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Diary

15 November 2013

ISTOCK

ALDOUS HUXLEY, the 50th anniversary of whose death falls next week, once said: "Of all the worn, smudged, dog-eared words in our vocabulary, 'love' is surely the grubbiest, smelliest, slimiest." But I sometimes wonder whether "community" isn't close behind.

The concepts for which the word is used often melt down on close analysis: Community Police, Community Care - even, if you are old enough to remember it, Community Charge. There may still be a "gay community", but these days only in the sense that there is a "left-handed community."

So it is with some trepidation that I have to report that these past few weeks have brought a few vivid experiences of community beyond scare quotes.

ON 23 October, the Bishop of Nandyal, in the Church of South India, the Rt Revd Eggoni Pushpalalitha, the first woman bishop in India, returned to her home village in triumph. Historically, aspiring Nandikotkur scholars leave and make lives in Hyderabad, Bangalore, or Chennai. Not this one.

It was the experience of a lifetime to accompany her.

Umbrellas waved in driving rain. Firecrackers exploded wantonly, some perilously close by. Tuk-tuks parped joyous dit-dit-dits. The raucous village band played on, deafening drums pulsing sheer energy as teenage boys flung gangly limbs rhythmically in random directions for an Indian form of break dance.

I have visited Indian villages with dignitaries who received six, or even seven garlandings. On this occasion, I think I counted 42 from village elders, schoolfriends, and assorted admirers.

Real community is coming home, with joy from the heart. It cannot be imposed or denied, not even by the fag end of a cyclone.

THE Benedictine community of Saint-Wandrille, in Normandy, has nestled in a rural valley by the Seine since AD 649.

The community has been ejected three times - once by Vikings, again in the French Revolution, and finally in 1905 - but such service interruptions have been comparatively few and far between. Here, just over 100 years ago, Abbé Joseph Pothier revived the proper use of plainsong.

The community offices are generally oases of peace and calm; so it was a bit of a shock to the system when 500 people suddenly turned up to church here. But they do at Toussaint. The French make a great deal of this as a time to visit family graves, sometimes bearing chrysanthemums.

What moved me particularly this year, however, was another new appearance in the church, a Mise au tombeau - a life-size tableau of Jesus being taken from cross to grave. This has recently been moved out of storage and restored.

These tableaux can be found all over Normandy, and were all the rage 500 years ago. Many capture the shock of grief, sometimes with figures throwing their arms around as though they had been electrocuted.

The Saint-Wandrille piece is less dramatic, with calm figures who radiate courage rather than grief. I swear some of the faces would have been recognisable to the community when it was first installed in the church; from the inscription, we learn that this was in 1506, at the behest of the Prior, William LaVieille, who bids the visitor, in quaint old French, "Pries Dieu Pour Luy".

I did, reflecting that real community reaches across time and makes people from long ago live again. These figures, with their faded original colours, bring memory to life. Near by, mass is said daily, proclaiming the death and resurrection of which Prior William's tableau is only a pale shadow.

SO TO the market square at Aylesbury on Sunday, and the Bucks county Remembrance service.

This was a brilliant clear November morning, crisp and shiny. People of all ages seem to be participating in Remembrance services more and more, and the large market-square was almost full.

One or two people at the gathering afterwards spoke of the reuniting of the young singer with her naval father at the Albert Hall the night before as their lump-in-the-throat moment this year.

The English are increasingly developing lumps in the throat about Remembrance, and not just for fallen servicepeople. Most roads in the county now have impromptu shrines to road-death victims: bundles of cards, flowers, and toys.

Perhaps the historic stiff upper lip is slipping. We could be growing more Continental solidarity with our dead. We will remember them, and, as we do so, our feelings often show.

Real community is about knowing that we belong to others on a more than symbolic level. It is produced by deep feeling, not publicity agencies. It bridges the dividing gulf of time, and even death, and is not afraid of showing itself in public.

If the Church can find ways to articulate and catalyse this kind of community, we should have an exciting future after all.

Dr Alan Wilson is the Bishop of Buckingham.

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18 March 2021
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