernacles and sought with varying degrees of success—the outcome often determined by the personality of the vicar—to have them removed.

Years before I had heard of the Diocesan Book Society I was quite an authority on these indicators of churchmanship. I knew too that the more elaborate the appointments the more liturgically elaborate the services would be. I used to tiptoe into the vestry, heart in mouth lest someone should come in and take me for a burglar, to see what further liturgical paraphernalia the church might have, and particularly whether there were eucharistic vestments hanging in the cupboard, a sine qua non of Highness. It was always disappointing to find just a bunch of surplices with possibly a stole or two, especially if the sanctuary appointments had led one to expect more.

This interest in churches marked me out as “strange”, as the occasional bemused adult hinted to my mother; the prevailing view among respectable people was that churches were fine for weddings and even for occasional Sunday attendance but there was nothing to commend them beyond that, and as for being interested in them, well, who knew where that kind of thing would lead? It could hardly be healthy. It was not until years later that I heard of John Betjeman and English ecclesiologists and found that to people like them church-visiting was a perfectly normal pastime. Subsequently, with the publication of Nikolaus Pevsner’s magnificent Buildings of England series, it became more like a mass movement—in England though never in Australia, not even now.

When an Anglo-Catholic school friend took me into town to the Diocesan Book Society one day after school, I saw at once that its stock of church books was right up my street. My only regret was that my means (five shillings a week from Saturday mornings serving petrol at my father’s garage plus as much as I could filch unnoticed from the “bill drawer” where my mother kept her loose change) would never qualify me as one of the Society’s big spenders. The Anglo-Catholic boys at school had accumulated far more books than I, and I used to spend my little all trying to catch up, locking my acquisitions in a cupboard, to avoid furnishing further evidence of religious mania.

My income from sources legitimate and illegitimate ran to around a book a month of the latest titles that rolled like an everlasting stream from the then flourishing church publishing companies in England. This was an era when the Church of England, both in its homeland and in Australia, was filled with a confidence not seen since. Keen young vicars were creating cadres of churchgoers in their parishes to knock on the doors of the lapsed and indifferent, street by street. They talked much of the “parish community” and arranged “loyalty dinners” and “every-member” canvasses to persuade parishioners out of the sixpence-in-the-plate mentality and into the habit of “pledging” a fixed amount each week to put the church finances “on a sound footing”. The Church’s liturgy as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, last revised in 1928, was spoken of by these same vicars as “irrelevant”; they wanted it put into “modern English” and they wanted the service they called Parish Communion to replace the Choral Matins—a Cranmerian compilation of psalms, prayers and Bible readings with a lengthy sermon—that was the Sunday morning staple in most “middle” and Low Anglican parishes—which in Melbourne meant most parishes.

All these concerns were reflected in the stock of the Diocesan Book Society, whose most prolific supplier of pastoralia, theology and liturgy was the publishing firm of A. & R. Mowbray & Co of London and Oxford, founded in the nineteenth century. Mowbray’s books had a distinctive appearance—paper-bound for cheapness but with stiffer covers than most paperbacks and sometimes a dust-wrapper as well. If I pick one up today that era flashes back and I am standing in the Diocesan Book Society wishing I could afford that one, and that one and that one.

Most confident of all in this confident era were the Anglo-Catholics, fastest growing of the several disparate streams that, regarding each other with varying degrees of mutual distaste, constituted the Church of England and, around the world, the Anglican Communion. The Diocesan Book Society stocked a number of Anglo-Catholic books with titles such as This is the Mass, a photographic portrayal of the various stages of what I would still defy any liturgical expert to distinguish in external details from the Roman Catholic Mass in the Tridentine form but which was in fact an Anglo-Catholic version. The photographs depicted a rite that, beyond its sacramental essentials, bore little relation to the simple communion services from the Book of Common Prayer celebrated in the parish church my parents attended and where I was a Sunday School teacher and server (or altar boy, though the holy table was never called the altar). St Mary’s in Caulfield was Low Church, or as Anglo-Catholics would put it, “prot”. Several times when serving there at the communion I attempted to add a bit of Catholic tone by crossing myself and bowing in the approved This is the Mass way, until the vicar, an avuncular chaplain in the RAAF reserve, told me gently not to. There had been complaints.

