The God of Surprises strikes again; I am spending the summer term as Acting Head of Religious Studies & Liturgy at More House School, on the corner of Pont Street and Sloane Street, London. Founded by the Canonesses of St Augustine in 1952 with just three girls, it grew rapidly before passing into lay management in 1970. When a sudden funding crisis precipitated whispers of closure almost immediately, the pupils took matters into their own hands.
With placards a-waving they marched on nearby Archbishop’s House and demanded that Cardinal Heenan save their school. As Helena says of Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “though she be but little she is fierce”. Heenan was persuaded of their cause and duly obliged; with a funding guarantee from the diocese More House moved to its present site in Belgravia a year later. There it continues to thrive under the patronage, at least in earthly terms, of Cardinal Nichols.
On the heavenly side of things the nuns chose for their school’s patron saint a local boy, St Thomas More. Maybe I am not alone among the readers of these pages in knowing him best through Paul Scofield’s magnificent portrayal in Fred Zinneman’s Academy Award-winning A Man for All Seasons of 1966. Its star-studded cast included a young Dame Vanessa Redgrave as the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, and Orson Welles as an unforgettable and equally ill-fated Cardinal Wolsey.
Two lines from that film have always stood out for me: first, More’s eloquent defence of the principle of English jurisprudence to “give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake”; secondly, his chiding of the solipsistic Richard Rich, the new Attorney-General for Wales (played by Sir John Hurt) towards the end of his trial. “For Wales? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?!” It is a moment of light humour – divine comedy, perhaps – at a point when More surely knows that his life is lost, but his soul saved.
More’s historical legacy is contested, certainly; he was no friend of heretics and as Lord Chancellor he saw to it that the law was applied to the full extent of the brutality that was normal at the time. He was a controversial figure in his own day, but a principled one: “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” As the English establishment descended into chaos over Henry VIII’s divorce and remarriage – the king’s “Great Matter” – More kept his head figuratively, only to lose it literally in the end.
One of my present duties is to organise part of “St Thomas More Day”, which the school keeps on the Friday nearest to June 22, the feast day that More has shared with St John Fisher since their beatification by Leo XIII in 1886. A morning Mass followed by a half-holiday of house rounders in the park; sunshine, straw hats and sandwiches. I am in charge of the logistics of the first part, in tandem with More House’s stellar music department and our valued friend Fr Paschal Ryan from Holy Redeemer & St Thomas More, Chelsea.
This year the nearest Friday to the feast is June 24; so the usual votive of Ss John Fisher & Thomas More is displaced by the solemnity of the Sacred Heart, which itself bumps the feast of the Nativity of the Baptist back a day and also gazumps St John’s second vespers. It all makes for a heady and impressive confluence on which to reflect on themes of conscience, suffering and martyrdom; not an easy line-up when it comes to choosing the hymns. Helpfully, Ronald Knox led the way in The New Westminster Hymnal of 1939, deftly co-opting St Thomas Becket to complete the set.
When Herod, for an impious bride,
His eager lust would fain fulfil,
John in that hour a martyr died,
Unschooled to serve a tyrant’s will.
Nor less resolved, when Norman rage
The rights of holy Church gainsaid,
That wanton fury to assuage
Thomas his glorious blood must shed.
So, when a tyrant fiercer yet
His wedlock and his faith forswore,
A second John his sentence met,
A second Thomas witness bore.
Time-serving priests their aid might lend,
Smooth courtiers tremble at his sway;
Two loyal hearts no force could bend
Their God, their conscience to betray.
O love that burned when love grew cold,
O faith that shone when faith was dim,
The Cross your Master bore of old
You bore to Calvary with him.
Twin beacon-lights, serenely set
At God’s right hand for all the earth,
Look down on England, nor forget
The thankless home that gave you birth;
To freedom and to wisdom friends,
Look on a world unwisely free;
To bear the cross our Master sends
How slow, how frail, how faint are we!
To God, who crowns his saints above,
Be praise henceforth as heretofore,
Who throned in perfect truth and love
Liveth and reigneth evermore.
I reckon that’ll do nicely. Now all we have to do is find a tune.
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