During my Autumn holiday in Cornwall in 2013 I visited St Hilary near St Michael’s Mount. In 1932 this tiny village became the focus of national attention after a group of Protestant activists gained access to the church, acting, they averred, under the authority of a court order, to lever, break, and remove a number of disputed fittings which had been introduced into the building by its vicar, Fr Bernard Walke. It was the last great cause célèbre of the Anglo-Catholic movement, occurring at a time when nobody apart from the hardline protestors really cared, when it was clear that the Anglo-Catholics were not engaged in a sulphurous conspiracy to drag freeborn Englishmen bodily into the thrall of Rome, but were (mainly) hardworking priests trying their best to bring the light and colour of Catholic Christianity to what were often among the most difficult parts of the land for the Anglican Church.
Walke had arrived at St Hilary in 1913, upper-class but erratically-educated, firmly Anglo-Catholic but socialistic and pacifistic in his politics and married in his personal life. He and his wife Annie never had children, though they were very fond of them and adopted a collection of Austrian refugees as well as taking village children under their wing from time to time, including Joan Manning-Sanders, whose artistic ability (the Walkes were friends with lots of artists) led Bernard to encourage her to paint part of the Life of St Endelienta on the screen in the church; as Michael Yelton writes in Anglican Papalism, probably no other Anglican priest at that time, Anglo-Catholic or otherwise, would have thought of allowing a twelve-year-old to decorate his church.
All these enthusiasms led me to enrol Fr Walke as one of my Minor Patrons, but it was only recently that I read his autobiographical Twenty Years at St Hilary, written when he was recovering from TB in a sanatorium at Trehidy. This once well-known book confirms everything I thought about him. Walke’s humility, endless generosity of heart, and love of the people and land he cared for all those years shines from every page. There is not a trace of waspishness or sarcasm, even when he describes so prickly and difficult a character as the perpetually maddening Fr Sandys Wason, ex-vicar of Cury, depicting him, rather than an idiot, as a wanderer from another sort of world. He always puts the most gentle and generous interpretation possible on the actions and character of other people, from the tramps who call at the vicarage door and spin a yarn to gain his charity to a City magistrate dealing with children from slum homes. He has a chapter about ‘Donkeys’ (he kept a number and rode several around the parish over the years), and quotes William Blake.
How Fr Walke managed to fit in all his many activities and projects, from writing Nativity plays to trying to establish a children’s home in the village to an ambitious venture to run the Cornish mining industry on Christian-Socialist lines (called, in strangely Tolkeinesque fashion, the Communion of the Ring), when he seems to have spent much of his time in and around the vicarage garden, quietly observing, I can’t imagine. My years spin by and I have less and less idea where they have gone and how they have been spent.
It’s a little while since I read Twenty Years now, and though I remember getting awfully weepy at various points I’m not sure I can now find them. Perhaps there aren’t any passages which, on their own, are especially moving: it’s more the effect of a gradual rising tide of faith and faithfulness revealed in the pages which overtops the vessel of the reader’s awareness every now and again. Bernard Walke saw heaven in his parish, the clouds of human weakness and muddiness parting surprisingly often to let the glory of God shine through, and everything which was less than glorious he managed to offer to God for him to deal with. The human beings he met were of the same company as the saints of old Cornwall, or the global Church, depicted in the paintings and statues of St Hilary’s, even if very few of his parishioners quite shared his vision of Catholic Christianity. He knew that the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood bound them all together, made possible this fiery gentleness that saw fallen human beings as Jesus sees them, and it didn’t matter that not many others knew it.
One day I must go to see Bernard Walke’s grave at St Erth. For the time being, I ask for his prayers that some of the qualities of his ministry might be present in mine, and, as a truly and not falsely humble person who from his heavenly vantage point now knows his true qualities, he will not refuse.