I now think that ceremonial gestures and other outward indications of piety were pretty much the substance of my Anglo-Catholicism and that I had no great depth of spirituality. This was probably the same for the other boys in our little group at school, although one did later become an Anglican priest. Ceremonial was certainly a chief attraction of our attendance at the ultramontane devotions of an Anglo-Catholic society called the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, whose exercises in liturgical exoticism seemed always to be held on a wet night. Our group would gather in town for a toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich, perhaps at the Number 2 Coffee Lounge, then take the tram through city streets shining after the rain to Eastern Hill and Melbourne’s one full-blooded Anglo-Catholic place of worship, St Peter’s. There in the chilly church we would join scarved and overcoated members of the Confraternity at the service of Benediction, a Roman Catholic rite appropriated by Anglo-Catholics, and kneel in adoration as the host, Christ’s body, was solemnly held high in a glittering gilt monstrance in a mist of blue-grey incense and a jangle of bells.

For me the spectacle induced a frisson of guilty pleasure. It was so inexpressibly remote from anything ever likely to be experienced in the world in which the rest of my life was lived: incense on a wet night in a dimly lit church with the kind of worshippers—some rather shabby, some ostentatiously pious, some, well, odd-looking—that my parents were unlikely ever to encounter in their social life or at St Mary’s. Of course I never told my parents exactly where I’d been, just “into town” with some friends from school. The evening invariably concluded with a visit to Ernest Hillier’s for church gossip over a milkshake or an improbably green lime spider before the long tram journey home to the suburbs, where the smoke of the incense was exchanged for the smoke of my father’s Rothmans as he sat up reading the Herald.

Trams loomed large in my religious peregrinations at a time when Anglo-Catholic churches in sprawling Melbourne were few and too far between to be got to by bike. Periodically after school I would take a long slow journey on the Number 96 to East Brunswick, already a Mediterranean enclave in our Anglo-Saxon city but not yet considered chic, to make my confession to a very High Church vicar. Kneeling at a prie-dieu in the empty church (for some reason Anglo-Catholic churches did not have private confessional boxes among their generally Roman appointments), my face six inches from a crucifix hanging on the puce brick wall, I whispered my catalogue of sins, which I had prepared (when I was supposed to be doing homework) with the assistance of an Anglo-Catholic manual of self-examination bought at the Diocesan Book Society.

The really embarrassing sin was lust, or impurity as it was tactfully called in the manual, and I muttered that, yes, I had been guilty of impurity. I blushingly drew a veil over the commonest sin of puberty and confessed instead that in the shadows behind the hall where the school dance was being held I’d slid my hand over the architecturally-brassièred breast of my date (this was rated number three, upstairs outside, on the schoolboy of the day’s scorecard of sexual conquest). In truth I ought to have confessed that I had no interest in her at all, that I didn’t like the smell of her breath and that I had only kissed and touched her because I was trying to persuade myself that my frequent impure thoughts directed towards my own sex were not to turn out to be normative for me, as I feared in my heart of hearts they would—and as I have no doubt the similarly oriented thoughts of not a few adolescent Anglo-Catholics I encountered were for them.

The scope for Anglo-Catholic expression at school was not large, apart from Divinity classes where there was always the opportunity for spirited debate with the chaplain, a Christian Socialist from England with a sense of humour, a trait not universally associated with socialists. What insufferable brats he must have thought us, so sure of ourselves and our opinions. And yet obsessions and weird ideas are not uncommon among adolescents, and if our predilections were considered eccentric they did not impede good relations with our contemporaries or participation in the usual school routine like everyone else.

At least our proclivities did not threaten the very fabric of the college, which was more than could be said for three boys who had joined the school printing club, not on account of any Elzevirian love of fonts but because the clubroom was beneath one of the towers regarded as mystic guardians of the school (“Grey towers at night are keeping / Their watch o’er Wesley sleeping”, as a school song put it) and they had decided, in an inspiration that could have come from Ronald Searle, to make the tower collapse. At lunchtime and after school they would climb through a manhole into the roof cavity where brick by brick they were demolishing the load-bearing wall on which the tower rested. If this was hardly consonant with “school spirit” at least they must not have got very far in their labours since the tower is still standing.

