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Diary

04 April 2014

ISTOCK

If it's Tuesday . . .

ONE of my resolutions of 2014 has been to spend more time out of London. Things started off with a trip to Brussels with a friend who happens to be an art historian. There are few better ways to arrive in Brussels than in the early afternoon, having polished off a picnic brunch and a bottle of champagne on the train. For these purposes, the combination of the new branch of Fortnum & Mason at St Pancras and an art historian is perfect.

The Musée Oldmasters in Brussels does what it says on the tin, and contains one of my favourite paintings: Rubens's Martyrdom of St Livinus (c.1633).

The Rubens first captured my imagination in my early teens - which may say more about me than about Rubens. In all its fleshy glory, the picture tells the tale of the noble seventh-century Irish bishop who came to Flanders to preach the gospel to the locals. They repaid him for his trouble by ripping out his tongue and cutting off his head. Not content with that, Rubens has the martyr's freshly severed tongue being fed to an enthusiastic dog, tail wagging. It's a nice echo of Matthew 7.6.

 

Audrey's order

AN OLD chum is now a solemnly professed Canon of Premontré, the order founded by St Norbert of Xanten in 1120. He ministers at a daughter house of Leffe - a city church-plant, one might say - founded only a couple of years ago at the Abbaye de la Cambre, a former medieval convent in the leafy suburb of Ixelles. It turns out that one of the Abbey's claims to fame is that Audrey Hepburn was baptised there in 1929.

Did she have the original La Cambre community in mind when she filmed The Nun's Story? I do hope so. Our jour bruxellois ended with our sitting in the monastic parlour after vespers, sampling the order's beer thoroughly. It would have been rude not to.

 

Roman holiday

"ALL that is atrocious and shameless flocks to Rome from all over the place," wrote Tacitus, in risqué Latin. Whether that is true or not, the Eternal City draws me back,year in, year out. Winter trips haven't ever appealed until thisyear, however, when the Neapol-itan treasures of St Januariuswent on display at the Fondazione Roma.

The collection is, apparently, worth more than our own Crown jewels: devotional bling on a spectacular scale. My highlight was less shiny, although only comparatively so: a preconciliar bishop's essential vade mecum: mass vessels, collapsible crozier, oil cruets, bugia (the hand-candle on a long stick,if you were wondering), tonsure scissors, and the rest - everything needed for pontifical liturgies, wrought in gold, and neatly and safely stored in a solid travelling-case. The perfect present for the bishop on the move - a flying bishop, perhaps, now that their sees are here to stay.

There were hardly any tourists about, but the Romans are there all the time, and a large colony of our fellow-countrymen: the students and staff of the Venerable English College.

I first visited the Venerabile, as it is known, to trawl through its archives on the trail of a 19th-century prelate or two. I found it only because, wandering lost in the back streets around the Campo dei Fiori at about six in the evening, I heard an organ in the distance strike up the playover to Repton, and I followed the strains of "Dear Lord and Father of mankind" through the streets to the evening mass.

These days I am an old hand, and had a long and jolly evening with a few of the seminarians at the College bar. It turned out that the tab for the evening was being paid by a cheerful curial archbishop happily ensconced in the corner. A visit to the Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory the next morning seemed appropriate.
 

The Queen

WHEN Accession Day came round again this year, I looked up in the Church Times archive the front page that mourned George VI, "this splendid and most lovable King". Archbishop Fisher exhorted the nation to give its "best encouragement to his daughter, called so prematurely to the Throne".

The Queen's father went to his reward, relatively unexpectedly, in the early hours of press-day, causing panic at the Church Times. But Accession Day is also a liturgical pitfall for choirmasters and precentors, being the only day when the Prayer Book departs from its usual Lesser Litany and substitutes special invocations for the reigning monarch.

Westminster Abbey has this sort of thing down to a fine art, of course. I wonder whether the tourists at choral evensong on 6 February just assumed that the National Anthem was sung as the introit every evening.

The choir sang the proper responses and Byrd's "O Lord Make Thy Servant Elizabeth Our Queen". That glorious little anthem presumably came back into vogue in 1936, and it cannot be said that its petition "and give her a long life" has not been abundantly answered in both cases.

Say what you like about the Abbey - and the last time I went, I got shouted at by an under-informed and over-empowered red-gowned flunkey - it knows how to do Accession Day evensong. Alas,it turns out that "health and safety" prevents its flying a flag fromthe tower in high winds. No onewants to see a verger blown offinto Parliament Square, I suppose.
 

Dr James is Visiting Tutor in Ecclesiastical History at St Stephen's House, Oxford.

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