The narrator of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women is Mildred Lathburn, a clergyman's daughter in 1950s London. Here, Mildred's Welsh cleaning lady, Mrs. Morris, is complaining half-humorously about the High Anglican tendencies of their vicar, who wears a biretta while preaching:

"It isn't like the church I went to as a girl, where Mr. Lewis was vicar. He didn't have incense or wear that old black hat."

"No, I don't suppose he did," I agreed, for I knew the seaside town she came from and I remembered the "English" church, unusual among so many chapels, with the Ten Commandments in Welsh and in English on either side of the altar and a special service on Sunday morning for the visitors. I did not remember that they had expected or received "Catholic privileges."

"I was always church," said Mrs. Morris proudly. "Never been in the chapel, though I did once go to the Ebenezer social, but I don't want to have anything to do with some old Pope."

Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women. 1952. Penguin Classics, introduction by A. N. Wilson. New York: Penguin, 2006. p. 18

I understand that most Welsh Christians are nonconformists, going to chapel rather than church, whereas Mrs. Morris has always been Anglican. I also understand that Anglicans of other stripes are often wary of High Anglican ritual, considering it too close to Roman Catholicism for comfort. But what does the sentence "I did not remember that they had expected or received 'Catholic privileges'" mean?

Edited in response to the answer from Spagirl and the comments from Kate Bunting and tallus. Despite the answer and the comments, I still don't understand the sentence mentioned above. Here are my points of confusion:

  • The article @tallus links to in their comment talks about confession being necessary for Catholics before communion, but I thought that this was a specifically Roman Catholic requirement. Is it the case that for Anglo-Catholics specifically, auricular confession is a requisite for the "privilege" of receiving the Eucharist? My understanding heretofore has been that in Anglicanism, High or otherwise, any baptized Christian, irrespective of the tradition in which the baptism occurred, is entitled to take Communion. I would welcome some specific evidence for the claim that at the time of the novel (or rather, at the time that Mildred is recalling, i.e., her childhood visit to Wales, which would have been the 1930s), communion in Anglo-Catholicism was a privilege open only to those who had been shriven.†

  • I continue not to understand the phrase "Catholic privileges" here, or in the quote from Anglicans Online in @Spagirl's answer. Are those "privileges" daily communion, sung eucharist, confessions, and eucharistic reservation, as @KateBunting's comment says? Even if taking communion is a specific privilege to which only those who have made confession are entitled, what makes the other three "privileges"?

  • I'm not even sure what the antecedent of "they" is. @KateBunting suggests that "they" refers to the Welsh church Mrs Morris attended, but I don't see how that works grammatically. As the sentence stands, it appears to refer to the visitors at the special service. In either case, what is the relevance of "Catholic privileges" here, either to that church or to said visitors?

  • Finally, is Mildred saying: (1) "I had forgotten that 'they' had expected and received 'Catholic privileges'", or (2) "To my recollection, 'they' did not expect or receive said 'privileges'"? "I did not remember that" could carry either of those two entirely opposed meanings.

Theologically, as Spagirl says, the assumption is that the phrase "Catholic privileges" is transparent to the reader, and as someone who has never been any stripe of Christian, I'm quite befogged. Grammatically, the (to me) unclear antecedent of "they" is confusing. And semantically, the inherent ambiguity of "I did not remember that" adds to the foggy confusion. Can someone clarify? Thanks!

I attended services once at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC, which I gather is High Anglican—I doubt "low" churches designate themselves "Cathedral." The then Dean specifically invited all baptized Christians of any denomination to participate in the Eucharistic rite. I do understand that for historical reasons even High Anglican theology is designed to be, let's say, flexible, and that the practice of one Dean in one Canadian Cathedral in this century cannot be taken as representative of the practice at a Welsh church a century prior. That the male Dean in question was (and is) married to a man itself underlines the impossibility of assuming any such doctrinal continuity. Nevertheless, in the absence of specific evidence, I am not convinced that Anglo-Catholics have ever considered communion a restricted privilege rather than one open to all Christians.


