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The last hurrah of the Oxford Movement

May 9, 2015

I recently heard about the so-called “Agatha Christie” indult, through which the use of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Liturgy was first authorized in England and Wales in 1971, fourteen years before this was permitted anywhere else. Context can be found here. Essentially, a large group of prominent English cultural figures, Catholic and non, submitted an appeal to the Pope that the use of the old mass be permitted; then,

The story goes that Pope Paul VI was reading quietly through the list of signatories and then suddenly said, “Ah, Agatha Christie!” and signed his approval.

Here’s a list of the 57 signatories, with names I recognize placed in bold:

Harold Acton, Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Bayler, Lennox Berkeley, Maurice Bowra, Agatha Christie, Kenneth Clark, Nevill Coghill, Cyril Connolly, Colin Davis, Hugh Delargy, +Robert Exeter, Miles Fitzalan-Howard, Constantine Fitzgibbon, William Glock, Magdalen Goffin, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Ian Greenless, Joseph Grimond, Harman Grisewood, Colin Hardie, Rupert Hart-Davis, Barbara Hepworth, Auberon Herbert, John Jolliffe, David Jones, Osbert Lancaster, F.R. Leavis, Cecil Day Lewis, Compton Mackenzie, George Malcolm, Max Mallowan, Alfred Marnau, Yehudi Menuhin, Nancy Mitford, Raymond Mortimer, Malcolm Muggeridge, Iris Murdoch, John Murray, Sean O’Faolain, E.J. Oliver, Oxford and Asquith, William Plomer, Kathleen Raine, William Rees-Mogg, Ralph Richardson, +John Ripon, Charles Russell, Rivers Scott, Joan Sutherland, Philip Toynbee, Martin Turnell, Bernard Wall, Patrick Wall, E.I Watkin, R.C. Zaehner.

There’s something magnificent about so many important philosophers, historians, novelists, and poets coming together in defense of Catholic culture. But there’s also, perhaps, something here a bit sad. Of the names I recognize, only David Jones and Graham Greene were actually Roman Catholic, and the latter was not practicing. The rest signed, most likely, because of their respect for English Catholicism as a cultural force, and rightly so: the last century had seen Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, Belloc, Dawson, Waugh….

Apart from Jones and Greene, Tolkien and Anscombe were still living. I can’t imagine that Tolkien wouldn’t have signed, if he had been invited, and so suspect he had not been. Anscombe’s impulses might not have learned so traditional; I’m not sure.

There are still prominent English Catholics, of course, but it no longer has the feeling of a cultural force. That began with John Henry Newman’s conversion, and the influx of High Church Anglicans from the Oxford Movement it inaugurated; it ended, perhaps, with the Agatha Christi indult, when English literary culture paid tribute to a Roman Catholicism it had all but left behind.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2015 6:24 am

    I picked out two other names: Max Mallowan was Agatha Christie’s husband, an archaeologist. Perhaps he had been raised Catholic? And Malcolm Muggeridge, journalist and author.
    Wonder why they didn’t approach Tolkien?

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