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All Saints, Middleton

The English Lourdes

south porch south doorway

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  The Suffolk market town of Sudbury is bordered on two sides by the most intensely rural part of the neighbouring county of Essex. Here, remote from the bureaucrats at County Hall in Chelmsford, the narrow lanes are unspoiled, the villages untouched. It is like stepping back in time. Middleton sits barely a mile to the south of Sudbury, and its church is set back from the main road in a neat little churchyard which memorably was patrolled by a large black swan when I first came this way in the early years of the century. Also memorable are the proportions of the church, for the chancel is far longer than the nave, a 13th Century addition to a small Norman church. As James Bettley points out, the interest of the surviving Norman details makes this a church of some importance.

You step into an interior which is hushed and dark, but which avoids being gloomy thanks to an extensive range of stained glass by various workshops from the second half of the 19th Century. The nave necessarily feels cramped in comparison with the more open light of the chancel through the impressive Norman chancel arch. The church benefited from a fairly early restoration by Anthony Salvin with included a few of that architect's eccentricities including a fireback with the Tudor royal arms built into the back of the pulpit.

This church was an early one in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Oliver Raymond was parish priest here for a remarkable seventy years throughout most of the 19th Century. When he died in 1889 the reredos was erected to his memory, and glass by Clayton & Bell remembers another priest, Father James Skinner. It depicts him holding a chalice and host with the High Priest Melchizedek, the two of them flanking the risen Christ who raises a chalice in blessing. Members of the Raymond family were incumbents up untl the 1920s, and it was in the 20th Century that the enthusiasm reached stratospheric proportions and resultant extraordinary scenes with the advent of Father Clive Luget, who claimed to witness a series of visions here of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Thanks to impressive research by local historian Robert Halliday which first appeared in Ecclesiology Today in 2003, Luget's story can be told in all its remarkable detail. Luget was forty-eight years old and, as was common for priests in the tradition, unmarried, when he arrived at Middleton from east London in 1931. On the evening of 11th December 1932, a curious ball of light was reported to have floated about the village. Several parishioners claimed to have seen it, including Luget who said that he had observed the Crucifixion floating above it and the Blessed Virgin Mary kneeling before it. Two days later, he claimed that a seven year old boy called Francis Thornber had a vision inside the church as it would have been in the Middle Ages. Luget said the Virgin Mary had appeared to the child and given him messages, but she had told him not to reveal them yet.

As the weeks went by, Luget and the Thornber boy reported more visions of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes the figure appears to be dazzling white, recorded Luget. At other times, it is blue and about five feet six inches in height. The figure is of a young woman in a long flowing robe. Her hair is covered, but she has a most beautiful face. You cannot see her feet. With the appearance I had a distinct feeling of warm rays just as you feel when the sun strikes you. The visions were publicised widely, and curious visitors flocked to Middleton. Luget hoped that the village would become the English Lourdes. He was probably partly motivated by the ghostly events attracting visitors to neighbouring Borley Rectory a mile or so off, but also by the unprecedented success of Alfred Hope Patten's contemporary Marian shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk.

Luget's services became more and more extreme. He gave up all Anglican liturgies in favour of the Latin Mass, which was celebrated daily with clouds of incense. Congregations were rarely above twenty five people, but hundreds of others would gather outside to see what would happen, including large crowds from the Ipswich-based Protestant Truth Society, who came to picket the Mass. Luget was reported to the Bishop of Chelmsford as a Papist.

Inevitably, as time went by outsiders began to lose interest, but Luget continued to have his visions and to attract those who claimed to be able to see such things themselves. Five self-professed clairvoyants saw Mary at the foot of the Cross in the Summer of 1933, and several extreme and bizarre people joined Luget's congregation. A hymn was written in honour of the visions. Luget obtained written statements from people who saw the visions, and were spoken to by the Blessed Virgin. Many were children, but one was a magistrate.

By the late 1930s, Luget was seeing angels on a daily basis. As his parishioners and acolytes lost patience, the congregations gradually fell away, until no one came to the services anymore. Luget then claimed to be receiving written messages from a medieval monk, Brother Bramarte, which he had found written in pencil on the wall of the Rectory cellar, another echo of the events across the fields at Borley Rectory. With the parish moribund, and the church falling into decay, the Bishop finally intervened. In 1951 Luget was quietly retired, and he died six months later in hospital in Sudbury.

Today, the Anglo-Catholic tradition at Middleton has long since receded into the past, and no trace of Luget's extraordinary incumbency survives. No mention of him, or the events of those times, is to be found in the church guide, which appears to have been written shortly after Luget's departure. Only the sunlit reredos erected in memory of his predecessor Oliver Raymond, the same one that Luget used to celebrate the Roman Mass, remains to tell of it.

Simon Knott, December 2021

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looking east high altar
font Melchizedek, Christ, James Skinner James Skinner, Priest: An Holy Priesthood, to offer up Spiritual Sacrifices Crucified (William Warrington, 1850s)
her children rise up and call her blessed David and Isaiah Works of Mercy: clothing the naked (c1840, artist unknown)
Ezekiel goes up to heaven in a fiery chariot, Christ ascends to heaven (1860s, Clayton & Bell) Elijah goes up to heaven in a fiery chariot (1860s, Clayton & Bell) angels Tudor royal arms Henry VII/Henry VIII
the reredos is erected to the Glory of God


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