Sunday, 27 November 2011

In cloud, and majesty and awe

On Friday evenings, my wife likes to practise with the choir at Astbury parish church, some seven miles north of here. It’s a well earned break for her after the working week and before her glass of wine to mark the weekend. In exchange, on high days and holidays, she’s asked to sing with the full choir. Tonight being Advent, off she went with her friend from round the corner and me in tow for my occasional fix of anthems.

‘Welcome to our Advent service, and one of my favourite evenings of the year,’ said the wife of the incumbent, a curate somewhere else but who often officiates on these occasions.

They dimmed the lights in the immense 14th century nave, lit the candles and the count-down to Christmas began ...

I really don’t understand why so many churches, even Anglican ones, are throwing out these old traditions like so much lumber. Sure, I can see how clap-hands-here-comes-charlie choruses and cringe-worthy disco-vicar style cheesiness might be seen as something of a panacea as congregations decline. 

Yes, we need to do something to pack ‘em in, but why do we have to dumb it all down so much?

I can certainly see how the oomph and warmth of evangelical and charismatic congregations can create and maintain viable faith communities – I should know, I’ve been involved with these things since my late teens. I’m not knocking it. But it’s often so ... well, so inane. There was more weight and eloquence in the dignified silence before the Advent candles than all the karaoke worship videos put together.

Ok, so we all knew what to expect, O come, O come, Immanuel, On Jordan’s Bank, A Great and Mighty Wonder (a particular favourite), and Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending, of course. I have to admit that Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence did surprise me, but for all I know, it might be an Advent staple. The choir had practised Bach’s Sleeper’s Awake but they didn’t sing it for some reason – much to my wife’s dismay and my disappointment. Nevertheless, with the candles flickering in the twilight, the stained glass, the tracery on the old screens and pews and some hefty hymns the service was quite something. So many churches sit lightly by the Calendar these days. In my more puritanical youth, I used to decry the very use of one. Now I realise what we were missing for all those years. There’s something about marking seasons and transitions, they give rhythm and structure to the year.

Someone complained afterwards that O Come, O Come Immanuel is a bit of a dirge. It’s not the jolliest of tunes, admittedly, but there’s such a sense of depth and mystery there. It never fails to give me the goose-bumps.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
Who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud, and majesty and awe.’

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Rural Zoar?

This morning I attended the communion service at St. Bertoline’s, Barthomley, just two or three miles from here.

Barthomley is a small hamlet, little more than a scattering of cottages and farms, with a few fine old buildings and the wonderful White Lion pub – one of the best pubs anywhere, ever.

If you like to drink your beer on oak settles and your services in 1662 BCP, then you’d love it.

Instead of the sung eucharist, it was Common Worship this morning, the Feast of Christ The King – with the famous ‘stir up’ Collect that gave this Sunday its traditional name of ‘Stir-up Sunday.’ People used to stir up the dried fruit for their Christmas cakes and puddings on this Sunday, and my wife did the same, even though she’s been poorly with cold.

St. Bertoline’s is a fine medieval church on an 8th century foundation. St Bertram (or Bertoline) was a hermit hereabouts and famously changed some loaves into stones to thwart the Devil’s temptation for him to break a fast. A neat reversal of the Gospel story of the Temptation of Christ. They still have some boulders there that are said to have once been loaves and the Orthodox church up in Audley managed to get hold of one to keep in a basket alongside their icon screen.

It was also the scene of a notorious massacre during The English Civil War. Some 20 villagers sheltered in the church tower as Royalist troops ransacked the village. The rector's son took a pot shot with his musket and brought one of the horsemen down. Enraged, the others lit fires and smoked the men out of the tower, stripping, bludgeoning and clubbing them as they emerged. The rector's son had his throat slit and perhaps a dozen were killed in all, the others managing to escape. It was one of the war-crimes cited against King Charles I at his trial, even though he was miles away at the time and had nothing to do with the massacre itself. I still shudder at the thought of it, though, whenever I enter this fine old church.

