Monday, 22 December 2008

Mysterious ways

Another point of noteworthiness near my office, in some circles at least, is England's oldest Catholic church, St Etheldreda's. It was built in 1250. That's about 650 years older than the oldest buildings in Brisbane. It's sandwiched between two other buildings on Ely Place, Holborn.

Ely Place is another London anomaly - it looks like normal London street (albeit dead-ended by a massive brick wall) but it's guarded by a beadle who sits in his little gate house at the entry to the street, presumably making sure no unsavoury types go near the barristers' chambers and classily understated businesses which fill the grand rows of houses. I think this is because the street happens to still be the responsibility of the Crown, rather than the City of London like most streets. That might be right, who knows... it's nice to see how much my property law knowledge has come along since my arrival in the UK 18 months ago (i.e. not at all).

Moving back to Princess Etheldreda, the church's namesake, she sounds like one of those medieval heroines who was lauded then, but would be a terrible bore now. According to the church website, she hoped to be a nun, but agreed to a politically-motivated arranged marriage with a neighbouring king on the proviso that she could remain a virgin. When her husband tried to talk her around, she ran off and founded a religious community. The website says she then lived a life of "exemplary austerity". There's also a vague hint that she had some sort of supernatural properties which prevented her body from decomposing at the normal rate upon her death. Perhaps it was something to do with all that austerity.

This puts me in mind of Mansfield Park (which I finished reading a few weeks ago), and its heroine who is so prim and disapproving of everything (other than sewing and doing what she's told) that I spent the whole book hoping she'd loosen up a bit and run off with the dashing villain instead of marrying her annoyingly virtuous first cousin.

The website also says Etheldreda was the daughter of "King Anna". Sounds very progressive for 600 AD.

More recently, the church has been the subject of extensive controversy (according to the Telegraph) because apparently the new rector this year is "not very enthusiastic" about giving mass in Latin, which could impact on the entrenched tradition of giving the 11:00 mass at St Etheldreda's in Latin. And, even more shockingly, the new curate "doesn't know Latin" so he will say mass only in English. He also "declines to wear the church's sleeveless embroidered Roman chasubles". I have no idea what a chasuble entails but it certainly sounds like some moneyed London matrons would have been clutching at their pearls and repressing their outrage in true English fashion earlier this year. Or maybe that stereotype is inaccurate for Catholics? :>)

(Just look at the photo of that journalist on the Telegraph site - a poster-boy for prim disapproval if I ever did see one.)

One the same day I wandered past St Etheldreda's, I came across St James Clerkenwell - from a distance, a fairly normal-looking London church (you can see it here). Now I'm not attempting to have a go at churches or religion in general today, but I don't know what this was all about:

Stairs to a brick wall? Is this like in Indiana Jones, where he had to walk across an invisible bridge to show his faith?

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