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The monsignor who lived at a gentlemen’s club

Mgr Alfred Newman Gilbey

Mgr Gilbey was chaplain to Cambridge University for 100 terms

I have dinner at the Travellers Club in London’s Pall Mall with an author who has written widely on both the Church of England and the Royal Family. I find both topics fascinating and, thanks to my Catholic faith, somewhat alien.

The next reign will be interesting, for Prince Charles does not believe in the Church of England in the way his mother does. After the Queen’s time, we will be one step closer to the abandonment of the idea of a national church in England, and the reasons for keeping the bishops in the House of Lords will seem even more tenuous.

The status of Anglicanism in England will then be closer to that of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Its membership is in freefall, and the Church of England is, according to some studies, perhaps facing extinction in two decades. This is nothing for a Catholic to be pleased about: all churches are in decline. The only difference is in the rate of decline.

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The dining room of the Travellers has a small round table by the door still referred to as “the Monsignor’s table”. Upstairs one can visit, high in the attics, the Monsignor’s chapel. The monsignor was Alfred Newman Gilbey (1901-1998). He was chaplain to Cambridge University for 100 terms, and after his retirement in 1965 he lived at the club. A survivor from an earlier age, surround­ed by a coterie of admirers, he was the author of an excellent book of Catholic apologetics.

On one occasion, as they came down the staircase at the club, a lady remarked to Mgr Gilbey that she had to be careful as she was the oldest person in London. He replied that she couldn’t possibly be older than himself, as the only person in London his senior was the Queen Mother. The lady gave him a strange look. Only at the bottom of the stairs did a wave of realisation come over the monsignor that his companion was in fact the Queen Mother herself. (I have never seen this anecdote in print, so repeat it here for posterity.)

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Somewhat younger than Mgr Gilbey was Fr Jean-Marie Charles Roux, (1915-2014), another highly traditional priest who attracted a cult following in London, and who also lived to a great age. While Mgr Gilbey was a great writ­er, Fr Charles Roux was a great wit and talker. (His prose style, in English translation at least, was difficult to fathom.)

Fr Charles Roux never drank alcohol and, strangely for a Frenchman, he hated garlic and onion. He also claimed to loathe social life and going out in general. He used to point out that he was born in the wrong century, and the world he believed in ceased to be after the French Revolution in 1789. As I get older, I sympathise more and more. Readers might like to give it some thought: what was the year when you and the zeitgeist definitively parted company?

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As I write this, the British government seems to be tottering. By the time you read it, the Prime Minister Theresa May might well be on the way out of Downing Street. Whenever her time comes to an end, and she does seem to have the gift of hanging on, Mrs May has already provided me with my “zeitgeist moment”.

The British government has reportedly refused to offer asylum to Asia Bibi, a Catholic women falsely accused of blasphemy in Pakistan. It has not put pressure on Pakistan to let the family go, although Pakistan is the biggest recipient of British overseas aid. Officials could have sent out a powerful message about British commitment to human rights and concern for prisoners of conscience.

What a missed opportunity, and a reminder that we who stick up for Asia Bibi are the voices in the desert. For that matter, so much for Theresa May’s avowed Christianity.

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My last engagement this week was at a primary school to speak to teachers about the topic of Advent. I spoke of the double coming of the Lord – the first time in humility and silence in Bethlehem, and the second time in glory with angels sounding their trumpets at the Parousia.

The season has two dominant “pictures”. The first is the crib, invented by St Francis at Greccio in 1223. The second is the Last Judgment by Michelangelo. Christ will be our Judge on the Last Day, and Mary, our most gracious advocate, will be our lawyer, pleading for our salvation.

I became aware when explaining the meaning of Michelangelo’s work, which is based on certain verses from the Book of Daniel, that judgment and hell are not common concepts in Catholic discourse these days. As for sin, the new term for that, I was told, is “poor choices”, as the word “bad” is to be avoided. Another indication, if any were needed, that I am out of sympathy with the zeitgeist – or is it the other way around?

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a moral theologian and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald