St Bede’s has become one of London’s great liturgical churches. The departing parish priest explains how it all began

St Bede’s Church, Clapham Park, is by no means an imposing building. It is set back from the road and you can quite easily walk past it without spotting it. If you were to see it, you might think that it was a Methodist chapel; perhaps High Methodist, since there is a cross outside the vestibule with SAVE YOUR SOUL painted on it.

Yet you’d be so wrong. Over the past quarter of a century St Bede’s has become one of the great Catholic parishes of London, to be ranked, so far as traditional liturgy is concerned, with Spanish Place, Maiden Lane and even the Brompton Oratory.

St Bede’s rise in the world can be traced back to something that happened on Fort Lauderdale Beach in January 1994. Fr Christopher Basden, then 41, was on the beach with some priest friends. They were on R&R, and talk turned to Klaus Gamber, the late German priest-liturgist whose The Reform of the Roman Liturgy had recently been published. Gamber’s book is a compelling account of the rupture created by the liturgical fidgets during the Second Vatican Council and, even more so, in its wake.

Fr Christopher was fascinated by what he was hearing, and later during that beach break – part of a sabbatical in the United States – his friends took him to a Missa Cantata. He was converted. Not long before, he had been appointed parish priest of St Bede’s – and he was now determined that, when he took up his post in September of that year, he would somehow find a home there for the Old Mass.

Fortunately for him, and indeed for the Church, the legendary Fr Hugh Thwaites SJ agreed to join the team at St Bede’s. He was an extraordinary fellow. By background he was Jewish and Christian Scientist. He converted to Catholicism while serving as an Army officer in Singapore at the beginning of the war. When Singapore fell he was taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in the notorious Changi prison.

“He was a saintly man,” Fr Christopher told me last week. Quite clearly. But he was also an exceptionally useful one. He had a personal indult to say the Old Mass, and could therefore say it at St Bede’s without breaking canon law.

From the time of Fr Thwaites’s arrival in 1995 – he stayed for two years – the Traditional Latin Mass has been offered daily at St Bede’s. Among the outstanding “Tridentine” priests who followed Fr Thwaites were Fr Andrew Southwell (sometime chaplain of the Latin Mass Society and now based in Rome) and Fr Armand de Malleray (now head of the FSSP in England). The Sunday Mass at St Bede’s is a sung traditional Latin Mass, and sometimes a solemn traditional High Mass. Not even the Oratory can match that, though they have a beautiful low traditional mass at nine. (Evelyn Waugh always preferred the “mumble” of the low Mass to the music and ballet of the sung Mass.)

Now, after almost a quarter of a century, another change is approaching. In January, Fr Christopher will move to Thanet in Kent to become parish priest in Ramsgate and Minter. He is switching places with Fr Marcus Holden, who in fact has already arrived at St Bede’s. Fr Holden’s record in Ramsgate is magnificent. In the past 10 years he has restored St Augustine’s Shrine – a Pugin masterpiece – with the help of £1.3 million from the English Heritage Lottery Fund. He has also restored the traditional liturgy. “It’s a swap made in heaven,” says Fr Christopher.

Not long after Pope Benedict XVI released Summorum Pontificum in 2007 and freed all priests to use the old rite, Fr Christopher restored the old custom of celebrating Mass, whether old or new, ad orientem (with the priest facing the altar and God rather than the people). That was a big and brave move, but it turned out not to be especially controversial. There was only one official complaint, from a member of the parish council. It was dealt with amicably. “Most people didn’t notice the difference,” says Fr Christopher.

I am happy to say that St Bede’s is my church. I first got to know it in the mid-90s during my tortuous journey back to the practice of the faith. I’d been told that the Old Mass was said at St Bede’s and that was good enough for me. Before that I’d occasionally go to a mid-morning Mass at the Polish church in Balham. Anything was better than English, I thought, even Polish. As a lapsed traditionalist, I was a bit excitable.

These days I am quite content to attend a Low Mass in English said by a priest facing the altar and to receive Holy Communion kneeling at the altar rail. If that’s good enough for Benedict XVI (and Fr Christopher and Fr Marcus), then it is good enough for me.

I shall miss Christopher Basden. He is a man with a ready laugh and a cheering word, a man of real compassion, though he can become a tiny bit irritable. He has a charming habit of confessing to his bouts of irritation from the lectern. Ego te absolvo, Father. You are a good and faithful priest.