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Diary

26 June 2015

ISTOCK

Our American brethren

MY WORK with the Cowley Project necessitated a trip in May to Boston. I visited the American branch of the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE), just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The monastery is the work of Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942), and is considered by many to have been his masterpiece. I had a warm welcome from the Superior, Brother Geoffrey Tristram SSJE, who showed me around and introduced me to the brethren.

Elegant simplicity seems to have been Cram's watchword, and the photographs of the monastery available on the internet do not do full justice to the numinous atmosphere in the community church. I joined the brethren for midday prayer; the quality of light was breathtaking, thanks in no small way to the magnificent stained glass by Charles J. Connick (1875-1945).

His clerestory windows depict founders of religious orders; I was pleased to see that the last two in the south wall are of John Mason Neale, whose Society of St Margaret worked with the SSJE in their early days in Boston; and of Richard Meux Benson himself (Features, 15 January).

On the way to the refectory, I noticed that one of the little windows in the cloister door was of St Frideswide: a lovely nod to the order's Oxford origins. I thought that that might be the most delightful feature of the airy, palm-filled cloister - until I saw the wall-mounted xylophone that one of the brothers played to summon us into lunch. I'm very much looking forward to returning.

www.ssje.org 

 

Architectural medley

HAVING wound up my work in Boston, I headed south to stay with an old friend who now teaches at Yale. The railway journey from Boston South Station to New Haven, Connecticut, has to be one of the most picturesque in the world. It is all sea and sand, for mile upon mile, and almost as far as the eye can see.

The buildings that make up Yale's university quarter are a mishmash of nearly every neo-architectural style imaginable. A Gothic window here, a Doric portico there; on one side of the street a Romanesque arcade, on the other an Egyptian mausoleum. This is, of course, the attempt of a relatively young institution to place itself, through its architecture, in the succession of the great medieval European foundations such as Oxford, Louvain, and Bologna - and with plenty of chutzpah to boot.

A couple of architects simply copied - sorry, paid homage to - existing English masterpieces. Christ Church has a tower that is a dead ringer for that of Magdalen College, and the Harkness Tower is an almost exact copy of the Boston Stump.

The Harkness Tower houses the university's carillon, whose 54 bells are still played every day. The art is taken very seriously indeed, and the carillonneurs have their own cult following. You can even buy commemorative T-shirts, although somewhat predictably they bear the pun "Keep calm and carillon." So much for the Ivy League.

 

Making a mark

I RETURNED from the US in time to vote in the General Election; and, more pressingly, in the election of the new Professor of Poetry at Oxford. This time around, the voting was intended to be done electronically, over several weeks, to increase the chances of persuading the several thousand members of Convocation not resident in Oxford to exercise their franchise.

I was encouraged to see, however, that it would still be possible to vote in person. And so, one day earlier this month, I headed to Paddington, gown over arm, and caught the train to Oxford.

After a productive morning in the archives at Pusey House, I went to the university offices, pulled on my gown, and, having established that the re-election of John Keble to a posthumous and perpetual second term was still not an option, made my mark, and headed back to my research.

By now we know that Simon Armitage has been elected; but the problem with this sort of ballot is that, very often, some of the people who get nominated are not well-known, and so the electorate has little to work on in terms of an informed vote.

Parties tend to vote en bloc; so I suspect that the clerical vote this time will be have been thrown behind the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, whose nomination was supported by, among others, one "R. D. Williams, Christ Church". Perhaps in five years' time the Master of Magdalene will be a candidate himself.

There must, surely, be a more satisfactory way of proceeding. I have long believed that the simplest solution is to have all the candidates in separate rooms, with their names on the doors. Voters would receive a ballot paper, and then proceed to each room in turn. Each candidate would be given challenges along the lines of "Sonnet: second quatrain to include 'homoousios'"; or "Clerihew: the Bishop of Buckingham. Proceed."

 

Three firkins apiece

IT IS not often that a clerical frock-coat is seen; but they abounded two Saturdays ago at the wedding of friends of mine at St Alban's, Holborn. The Vicar celebrated the solemn high mass to the accompaniment of clouds of incense, and Frank Martin's haunting and chromatic Mass for Double Choir; the hymns were thunderous, and the responses were heartfelt.

The bride entered the church not to a piece of her own choosing, but to music chosen for the occasion by Holy Church: the plainchant introit of the nuptial mass. There were no photographers running around during the service; no one instigated a "flash mob" dance; and no one tried to be clever, or trendy, or to dilute what the Church teaches about Christian marriage.

The usual mealy-mouthed wedding-meme these days is something about the ceremony being "all about the couple and their friends on this, their special day". On this occasion, the congregation - many of whom were not in the slightest bit churchy - were left in no doubt that something very beautiful had happened, and that the bride, the groom, and the Church believed that at its centre had been God himself.

Fifteen minutes after the end of mass, we were all tucking into plentiful scrumptious canapés, and the first of several dozen magnums of perfectly chilled champagne. The next time that most of us will meet again will be on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, on the afternoon of 4 July, after the groom has been made deacon. And so the Kingdom advances.

 

Dr Serenhedd James is Director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen's House, Oxford.

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