Keeping guard against guardians

02 November 2006


IT takes place twice a day at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., never failing to grip the eager lens of the tourist. The Changing of the Guard in Whitehall is ever popular. It is like the big clocks in Swiss town squares which every hour do something odd involving woodmen, cowgirls, and other characters from tales of former times. Distinctive, quaint, and endearingly useless, these things remind us that we are on holiday.

Wearing clothes now seen only in prop cupboards, the soldiers in London play to the gallery, glad no doubt to be clear of Iraq. Straight-faced and stern-eyed, they parade in shiny helmets with elegant plumes, and thick coats from the time of Waterloo. Their big black boots are designed for riding; so those in the ceremony forced to walk do so in an awkward fashion — like a small boy in his father’s wellingtons.

The show has no more substance than the West End performances near by. Gone are the days when two men on horses protect anyone, however magnificent the beasts or long the regimental swords. But no matter; for there is nothing to protect anyway, other than a memory — past times, old forms.

And one day, like winter leaves, their time will run out. The guard will change for the last time, and the stable doors will close on an old form spent and tired. New forms of power, as empty as the old but pushy with youth, will press their case, and find guards appropriate to the times.

We must do what we must do, but we become most dangerous when we imagine we guard something. In our passionate watch, we become the small and narrow people, squeezing ourselves into the cramped corridors of our particular concern. When I guard something, I get up in the morning and imagine myself honourable and right, which leaves no evil beyond me, towards those I guard against.

I am told that the Archbishop of Canterbury has, in a letter, been told by two-thirds of the Anglican Communion that he is an unfit guardian of the Church. New forms demand protection. Only there is nothing to protect. Form is the flimsy construction of circumstance and time. It may bless briefly. But it should not be protected. Only spirit is eternal, and only spirit worth protecting.

In these dark December days, I contemplate the stern-eyed men in shiny helmets and big boots. I enjoy the show. It moves me like old railway stations. But for the sake of the world, like the Archbishop, I can guard nothing but the flickering light of my own spirit, as fragile and hopeless as a baby in a manger.

This is enough.

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