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    Presumably 'they' is the congregation of the Anglican church in Mrs. Morris's home town, which had no Anglo-Catholic tendencies. Commented Jan 24 at 9:24
  • I think you are reading too much into this. I'm not aware that any type of Anglican church imposes limits on who can take Communion on the grounds of not having made a personal confession, but I don't think Mildred is referring to theological issues here. I have read the book more than once, but I couldn't have told you what 'Catholic privileges' were until I read @Spagirl's answer. I think Mildred is being slightly flippant here. She doesn't think that Mrs. Morris's church would have accepted outward signs of Catholic leanings such as the wearing of a biretta. Commented Jan 25 at 10:16
  • Well some Anglo-Catholics, at least, believe that the Anglican Church represents the Apostolic Succession in Britain so they are Catholics are far as they are concerned. However, as Kate Bunting points out, there are distinctly ironic overtones to all this. Mrs Morris's statement " I don't want to have anything to do with some old Pope" marks her out as a working-class Protestant but the biretta marks the priest out as Anglo-Catholic. Its possible that Mrs Morris is unaware of this, either way, this is best understood as knowingly ironic commentary.
    – tallus
    Commented Jan 25 at 12:54
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    Note: The High/Low church distinction refers to adherence to ritual, its quite separate from conservative/liberal divisions and all combinations will exist. Anglo-Catholicism is distinct from High church, though, despite resemblences. A Cathedral is the seat of a bishop, and within their diocese there may be all sorts of parishes, dependent on local traditions. Also note The Church In Wales is Anglican but separate from the C of E having split in the 1920s.
    – tallus
    Commented Jan 25 at 13:07
  • I attended a Catholic school mane years ago, and my recollection of what the priest's taught was that there is no requirement to attend confession prior to communion. Catholics do, however, believe in Transubstantiation, i.e. that the consecrated host is literally the body of G-d. It isn't too much of a stretch for them to believe that taking communion in a "state of sin" is sacrilege, hence prior confession can be seen as risk mitigation. Commented Jan 26 at 7:26

4 Answers 4


This is remarkably difficult to track down as every source I can find online which uses the phrase ‘full catholic privileges’ does so with an expectation of the reader already knowing what it is shorthand for.

It is clear that it relates to the church experience being more akin to Roman Catholic than standard C of E, but detail is hard to come by. Wikipedia has an extensive article about Anglo-catholic churches and doctrine, which is too in depth for me to readily follow or précis here, but more importantly it doesn’t define the term ‘catholic privileges’.

This paragraph from Alison Light in the London Review of Books illuminates somewhat:

Pym leans towards Anglo-Catholicism, the most conservative and ritualistic form of Anglicanism, and her congregations frequently enjoy ‘full Catholic privileges’, going to confession and attending mass without paying obeisance to the pope. Anglo-Catholic priests in her novels are peculiarly attractive to their female parishioners, if only because their celibacy is optional (though ‘there should be a biretta in the hall rather than a perambulator,’ one character says, perhaps loath to encourage interfering clergy wives).

Fr Blagdon-Gamlen’s The Church Travellers Directory: Giving the Names of Anglican Churches in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where may be found a Daily Celebration of the Holy Communion, a Sung Eucharist on all Sundays, Fixed Times when Confessions may be heard, and continuous Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament was first published in 1966 (PDF Files available from The Blog of St Chrysostom's Church, Manchester) and for each church listed marks them as follows:

  • D every known church with daily communion (or almost daily communion—five days a week count as Daily)
  • S for a Sung Eucharist on Sundays
  • C for churches where confessions are heard,
  • R for those where there is eucharistic reservation.

At Anglicans Online we are told:

Quite a lot of churches have an S, and many also a C or D. It's unusual to find a D without a C or an R, but the most coveted of designations for what were then called Full Catholic Privileges was DSCR

Edit: The ‘they’ who did not expect or receive catholic privileges were, to my understanding, visitors who were attending but were not members of the of the Anglican Church in the welsh seaside town where Mrs Morris grew up (NB post 1920 the church in Wales was disestablished, it remained a part of the Anglican Communion, but was no longer part of the Church of England). If the catholic privileges were not on offer, the church would have simply been Anglican rather than Anglo-catholic.

My reading is that Lathburn says she ‘did not remember’ that they expected the CPs as an echo of her foregoing statement that she remembered the church, though I would also read it as a faintly qualified statement, she didn’t remember that they sought or received CPs but might not argue too strenuously if someone made a contrary claim.

In your edit you seek ‘some specific evidence for the claim that at the time of the novel (or rather, at the time that Mildred is recalling, i.e., her childhood visit to Wales, which would have been the 1930s), communion in Anglo-Catholicism was a privilege open only to those who had been shriven’. It is my understanding that in Anglican, Anglo-catholic and Roman Catholic, as well as non-conformist Protestant churches, confession and absolution forms a part of the Eucharist/mass/communion service, and that technically you should have gone through some formal process of joining the church before you partake of it.

