Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 9th June 2013
9 June 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
This month I am giving a series of addresses at Matins on some of those who were Canons of this Abbey in the last century, and reflecting on what they may still have to say to us now. In May 1931 a priest called Percy Dearmer was installed as a Canon and he was here for just over five years until he died in office in 1936 at the age of sixty-nine. His coming here was not a straight-forward matter.
He was born in 1867, and his father was a musician and artist who died when Percy was ten and he was thereafter brought up by his mother. She was an able and financially successful school teacher but a somewhat difficult mother of whom her son only had harsh memories, which according to his future wife left him emotionally scarred. She was, though, able to send her son here to Westminster School at least for the start of his secondary school education, but she then decided to send him abroad to a Lutheran school in Geneva, partly, she hoped to wean him off a sympathy he was showing for what she, as a strong evangelical, described as popish ways. Geneva gave the young Percy fluency in French and a long standing pleasure in French literature, and from there he won a place to Christ Church Oxford. Before going to University he developed what in some way he must have inherited from his father, a personal and deep interest in art of various forms both visual and musical.
At Oxford two people had a long standing influence on him; one was a teacher called York Powell, who converted Percy from being a strong conservative to becoming a socialist, and the other was a don called Thomas Strong, who later became Dean of Christ Church, and then still later Bishop of Oxford and who encouraged the young student in a style of churchmanship that would have been very different from his mother’s evangelicalism.
So it was from those early Oxford days that the three features developed that were major in Dearmer’s life, his high church enthusiasm, his love and knowledge of art and music, and his more left wing political stance.
Christian Socialism in that period certainly did not mean socialism of a Marxist variety. Rather it meant an emphasis on cooperation and fellowship rather that competition, selfishness, and rivalry, and it was Christian Socialism because it was rooted in a belief in God. Dearmer thought you could not believe in the fatherhood of God without believing in the brotherhood of man.
But that was related to another of his passions, his desire to produce a style of Anglican worship that was Catholic in ethos, but without being Roman Catholic. He believed that worship should motivate the social witness of the church both to demonstrate and to advocate a cooperative style of living. In that process he wanted to remain utterly loyal to the Church of England Prayer Book of the time, but to devise a style to taking the services that utilised medieval English ceremonial. This general thesis was contained in a book published in 1899, when he was only thirty-two, called The Parson’s Handbook, which he was to revise a number of times over the years and which was an extremely influential publication in changing the way many Church of England churches carried out their liturgy. Two years after the book was published he had an opportunity to put it all into effect when he was appointed Vicar of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill near Hampstead, and his church became a flagship of the style of worship he advocated.
It was not just liturgical change he wanted. One of the first things he did when he went to St Mary’s was to whitewash the chancel, as a suitable background for the colour he wished to introduce with pictures and hangings. It was always his intention to have the whole interior background of the church white, but that achievement was only fulfilled towards the end of his time there when a wealthy parishioner responded to a probably intentionally naïve notice in the Sunday service sheet where Dearmer said he had always wanted a white washed church throughout but feared he would never have the money to do it. In present day terms the sum he required was nearly £10,000, and it came that Sunday afternoon. But that was all part and parcel of his vision of worship, that it should be aesthetically and visually satisfying, both in the manner in which the liturgy was carried out, in the vestments of the clergy - he was active in encouraging creative design in such matters - and in his other passion the offering of music.
Early in his fifteen years at St Mary’s he met the composer Vaughan Williams and asked him to edit a new hymnbook which Dearmer wanted to reflect the style of worship and theology he believed in. Although Vaughan Williams was never a devout Christian believer he warmed to Dearmer and accepted the challenge, and so came to pass eventually the publication of The English Hymnal, a book that was widely used not just in the more Catholic minded parishes of the Church of England but also in many Cathedrals.
Deamer was at St Mary’s when the First World War broke out, and in 1915, reading an appeal from the Bishop of Northern and Central Europe of the dire situation that faced the many nursing units working in war-torn Serbia, he volunteered to go there. His wife was reluctant to see him go alone so she decided to volunteer as a medical orderly. It was a decision with dire consequences for them both. In the very demanding conditions of the field hospital his wife contracted a particularly virulent form of typhus from which she died in July of that year. Her death was obviously a huge blow for her husband, but more was to follow as only three months later their youngest son was killed in the battle of Galipolli. Dearmer went back to his parish in Primrose Hill but it could never be the same. He had for some time been thinking he should not stay there forever and when he heard of the need for chaplains to serve the YMCA first in France and then in India he resigned his post and left for that chaplaincy and lecturing work.
Happiness was to come to him in one form as he married his second wife, who was much younger than him, but he was not to have another formal church appointment until he was appointed here in 1931. It seems that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, never entirely approved of Dearmer. At the start of Deamer’s ministry he worked in a parish in Davidson’s then Diocese of Rochester, and his training vicar, while fully sharing Percy’s socialist enthusiasms, nonetheless wanted more practical parochial work from his curate and less engagement with bodies such as the London branch of the Christian Social Union of which Dearmer was Secretary. His vicar told the Bishop of his concerns, which gave Davidson a negative impression of the young curate. So the only role that came after he left Primrose Hill was to be appointed Professor of Ecclesiastical Art at King’s College London and for many years he used that as a base from which to develop his various enthusiasms, including on one occasion commenting that Bishops would be more effective if they had a greater understanding of the arts, which probably did not lessen Davidson’s suspicions. However other senior clergy were determined to find him a suitable role, including William Temple, by then Archbishop of York, and Temple actively encouraged the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, to offer him the post here. It was an offer made in the face of the opposition of the then Dean of Westminster, Foxley Norris. The Times in its obituary of Foxley Norris described him as ‘distinctly autocratic’ and the Abbey was described by one of the Canons as ‘not a happy ship’ at that time. Most of the Canons attributed some of that failure to then then Dean, who more than reciprocated the judgement against the Canons, including eventually Dearmer.
Nonetheless Dearmer used his time here creatively. As Librarian he assisted in major redevelopment of the Library and as Canon Steward enjoyed his responsibilities for the Abbey’s grounds. But the biggest change in him was a growing disillusionment with the Anglo-Catholic movement he had earlier espoused, because he saw it becoming obsessed by the petty. He became more obviously liberal in his views, strongly advocating women’s ministry at a time when that was unfashionable, accepting the challenge posed to traditional religious belief by science, but most of all, in a much publicised sermon in 1932, supporting birth control, at that time still opposed by many Anglican Bishops. He was prepared to use the freedom provided by this pulpit in imaginative and creative directions, and was still well enough known to be widely reported on such matters in the secular as well as in the ecclesiastical press.
The end came suddenly. One Friday afternoon here he took a party of students from King’s College round the Abbey and according to his wife who accompanied them he was ‘very much his old self as he discoursed on the history of the place, and pointed out its beauties.’ His wife then left to go away for the weekend and at 7.00 pm that evening his colleague Canon Russell Barry went to see him and found him dead on the floor of his study.
But his influence on how worship is best presented, his commitment to the arts and music and his seeking to enable the church to engage creatively with those worlds, and his determination to root his political views in his Christian faith were deeply significant and influential, and despite the criticisms of his Dean, he enhanced the life of this Abbey. It is right that we should remember him with gratitude.