“You’re entitled to your opinions but I dislike your tone.” How often we heard that … by “we” I mean Anglo-Catholics in the decades when we were resisting innovations such as the “ordination” of women.
Our objectionable “tone” was often exemplified in a magazine New Directions, where much of the laughter arose from pieces written by the Revd Dr Geoffrey Kirk, parish priest of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in South London.
He was for years the secretary of our campaigning group Forward in Faith; he entered into Full Communion through the ordinariate in 2012, and died on the morning of Good Friday this year. May he rest in the peace and glory of the everlasting Pasch.
The great and the good cannot abide being laughed at. Had we merely whinged, they would have condescendingly told us that they Felt Our Pain. But mockery … wrong rules, wrong game. And Geoffrey knew how to play that game. Memorable figures appeared in his prose: Archdeacon Armitage Shanks, for example, an illustration of the typical Anglican Establishment apparatchik (non-British readers may need to be informed that in our country much of the porcelain in public urinals bears the name of the manufacturing firm Armitage Shanks).
Geoffrey Kirk stood in a distinguished tradition of Anglican satirists, many of whom became Catholics. In the previous generation, there had been Mgr “Ronnie” Knox. A collection of his satirical pieces demolished much of the scholarly nonsense of his own day. For example, he took the methodology by which “Modern Biblical Scholarship” had undermined Scripture, and used it to demonstrate that Pilgrim’s Progress was “really” written by a high-church Anglican lady.
Knox suggested that satire is the true purpose for which Providence gave us laughter. “One thing there is that [the tyrant] still fears; one anxiety still bids him turn this way and that to scan the faces of his slaves. He is afraid of laughter. The satirist stands there, like the little child in the procession when the Emperor walked through the capital in his famous new clothes; his is the tiny voice that interprets the consciousness of a thousand onlookers: ‘But Mother, he has no clothes on at all!’”
St John Henry Newman, in his Loss and Gain, took aim at the monied ease of the Anglican clerical elite: “… a young clergyman, with a very pretty girl on his arm, whom her dress pronounced to be a bride. Love was in their eyes, joy in their voice, and affluence in their gait and bearing.” An exacting Anglican critic, Professor Henry Chadwick, called Newman “an unsurpassed master of English prose. Deeply sensitive and subtle … stamped with high culture … he was a formidable controversialist, as supreme a master of irony and satire as any in our literature [my emphasis]”.
What have those formed in Anglicanism to contribute to a Catholic appropriation of satire? Simply, that we placed great emphasis on things like episcopacy, and yet were given in return so much evidence how very earthen were the vessels in which these high wonders were lodged. It was precisely this interplay in via between faith and realism that Dom Gregory Dix expressed when he reminded his Anglican hearers that the heraldic symbol of a bishop was a crook, and, of an archbishop, a double cross.
Was there ever a time in Church history so ready-made for satire? Franciscans in the Vatican Gardens prostrated before … whatever. The papal MC tucking a bowl of Amazonian weeds behind the baroque candlesticks in St Peter’s. The papal lexicon of insults …
Now that so little Latin is taught in seminaries, there must be acres of syllabus-room for courses on satire. To conceal what was going on, these courses could appear on the lecture-lists as “Geoffrey Kirk Workshops”.
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