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Diary: Serenhedd James

24 October 2014


Organ relief

I DO not claim to play the organ well; but I suppose I play it well enough. A friend plays in much the same way, and when we both spent a weekend at his parents' house in the country, not so long ago, there was a certain inevitability about what would be required on the Sunday morning.

His parents were away. The house is something of a pile, and its land contiguous with the church; so, somewhat predictably, the lady of the house is also one of the churchwardens. Our orders were clear: one of us was to play the organ at the parish church the next morning.

On the face of it, this seemed simple enough. Holy communion has always been at 10.30 a.m., and so we were up bright and early, and set off through the fields to church.

Our suspicions that something was not quite right were first aroused by the vehicles parked on the verge that serves as the church's car park; they were increased, as we meandered through the gravestones, by the sound of singing, and finally sealed by the mortifying information on the newsletter pinned to the door: "Sunday: Holy Communion at 9.30".

It turned out that the time had been brought forward to enable the poor Rector of the eight-church benefice to fit in one of his seven other congregations. We edged the door open sheepishly, and, remarkably, the organ struck up. More remarkably, it struck up with the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from Verdi's Nabucco. More remarkably still, the congregation joined in with a very firm, creditable, and enthusiastic humming.

We were soon caught loitering in the porch, and dragged inside for coffee. The mystery organist was a recently retired cathedral organist who had moved to the area. He had played for his voluntary something he knew off by heart, and the congregation had joined in with delighted appreciation. Embarrassment soon gave way to relief.

Returning home for lunch, we checked the information provided for weekend guests - and, of course, the time had been altered. Thank heaven for those cathedral musicians who, in retirement, still want to go to church. 

Back to Betjeman

I DID not know Candida Lycett Green, but I was sorry to see her obituaries in the papers in August. She had spent her childhood being dragged round churches by her father, Sir John Betjeman, and his appreciation for the finer points of architecture, both sacred and secular, rubbed off.

She championed the Churches Conservation Trust, and carried on her father's work in opposing insensitive development plans; she was an English Heritage Commissioner, serving on its Churches and Cathedrals Committee; and, perhaps most splendidly, she was a founding contributor to Private Eye, and took over Betjeman's "Nooks and Corners" column in the 1970s.

I was convinced that Mrs Lycett Green had been the subject of the back-page interview of the first edition of the Church Times to which I contributed. On checking the archive, however, I saw that I was out by over a month (Back Page Interview, 14 December 2012).

At the time, I had been thinking of writing a book about the churches her father had included in his poetry, and what had become of them since their verse immortalisation. Her name, then, must have rung a bell (of waiting Advent, presumably). I had thought of writing to her; but other projects took over.

Betjeman has loomed large recently, because his documentaries appeared on the BBC iPlayer over the summer. I watched his 1974 Passion for Churches with a friend in his vicarage sitting-room, as the Poet Laureate tottered his way around Norfolk. It is well known that, of the young couple whose wedding appears in the programme, the groom, Nigel McCulloch, became Lord High Almoner, and his bride, Celia Townshend, the first woman in the C of E to owe canonical obedience to her husband, after he laid hands upon her in his cathedral (News, 3 July 2008).

But I wonder whether someone can confirm that, when Betjeman was driven to Sandringham Church in a magnificent open-topped car, the car's driver (and indeed its owner), in cap and upturned collar, was the priestly wit and honorary chaplain to the London literary scene, Gerard Irvine? 

Bless this house

I AM at the stage of my life when my contemporaries are becoming engaged, marrying, buying houses, and having children - and usually, it must be said, in that unfashionable order. One friend, however, has turned the whole thing on its head, and has bought a bachelor pad south of the Thames.

He invited me to attend the blessing of his new home. I was asked to assist at the ceremony, and accompanied the assembled company around the flat, as the officiating priest visited each room in turn, sprinkling it with holy water and offering prayers.

Although the flat is spacious and has a garden, the bathroom is on the small side. I was first in for its blessing, followed by the officiant, and then by another member of the party. And so the ceremonies continued, in a flat in (if not necessarily of) the diocese of Southwark, with a priest in cassock, lace cotta, and brocade stole, carrying a book and an aspergillium, and accompanied by the registrar of another diocese bearing a vessel of holy water. I merely had to stand in the bath, holding a biretta, and say "Amen."

Dr Serenhedd James is an Hon.Research Fellow of St Stephen's House, Oxford.

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