My religious practice at home was strictly behind closed doors. In my room I set up a little oratory consisting of a low table with a candle and Prayer Book and three rood figures above it—a nun’s metal crucifix hanging from a tack knocked into the side of a chest of drawers and, flanking it on a shelf I had attached, plaster figurines of Our Lady and St John, bought from the “Catholic Repository” of Messrs Pellegrini, a shop which might have been the Diocesan Book Society reinterpreted in demotic Baroque with a tinge of sentimental Irish. I cringe now to think of this makeshift chapel which, although to my relief my parents never commented on it, must have worried them as evidence that advancing adolescence was not going to cure me of the tendency to an excessive religiosity noted in earlier years. Further evidence came at Christmas when my mother asked me to choose my own present. I asked for the money for the most expensive book I had ever bought at the Diocesan Book Society, The Call of the Cloister, a history of Anglican monasticism by Peter F. Anson. It was not the sort of present she had had in mind. Its being by a distinguished church historian and architectural writer seemed not to reconcile her to my selection as she unenthusiastically wrote a Christmas inscription on the flyleaf.

Yet my parents were not intolerant or bigoted; they were good and kind and intelligent. They saw religion as inward and spiritual, not something to be “paraded about”. They were occasional but devout churchgoers. My father was a traditional Anglican of the time, or—since in this and much else he had inherited his father’s opinions—of his father’s time: Low Church with a vague mistrust of the Roman Catholic Church and what were seen as its machinations, particularly in politics. My father told me that his father informed him that Roman Catholicism always adapted itself like a chameleon to the politics and culture of the times. My grandfather would certainly have regarded High Church Anglicans as “aping Rome”, possibly with a view to steering the Anglican Church towards a rapprochement with—or worse into the clutches of—the Pope. My mother had been a Methodist and had turned Anglican in order that she and my father could go to communion together. I think her opinion of Anglo-Catholicism had not been made more favourable through her dealings with the High Church curate who had prepared her for Anglican confirmation in their previous parish and who was very keen on aping Rome. Like all old-fashioned Anglicans my parents considered themselves Protestants, and although they recited in the Creed that they believed in the Holy Catholic Church they emphatically did not mean the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

Sectarian rivalries in the 1950s were not as ferocious as they had been two or three generations earlier, but in the Australia in which my parents had grown up “Catholics” were still on the wrong side of the fence: Irish and thus anti-British, disloyal even—the always-very-Irish Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Mannix, had opposed conscription in the First World War, and had not the Royal Navy stopped him from landing in Ireland in 1916 for suspicion of what he’d get up to? My mother’s Methodist family used “Mannix” as a synonym for troublemaker. “Stop being a Mannix,” my maternal grandfather would say (as I still do myself sometimes, to see the effect).

Protestants of that era and before were convinced that Catholics were colonising the public service, deliberately grooming the brightest children in their separate school system to run the country. Catholics voted Labor when to many Protestants—and especially to the poorer ones, the “two-bob capitalists”—to do so was a mark of disrespectability. Culturally Catholics lived in another world with their pictures of Sacred Hearts and statues of Mary in their houses and their attendance at Mass under threat of Hell. In postmodern terminology they were the “Other”.

I shall not forget the astonishment when the famous barrister Frank Galbally was invited to address us at school assembly. Here was the “Other” right under our Wesleyan roof; we could not have been more surprised if the Pope himself had turned up. Not only was Galbally a prominent Roman Catholic but his professional principles, it was whispered, were not wholly in accord with the sense of “fair play” inculcated at school, it being generally surmised that those who engaged him for their defence were ipso facto declaring their guilt and should not, as they frequently did thanks to his silver-tongued advocacy, get off.

The sectarian barrier between Catholic and Protestant Australia was dissolving but it was still uncommon for Protestants to have Catholic friends. Anglo-Catholics were seen as tainted by their resemblance to this Roman Catholic “Other”. They defied the assumption that Anglicans were Protestants in a society whose physiognomy was still delineated by the Reformation and its consequences in the British Isles.

