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,
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
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
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
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.