The aspect that, within Anglicanism, I understand is more peculiar to Anglo-Catholicism is the availability of Daily rather than weekly or monthly communion, and the reservation of leftover host in a tabernacle rather than it being consumed by the members of the clergy or formally disposed of. The reserved Eucharist is an ongoing embodiment of God and requires different acts of veneration by anyone approaching the altar. The reserved host can also be carried to the homes of parishioners too I’ll to attend church. This is an understanding I have gleaned from reading around a largely, though not entirely, unfamiliar topic, so it is difficult to give you sources for this comparison.

‘Privilege’ is not to be understood as ‘advantage’ or ‘benefit’ but more as ‘private (ecclesiastical) law’, it is what that church has deemed to be correct practice. It is how things are conducted within a given church rather than something you ‘claim’ as an individual.

Sorry if these edits are In slightly muddled order, I only have access via phone at the moment which limits my ability to order things neatly.

  • Excellent answer. So it looks as though 'Catholic privileges' are the 'extras' that you would expect to find at an RC church but not at a C of E one unless it was very 'high church'. Commented Jan 24 at 13:25
  • The phrase "Communion priveleges", is often used as taking communion is seen as a privelege, not a right, so conditions have to be met, e.g. you are a meber of that particular church. Confession in the Catholic tradition frees you from venal sin (learnreligions.com/…) which should otherwise prevent you taking communion. So in an Anglo-catholic church were you can take confession you would have the equivalent (Catholic) communion privileges.
    – tallus
    Commented Jan 24 at 17:20
  • Thanks, but I still don't understand the phrase in the quoted context. What does Mildred mean when she says ""I did not remember that they had expected or received 'Catholic privileges'"? Even if "Catholic privileges" are the DCSR, who is the "they" who expects/does not expect/receives/does not receive them? And when Mildred says she "did not remember", is the implication that this "they" did expect the privileges, or that they did not? I should edit to clarify the question, I guess.
    – verbose
    Commented Jan 24 at 23:48
  • @verbose They refers to the members of the church.
    – user207421
    Commented Jan 25 at 2:39
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    From her memories of attending a service at a Welsh Anglican church when on holiday, she does not think they would have approved of things like the vicar wearing a biretta or Stations of the Cross round the walls, typical of Roman Catholic and High Anglican churches. Note that the phrase is placed in inverted commas; I think Mildred is referring in a mildly humorous way to visible features of the church rather than whether or not they had daily communion services and personal confession. Commented Jan 25 at 9:59

Spagirl’s answer seems correct to me, but as the OP has expressed some difficulties, I’m going to have a go at addressing them.

The main source of difficulty, I think, is “Catholic privileges”. This looks as if it might mean, “rights or advantages enjoyed by individual (Anglo-)Catholics”, and that makes sense when we consider private confession. But it does not make sense when we consider other “privileges” like eucharist services on weekday mornings, or choral services on Sundays, which can be enjoyed by any member of the congregation. So we have to interpret “privilege” in its (original) sense of a special ordinance granted to the church or its minister, not to individual members of the congregation:

privilege, n., 1. Ecclesiastical Law. A special ordinance issued by the Pope,† granting exemption from certain civil or canon laws in the execution of a particular office, commission, etc.

Oxford English Dictionary.

† Or, in the cases we are discussing here, the Church of England.

A relevant part of the historical background is that in the 1950s it was just about within living memory that Anglican priests had been prosecuted for wearing the biretta—the 1870 case of John Purchas being most notorious as it went all the way to the Privy Council. So these “privileges” had genuine legal effect.

Second, the narrator’s use of “they” in “that they had expected or received ‘Catholic privileges’”. The previous noun to “they” is “the visitors”, which makes sense, since the local congregation would be familiar with this church, but visitors might be surprised to find that its services were different from the ones that they were used to at home.

Third, the narrator’s ambiguous phrasing “I did not remember that they had”. I interpret this as, “I remembered that they hadn’t”, but putting the words in the less usual order has a nuance of archness or disapproval. The church in question was at a “seaside town” in Wales (for example, Aberystwyth), which suggests that the narrator and her family had been there on holiday, and as visitors to the church they may well have hoped to find Catholic privileges there, and had been disappointed not to receive them.

