Christian Men

This reflection is totally unconnected with the series of postings on “muscular Christianity”, because I have truly finished with that subject. There is a related subject of the man’s role in the Church. Clearly, men and women have different points of view of worship and being part of a Christian community, in the same way as men and women have totally different perspectives of life. There are “feminine” men and “masculine” women, but a person’s identity is firmly anchored in his or her gender. I won’t go into modern gender theories, because I neither understand them nor sympathise with them.

Men who are interested in church often warm to the liturgy and church aesthetics in the way women don’t. Women fit out homes differently from men. Priorities are different. In my own home, the kitchen is full of carved wooden, metal, plastic and painted hens. I leave my wife to do what brings her pleasure, but a kitchen is a laboratory for preparing food, not for exhibiting an excessive number of useless ornaments. My chapel lacks many things a woman would have in a home: curtains, carpets, plants and flowers (except one bouquet near the altar), asymmetry, etc.

I remember school and the traditional ethos of forming the English gentleman. I have said a certain amount on this subject, based on the notion of harsh discipline, competitive sports and the cult of leadership and strength. There are theories about the “alpha” male which are more or less credible. In my opinion, we should discover ourselves and learn to be ourselves. I would have thought that the chief quality of the gentleman is gentleness, courtesy, ability to learn social skills and to be good with others. These qualities involve good dress, presentation, clear and articulated speech, an appreciation of beauty and goodness. I owe these things to the English vision of education that endeavours to form the whole person, and not only in competitive sport to prepare for the military life, modern business and politics. We had a debating society at school, with an exquisite room for the purpose fitted out in the early twentieth century. There are rules to follow, especially the respect of free speech and another man’s opinion and conscience.

In history, the gentleman was a member of the gentry, typically the aristocracy or the haut bourgeoisie. The Victorian era brought to the word a wider meaning. By the mid century,

By courtesy this title is generally accorded to all persons above the rank of common tradesmen when their manners are indicative of a certain amount of refinement and intelligence.

The category came thus to mean a distinction of education and good manners rather than being born in the “right” family. The gentleman is distinguished by his social skills and good urban manners. The gentleman became a gentle man. A gentleman treats women with deference and courtesy, typically opening doors and asking the lady to go through first. He may never inflict any kind of violence against a lady or indulge in sexual harassment.

Another use of gentleman is as a prefix to an occupation, for example gentleman farmer, suggesting that he is a man of wealth and leisure who can afford to have others do the work for him. It refers to the older meaning of the word, meaning someone of noble birth and then birth into a wealthy family.

In the modern meaning of the word, the Army in England and America uses the expression conduct befitting an officer and a gentleman. In modern usage, many gentlemen are not of noble birth, but have assimilated a certain code of conduct involving courtesy and acceptable presentation in society. Being a gentleman is something that comes from within, an attitude of nobility, much more than being a boulevardier or a fop. This is one thing I noticed at Gricigliano: the manners of men trying to be gentlemen by the exterior but without what it takes from within. I admire the effort made to revive the ideal of the gentleman in the clergy, but somehow, they seemed to miss the bus. It is not about yards of lace and buckled shoes, but what is within the well-bred man. The phenomenon of the rake masquerading as a gentleman is an old one: Regency Corinthians, Dandies, Rakes and Young Blades.

One colourful character I remember from my Gricigliano days was Scott Gibson, a young man of American origin but who had spent almost all his life in England cultivating the image of a foppish gentleman. A convert to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism, he tried his vocation at the London Oratory, but it didn’t work out. He came to Gricigliano and received the Tonsure and Minor Orders. He related many anecdotes, and was largely behind the present distinctive tendency of the Institute of Christ the King to emulate the Oratory of St Philip Neri in many respects, particularly as a caricature. Scott was the butt of many jokes and took it with good humour. What became his salvation was his ability not to take himself seriously. He would go on about his favourite after-shave, a pongy substance called Lords, “for dashing young blades about town”. Scott had the distinction of writing a book, The Italian Baroque Style and the Oratory in London. He died three years ago at the age of 51. With all his eccentricity and flamboyance, he was a good friend and his wit matched his devotion and piety. Even though he was an outrageous fop, his gentlemanly soul came from the interior.

Another characteristic of the idea of masculine Christianity is resilience and stoicism in adversity. That being said, I have known some very brave and resilient women. There are so many saints, and then the example of Edith Cavell who gave her life in 1915 for the men she cared for as a nurse. She was far from being alone in the annals of history. It is not a monopoly of the male sex. The lady is as distinct from the woman as the gentleman from the man. This is a fault I find with many polemicists who blame femininity for problems in the Church. There are great ladies around, as there are some very mediocre ones. The same applies to men.

Some aspire to the quality of a gentleman by particularities like being old-fashioned, smoking a pipe, liking leather armchairs at home or at the Club, growing a handlebar moustache, being conservative in religion and politics. I have known some wonderful characters in London, offering a good pinch of Otterhound snuff from the Kendal works (the English don’t use the Schnupfmaschine), talking posh, spending enormous amounts of money on suits and other articles of urban clothing, the best shoes, etc. The French say L’habit ne fait pas le moine – you don’t become a monk by simply wearing the habit. It is a complete initiation into a way of life of which the habit becomes an outer symbol.

I would prefer to befriend someone of gentle ideals who looks like a hippie than someone in an immaculate suit and sporting a moustache who is a complete hypocrite and fraud. There is a question of virtue, humanity and piety – even if you wear jeans and wear your hair down your back as I do. I have no pretences at being special or good. I live in the country and feel awkward in town (sometimes I need to for my Church, and then you will find me in a cassock, polished shoes and my hair tied up eighteenth-century style). I defy any priest to wear his cassock with modesty, discretion and concern for the feelings of others.

For me, the quality of being a gentleman – like holiness and humility – is something towards which we aspire without ever believing that we have achieved it. Courtesy, kindness, tolerance, respect for others, proper manners, stoicism, resilience, strength of character and everything else is the ideal of virtue we all aspire to become. The greatest men of history were men of virtue and invisible greatness, before what they wore, their eccentricities or the things they enjoyed doing.

The real test of the gentleman is getting on with ordinary people, yes even the most humble. I never forget an institution set up by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Toynbee Hall, to introduce sons of the gentry to the rough and tumble of the East End. I spend a year there myself back in 1979, and helped out at the soup kitchen of St Botolph’s Aldgate for one evening each week. I was at the time a student at London College of Furniture doing my harpsichord making course.

One thing that does a lot of good is to broaden our minds and our interests. Travel also opens the mind as does exposure to cultures other than our own. Diversity of experience is essential for the balanced human personality as are the values of old humanism and liberalism (as in the early nineteenth century). I am far from the ideal, but the ideal remains. For me, that is true masculinity – and true civilised humanity which goes for men and women, ladies and gentlemen, alike.

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