Mild parental disapproval was an inconvenience but no hindrance to my practice of Anglo-Catholicism. At the same time I continued somewhat schizophrenically to teach in the Sunday School at St Mary’s, to serve at Holy Communion and even read the lesson at Choral Matins, while looking forward, in common with all Anglo-Catholics, to the day when the Protestant benightedness of such Low Church parishes would vanish as the Church of England reasserted its full status as the only legitimate English branch of Christ’s universal Holy Catholic Church (the Roman Catholic Church in contemporary England we dismissed as a foreign intruder). Great progress had already been made. Australian Anglo-Catholics who visited England came back with glowing reports of cathedrals reinstating pre-Reformation Catholic ceremonial and furnishings (it was a constant disappointment that our own cathedral, St Paul’s, masterpiece of the High Church English architect William Butterfield, remained resolutely Low). We heard how pilgrims flocked to the medieval shrine of Walsingham, destroyed at the Reformation and restored in the twentieth century by Anglo-Catholics, and that its processions and devotions to Our Lady, deplored by Low Church Anglicans as superstitious, were attracting bishops and other respectable members of the ecclesiastical establishment. We read statistics that showed that there were now more monks and nuns (Anglo-Catholic by definition) in the Church of England than when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.

Since whatever happened in Anglicanism in England eventually happened in Australia we saw it as only a matter of time before this swelling Catholic tide would flood through the C of E in this country too. For us it was right and proper in an historical sense that it should. Anglo-Catholics contended that at the Reformation in the sixteenth century there had been no new church started called the Church of England, as Roman Catholic propagandists asserted. Instead, the Church of England was simply the old Catholic Church of earlier years “cleansed” of medieval abuses. We called it Catholicism without the Pope. The clutter of “false” Roman doctrines had been swept away and the factitious and unscriptural pretensions of the papacy to rule the whole Church overthrown, leaving this revitalised Church, its continuity with its pre-Reformation Catholic past unbroken, to carry on its mission to the nation in what the reforming Archbishop Cranmer and those who thought like him imagined to be a state of apostolic purity.

Above all, Anglo-Catholics believed that the Anglican Church had retained that touchstone of Catholic orthodoxy, the Apostolic Succession—bishops being consecrated by bishops in an unbroken line all the way back to Christ himself—without which its clergy and its Eucharist would not be “valid” in Catholic eyes. According to this view the undeniable reality that the Church of England after the Reformation had conducted itself like any other Protestant body was not because it actually was Protestant, as Roman Catholic controversialists such as Sydney’s Dr Rumble maintained, but was a regrettable effect of Establishment, which tied the Anglican Church in Erastian subservience to the state, which in turn had caused Anglicanism’s Catholic heritage to be overlooked for several centuries, until the Tractarians in the nineteenth century “rediscovered” it.

The ceremonial they had concomitantly rediscovered and which I so much enjoyed was defended by Anglo-Catholics against Protestant Anglican objections as the prerogative of a church they believed to be the true Catholic Church in England. There were however obstacles to this view. For instance, the thirty-nine Articles of Religion in the Book of Common Prayer, to which all Anglican clergy had to “assent”, were in the main of decidedly Protestant, even Calvinistic, tenor. High Church clergy presumably assented while believing almost the opposite, but there were plenty of tracts on sale at the Diocesan Book Society that learnedly, if not wholly convincingly, explained that the Articles were patient of a Catholic interpretation; one, by the vicar of a famous Anglo-Catholic church in London, even managed to justify the service of Benediction, which not even all High Church Anglicans approved of. But we in our group approved and one day, we hoped, all Anglican churches would be like St Peter’s and the one in This is the Mass, or if that was too much to expect, then at least they’d have adopted the other form of Anglo-Catholic style and decor called the Sarum Use, which was less Roman in its liturgical style and allegedly more “English”, being based on the medieval rites of Sarum or Salisbury as interpreted and promoted in the 1920s and 1930s by an aesthetically-minded London clergyman called Percy Dearmer. Anglo-Catholics of the sort who went to St Peter’s, Eastern Hill, a church that ticked all the boxes of This is the Mass, derided the product of the Rev. Percy’s researches as “British Museum religion”. For them the legitimate English branch of the Holy Catholic Church should act as though the Reformation had never happened and conform its rites to then contemporary practice in the Roman Catholic Church—that great presence, as much an object of envy as of emulation, brooding over the shoulder of every Anglo-Catholic (just as Melbourne’s vast RC cathedral brooded over the diminutive colonial Gothic of Anglo-Catholic St Peter’s)—a presence with which full reunion must one day be inevitable, even if nobody, least of all in the Roman Church, seemed terribly anxious to hasten that day.