Fourth, whether confession is necessary for Anglican communion. The source of this difficulty is that Anglican services have a general or corporate confession, recited by minister and congregation, which is part of every communion service. One form of words begins, “Father eternal, giver of light and grace, we have sinned against you and against our neighbour, in what we have thought, in what we have said and done, through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.” So all Anglicans confess generally before communion, and it’s private confession that is the privilege. (The adequacy of general confession was one of the Anglo-Catholic sticking points, which I noted in my interpretation of Betjeman in this answer.)

A couple of additional sources:

The hey-day of Anglo-Catholicism was in the 1920s, when the battles had been won and the ceremonial style of worship became fashionable. The vestiges of this carried on well into the 1950s, when Barbara Pym fell under the spell of Anglo-Catholicism and wrote about it in her novels. She obviously had a copy of the famous Mowbray’s Church Guide for Tourists, which ranked churches according to the availability of what were known as “full Catholic privileges”.

Hazel K. Bell, ed. (2004). No Soft Incense: Barbara Pym and the Church, p. 18. Barbara Pym Society.

This takes us to Mowbray’s Church Guide for Tourists (1931) where we find the following key (p. 1):

At all the churches mentioned in this list there is normally an early celebration of Holy Communion every Sunday and Holy Day, and occasionally during the week. Further information given by means of the following signs:—

* Daily Eucharist.
† Choral Eucharist on all Sundays.
‡ Confessions heard at fixed times.
§ Continuous Reservation.

I note that St Michael’s Church, Aberystwyth (p. 11) had none of these.

Catholic privileges are also mentioned in Pym’s novel Jane and Prudence:

The church in the Cornish village where the Clevelands were spending their holiday was a little Higher than either Jane or Nicholas had been used to. […]

‘Of course, if we had had Mowbray’s Church Guide we could have seen that this was not quite on our level. I wonder if anybody has ever thought of compiling a guide of Low churches—putting “N” for North End Position† and “E” for Evening Communion against them?’

‘People who want a Low church don’t usually have to search so hard as those who want Catholic Privileges,’ Nicholas pointed out.

Barbara Pym (1953). Jane and Prudence, chapter 22. London: Jonathan Cape.

† A custom, unique to Anglicanism, in which the priest celebrates the eucharist by standing at the “liturgical north” side of the altar (on the left from the congregation’s point of view). See J. R. West (1872), The North End: Unhistorical, Unrubrical, Unmeaning, and Irreverent Towards Almighty God.

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    +1. The etymology of privilege is also helpful for understanding its older meaning — “privi+lege” = “private law”, i.e. a separate set of rules granted to some place or group. Commented Jan 25 at 21:17
  • 1
    Great answer; the legal background is especially helpful. I'm not fully convinced that "they" means visitors rather than the congregation as a whole: 1) as you mention, the main recipient of the privileges is the church, not individuals; 2) in the passage, high- vs. low-church features are brought up by Mrs. Morris, who was part of both the congregation in Wales and the London congregation she is complaining about (as I infer from OP's summary). I think the point is that Welsh Anglicans, typified by Mrs. Morris, did not want and did not receive "Catholic privileges."
    – DLosc
    Commented Jan 26 at 20:14

"They" is the visitors. The reference to memory in "I did not remember" is just a conversational hedge, like when someone might say "No, not to my recollection". The sentence is saying that the visitors (who attended the special service on Sunday in the English church that Mrs. Morris went to as a girl) had not expected and had not received Catholic privileges. This is consistent with it being made in response to the statement "It isn't like the church I went to as a girl, where Mr. Lewis was vicar. He didn't have incense or wear that old black hat."

The other answers explain the meaning of "Catholic privileges" better than I could.


In the Catholic Church, Holy Eucharist is believed to be not a commemoration of the Crucifixion but the actual Crucifixion.

Is it possible that the author is referring to the Catholic belief that they are receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? Whereas in Protestant services, they are merely receiving a piece of bread in commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

This seems to be to be more specifically "Catholic" and also a "privilege" rather than simply having a Mass(Catholic)/Serivce(Protestant) daily.

  • Not 'the actual Crucifixion', but that the bread is miraculously transformed into the actual body of Jesus. But I don't think Mildred is thinking about transubstantiation, just about minor details of ritual! Commented Jan 26 at 19:04
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