The style is what I’d call ‘rural catholic’, a kind of no-nonsense rustic Anglicanism with some ceremonial but nothing too spikey. The priest wears a cope for communion and faces the altar during the consecration, but there's no smoke and mirrors.

The congregation was larger than I expected, swelled perhaps by children brought along for the ‘Toy Sunday’ part – the donation of toys for The Salvation Army to distribute among the needy. I recognised a number of people, besides those I’ve met before or know from non-church contexts, such as a woman from the Stoke Stanza at The Leopard. Like me, she lives in Alsager and it seems that a number of people have taken refuge at St. Bertoline’s, either, one presumes, to escape from the guitars and waving arms at the lively parishes in the nearby towns or the innovations of the liberal catholic-lite brigade. I know of a number of medieval parish churches hereabouts which attract refugees from the towns. They are drawn by the language of the Book of Common Prayer, by the surpliced choirs and anthems, by a form of Anglicanism that is apparently on the wane in the towns and suburbs.

‘You need that approach if you’re going to attract the young people and families,’ the Stanza lady said philosophically, referring to the evangelical, wannabe-charismatic churchmanship of my local parish. ‘We can’t get the young people here.’

There can’t be many young people in Barthomley itself. I’ve met one or two, friends of my eldest. But there aren’t that many people there all told. The pub attracts people from further afield, of course. On a smaller scale, it looks like the rural Zoar of St. Bertoline’s is doing the same.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

'C'est jolie, la gare!'

There’s nothing very pretty about King’s Cross and St Pancras. Not if you leave out St Pancras Station itself, a Victorian confection narrowly saved for the nation and now the proud terminal for Eurostar. Yes, there are the caryatids holding up the eaves of St Pancras Parish Church, and there’s the other parish church, way back beyond King’s Cross where Mary Shelley lies buried. Other than that, and before the promised redevelopment which will alter its character forever, this part of London remains seedy and rough around the edges.

If you’re coming by rail from the Midlands or the North it’s the part you come to first and it’s probably the part I know best. I spent three weeks poring over prints in The British Museum during the summer of 1981. I sussed out the greasy-spoons of Bloomsbury, Holborn and Soho, but gravitated towards the leafy suburbs and distant Putney and Richmond to visit friends. I even got in with a charismatic ‘house-church’ and was baptised in the Thames. And I’m still alive to tell the tale.

It was lonely back then. I’m told it still is. Yet I met an old lady in a Methodist church who remembered the Coronation of King Edward VII and the cafe owners were always up for a chat.

That part of London is packed with education. Birkbeck, SOAS, UCL, University of London – they all seem to be jostling each other across the Georgian squares of Bloomsbury and into the surrounding streets. There’s a lot more there besides, umpteen language schools, the headquarters of all kinds of institutes and organisations, UNISON, the BMA, the United Reformed Church ...

I stayed in a hall of residence on Tavistock Square back in ’81 and have been back many times since for meetings at Universities UK, for seminars and presentations, both as a delegate and as a presenter. There are all manner of associations, not least the site of the bus bombing on Upper Woburn Place during the 7/7 attacks.

Where possible, I’ll stay with friends on London trips, out at Richmond or Wimbledon. It’s not always practical nor fair to prevail upon them though. So I’ll seek out ‘budget accommodation’ around King’s Cross. Budget being the operative word. I’m not fussy but it can be grim, grim, grim ...

Even so, I’ll miss it when they’ve gentrified and smartened it all up. St Pancras Station blooms terrifically – despite its ersatz public art – between the two thorns of Euston and King’s Cross. The British Library is a source of wonder. The iconic gas-holders, recently removed (bar one, I believe) always welcomed you back.

Will these architectural delights remain as impressive once they’ve desanitised it all?

‘C’est jolie, la gare!’ the French tourist observed to her boyfriend as she turned to look back at the Eurostar terminal as they crossed the road into the wilderness.

- You can read details about a presentation I gave during my latest visit to London on my business blog.

And don't forget to check out the latest poems on The Leopard.