This concern for the “catholicity” of the Church of England—three nouns which if it had been possible in those days to make a computer search would have come up as composing all or part of the titles of a substantial proportion of the Diocesan Book Society’s stock—was evident in the corner of the shop given over to Church Requisites. Some of the requisites were ecclesiastically neutral and cut across the High and Low strands in Anglicanism. Bibles were in this category, and the Book of Common Prayer to a degree, although the Society stocked an English Catholic Prayer Book in which Archbishop Cranmer’s communion rite was printed as a sort of poor relation to an English adaptation of the Latin Mass. Among the requisites in the ecclesiastical brassware section, flower vases carried no High or Low connotations, but a brass cross was “Lower” than a brass crucifix, and a brass thurible so High that demand for it would have been negligible in the Diocese of Melbourne in those days.

The real symbols of division, the objects that separated the Anglo-Catholic sheep from the Protestant goats, were the vestments, those garments I had sneaked into vestries in the hope of finding. These, the alb, the stole and the chasuble with various other accoutrements, had evolved from the days of the early Church to become in the Middle Ages the distinctive attire of Catholic priests saying Mass, as they still are. Their use by Anglicans was fiercely disputed. Anglo-Catholics held, on the basis of their interpretation of a sixteenth-century rubric in the Book of Common Prayer, that Anglican clergymen celebrating Holy Communion were obliged to wear them. Evangelicals wouldn’t have a bar of them; they were “popish rags”, symbols of the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation and all that the sixteenth-century reformers had done away with. It was a source of pride to us Anglo-Catholics that there was a steady trade in vestments at the Diocesan Book Society. A lady called Miss Hammond made them to order, and the number of vicars turning up at Church Requisites to have themselves measured and choose from Miss Hammond’s range of damasks and silks in the liturgical colours of red, green, violet and white, reassured us in our conviction that the sun was setting on Low Churchery in Melbourne. As it turned out, we were wrong. But it was setting on my Anglo-Catholicism.

At the end of the year I failed the fifth-form exams. My Anglo-Catholic companions a year above me sailed gloriously through their Matriculation and into Melbourne University while I disconsolately prepared, with shame and embarrassment, to repeat a year of school. In my depression (or was it that advancing adolescence had effected a cure after all?) I sank from belief into apathy. I still went occasionally to the DBS but only to buy secular books.

It was perhaps providential that the Diocesan Book Society closed when it did, a few years later, rather than be forced to adapt itself to the modern world of book merchandising, as A. & R. Mowbray’s London shop had to do, losing its ecclesiastical character in the process. Yet even with its guaranteed clientele a church bookshop had to some extent to answer to a commercial imperative. The Diocesan Book Society was not subsidised by the Anglican Church, indeed it dispensed grants for church purposes; it must therefore have made a profit. And still it managed to be more like a library one dropped into than a retail enterprise.

It was nice to know that you could look at books for hours and no one seemed to care whether you bought anything. If a vocation to thrusting salesmanship was ever felt by any of the staff it was kept well concealed. Behind the counter several elderly females of the sensible-shoe variety fussed and bumped into each other and wrote out lengthy dockets. A gentleman with a very prominent hearing aid coiling over his collar moved piles of books around. Another wandered around the shop seemingly without a defined activity; both looked as though at sixty-five they still lived at home with Mother. Someone somewhere must have been pasting the stickers into the books. Then there were Miss Hammond in her domain of embroidery and brass and Mr Green the manager, younger than his subordinates, gleaming business efficiency through rimless spectacles. It would have been he who kept the Society’s finances on a sound footing, like those keen young vicars in their parishes.

The shop itself had an austere dignity. You entered it across the hall from the lift, through double doors of the sort that opened into the Ladies’ Lounges of Australian hotels of the pre-gastropub era. The books were laid out on polished tables in a room dark with stained woodwork and sepulchrally quiet; one hardly heard even the cash register; all the customers I saw signed accounts. Nooks in several corners housed particular departments, such as Music and General Books. The latter was not extensive but you could order titles in. Once, after I had a bit more money, I bought Doctor Zhivago there, and was mildly disconcerted when the lady wrapping it remarked that Mr Green was such a nice man he let the staff take the new books home to read. She liked to read at breakfast. Down in the street I plucked through my copy of Doctor Zhivago to make sure there were no bits of corn flake stuck between the pages.

Christopher Akehurst, a contributor to Quadrant over many years, is the editor of Organ Australia.


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