The Challenge of Change

There will always be minor variations over the years in the liturgical format in any church. Clerical or lay preferences, fashion, technological developments can all play their part. They have done at St. Gregory’s. But fundamental change in Catholic worship occurs rarely, and only with authority. Twenty five years into the history of our parish such change did occur. On 11th October 1962  Pope John XXIII opened The Second Vatican Council, and it continued in session until 1965. Any one under 50 is unlikely to really appreciate the changes that emanated from it in the late 1960s and in the 1970s. A Parish History is no place to rehearse the theological debates of the Council or the full conclusions that it reached. However, for those who had grown up in the church pre-Vatican 2, the resulting liturgical changes were substantial. Most prominently we might identify the use of English instead of Latin in the Mass, Mass being said by the priest facing the people, lay participation in the responses and in readings and later in giving the sacrament of Holy Communion, relaxation of the rules on fasting before communion. But underlying the “headline” changes there was also a greater feeling of openness issuing from Pope John’s call for “aggiornamento”, by which he meant that the church must be brought up to date, must adapt itself to meet the challenging conditions of modern times. There was a recognition that the laity had an important role in this process. How did St. Gregory’s meet the changes?  As in the Church in general, these changes were to some refreshing and exciting, to others painful and disturbing. Evidence drawn from the memories of older parishioners and from the excellent Parish Magazine published in the 1970s and 1980s confirms this, but clearly, the changes caused no deep divisions. Certainly, the changes cannot have been easy for the Parish Priest, Father (later Canon) Phillips. He had a great love for the traditional forms of worship of the Catholic Church, which he had joined at the age of 18. His long tenure of office as Parish Priest of St. Gregory’s had been distinguished by the offering of High Mass, Compline, Vespers, Gregorian Chant, Te Deum, Solemn Benediction, Litanies, Processions, 40 Hours Exposition. The late Leo Boullemier, his Master of Ceremonies for thirty years, writing in the Parish magazine about Father Phillips on his retirement in 1977, confirmed that Father had disliked the new liturgy, but above all he was loyal and accepted it. The required changes were promptly implemented. His experience and personality did not really lend themselves to the introduction of some other changes which Vatican 2 was engendering: a readiness to experiment in the hymns that we sang, the musical instruments that were played, the prayer forms that we used, the structuring of youth masses and folk masses.

Here he was immensely helped in the changes by his two curates, the late Father Jim Marks and Father (now Monsignor) Tony McDermott. Father Marks came in 1973 and Father McDermott in  1976  (although previously he had undertaken some of his pre-ordination training in the parish.) The two priests both hailed from Luton and had known each other there, and they now worked closely together—indeed they were sometimes, irreverently but affectionately, dubbed Starsky & Hutch! Father Marks took the gradualist approach and Father Phillips appreciated that. So other changes were gently eased in. Quietly the traditional Westminster Hymnal was replaced by The Celebration Hymnal, opening the door to many new tunes with less formal wording. Occasional Folk Masses were introduced. Of course, such change did not suit everybody, and the anecdote is told of how Father Tony took his guitar on to the altar to lead the singing and one conservative parishioner raced to tell Father Phillips: “That young fella is on the altar with his banjo!”  Indignation, but thankfully no rancor! The call of Pope John resonated particularly with young parents in the parish. A lay discussion group explored the Council’s debates, and from this came an in the years ahead the lack of sufficient priests will pose challenges to all parishes and, of course, St. Gregory’s will be no exception.

St. Gregory’s has been greatly helped by the ordination of Permanent Deacons, drawn from our own congregation. The first Deacon ordained for the parish was the late Reverend Robin Cooper in 1987. Robin was a former Methodist Minister, and then Head of Religious Education at Thomas Becket School for many years, a national organiser for Rainbows and author. In 1990 the Reverend Michael Fleming, a Personnel Manager in the NHS, and the Reverend Rory Stewart, an Environmental Health Officer, were also ordained. A fourth deacon, the Reverend Michael Graney, a retired statistician, was ordained in 1998. The Deacons, and happily, in 2008, the latter three are still working in the Parish, have helped to ease the manpower demands but, more importantly, make their individual contributions to the well-being of the parish, both in its liturgical and community development.

We also have the support and prayers of the Congregation of Daughters of the Holy Spirit whose House is near to the Church at 255 Abington Avenue. Parishioners are regularly invited to join the Sisters in prayer at their House.

Lay organisations have served and continue to serve the Parish well, furthering spiritual, charitable and social aims. Parish records reveal. over the years, an impressive roll-call of organisations, some with continuous active life, some with periods of quiescence, some serving a particular need at a particular time: Prayer Groups, Association of the Propogation of the Faith., CAFOD, Needlework Guild, Knights of St Columba, Union of Catholic Mothers, The Veterans, Scouts, Guides, Brownies and Cubs, Youth Groups, Mums and Tots, Gregory Celtic F C, Archconfraternity of St Stephen, Apostleship of the Sea, Irish Dancing and many others. Special mention needs to be made of The Legion of Mary and The Society of St Vincent de Paul, which throughout our history have with prayer and good works supported the sick, the poor and the needy. Individually and collectively, parishioners have given active support to wider-based organisations such as Marriage Care, Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, LIFE, Catenians, Marriage Encounter, Rainbows, Pioneers, Council for Justice and Peace and others.