Old St Paul’s
Old St Paul’s is a church that is much admired by those who love it, and by perhaps by many who don’t. It is at the other end of some kind of church spectrum from St Thomas’s, Glasgow Road, where I was once the curate. Although both began as breakaway groups. St Thomas’s began as a 19th century reaction against the prevalent Anglo-Catholicism of the then Scottish Episcopal Church; the Revd T.D.K. Drummond was apparently not allowed to hold a midweek Bible study if there was no celebration of the Eucharist ! By contrast Old St Paul’s began life a few centuries earlier, in 1689 when, as the Church of Scotland chose to abolish the rule of bishops, [Bishop] Alexander Rose led his people out of St Giles’ Cathedral in order to set up a new place of worship in an old wool shop, in Carrubber’s Close, not far away off the High Street.
Old St Paul’s is the oldest congregation in the Scottish Episcopal Church. When the Church of Scotland supported the Hanoverian kings, the new Protestant monarchy, many Scottish Episcopalians remained Jacobites, loyal to the Stuart pretenders. Members of the St Paul’s congregation came out in the uprisings of 1715 and 1745. After which the Piskies were treated with suspicion and laws were passed to restrict their form of worship.
When the original buildings became too dilapidated to use the current church was built nearby in Jeffrey Street, and the church was renamed Old St Paul’s in order to distinguish it from another St Paul’s church in York Place. [Now known as St Paul’s and St George’s. A very different kind of church.] The church is perhaps best known for its faithful ministry to the slum dwellers of the eastern end of Edinburgh’s Old Town, for many years under the ministry of Canon Laurie who was Rector of OSP from 1898 until his death in 1937. Both Canon Laurie and his predecessor, Reginald Mitchell-Innes, stood firmly in the tradition of the Oxford Movement, and oversaw a shift towards a distinctly Anglo-Catholic form of worship. Subsequent rectors include Richard Holloway, who was Rector there from 1968 to 1980, and Ian Paton, now Bishop of St Andrew’s, who was there from 1997 to 2018. The ministry to the poor and destitute continues through the work of the soup kitchens, but the gathered congregation is now predominantly posh, with people drawn to the weekly celebrations of High Mass by the quality of the music and the richness of the liturgy.
I was there on Tuesday evening, for the first time in some thirty years. [On my previous visit, as a relatively new curate, I fell out with the man sitting next to me, who turned out to be [Bishop] Alastair Haggart, onetime Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.] On this occasion I was there for the priesting of Jaime Wright, the current curate at OSP. I met Jaime and her husband Eric a few years back, when they were both young American students doing doctorates at New College, Edinburgh, and both were exploring a call to ordained ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church. As I recall, they both came from very protestant, non-denominational churches, in Indiana and New York respectively, so they were clearly on some kind of ecclesiastical journey. They came to lunch here in 2018 and we hadn’t seen them since then.
Entrance to the church from Jeffrey Street is up a long flight of steps, the chisel-dressed and stone-vaulted Calvary Stair. There are thirty-three steps, one for each year of Christ’s life. They lead to a sculpture of the Crucifixion, Christ on the Cross flanked by his mother and by St John. The stairs are meant to symbolise both Christ’ s journey from life to death and also the ascent to Calvary.
It was a cold evening in Edinburgh. The congregation, not enormous, were predominantly in tweed jackets and puffer coats. The front pews were reserved for robed clergy, who processed in and out. I had been invited to robe, but I don’t really do that sort of thing; I don’t think we should promote clericalism ! It was quite a long and wordy service, using what I thought was the 1928 liturgy. Hymns were from the New English Hymnal. It had lots of things of which I really don’t approve: seven lighted candles on the altar, chasubles, clouds of incense, a gospel procession, and Bishop John Armes con-celebrating with a cluster of priests. But there was an excellent sermon/homily by John McLuckie, the present Rector, on the Conversion of St Paul and the apostolic ministry in which we share. And, to my surprise, I thought the whole thing was rather splendid.
John Cornwell: Seminary Boy
Since we returned from Kiev we have been dealing with an accumulated backlog of Christmas post and re-adapting to life in Edinburgh. I now have a small pile of books to read on Ukraine and on eastern Europe, most of them by Anne Applebaum, the Jewish-American academic and writer, whose grandfather came from what was then Poland and is now Belarus.
Before I get started I have been turning the pages of Seminary Boy by John Cornwell. It is a beautifully written book. Cornwell [b. 1940] grew up, during the Second World War, in a tough, working class Irish family. His father had a gammy leg and worked as a groundsman; his mother, with an explosive temper, did a variety of jobs including working nights in a hospital. Cornwell escaped his home background by serving at the altar of a local Roman Catholic church, and was ‘privileged’ to be sent aged thirteen to Cotton College, a junior seminary somewhere deep in the Staffordshire countryside. At the seminary he started on Latin [he was known as Fru, short for frumentum bene, corn well in Latin] and on New Testament Greek; and sang in the choir; and was, in due course, introduced to a whole range of English literature and classical music. But the dominant emotions are guilt and fear. The ‘Profs’ are [nearly] all muscular Christians, emotionally stunted, male priests, all heavy smokers, who go off on their motor bikes on their days off to visit their elderly mothers. The recurrent themes are learning by rote and digging drainage ditches in the clay soil and long runs through the countryside. Above all ‘special friendships’ are forbidden. With both fellow students and with staff.
Cornwell survives. Just. In spite of complicated emotional relationships with one or two of his fellow students. And an indecent approach by an abusive Prof. But his vocation does not survive the transition to a senior seminary. And he takes leave of the church for many years. And becomes a journalist and a writer. In a sad coda he re-encounters two of the former Profs decades later, both now working in the Oxford Diocese, including one who might have been an important father figure. But it didn’t work out.
The book reminds me how much I dislike some aspects of the Roman Catholic faith. The reluctant church-going based on fear. The joylessness of church life. The clericalism. The importance of hierarchy. But at the same time I feel for the loneliness of many Roman Catholic parish clergy. Including those priests in the Lyon diocese who periodically came to ask me if they could be received into the Church of England – along with their woman friends ! Requests to which the Archdeacon was invariably unsympathetic.
So, now I must get down to my Ukraine reading. But I thoroughly recommend Seminary Boy to anyone reading this who hasn’t read it.