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12 February 2016


Ecumenical matters

LIKE the pastoral staff of St Gregory the Great (News, 8 January), I have been having a thoroughly ecumenical time of it lately. Back in the autumn, there was the cricket match between the Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI and the Vatican team, St Peter’s XI (News, 30 October 2015); and what does the score matter when relations are so cordial? [We lost. Editor] Meanwhile, I inadvertently blundered into the background of one of the associated Songs of Praise interviews.

Appearing on that particular programme was not exactly on my bucket list; but at least, when it happened, I was in the palm-filled courtyard garden of a pontifical seminary, stuffing my face like a chipmunk and not pretending to sing next to Pam Rhodes. Despite that, I was asked to guest-edit the autumn edition of the quarterly journal Downside Review, and, not long afterwards, an invitation arrived to return to the Venerable English College and deliver its annual Wiseman Lecture in mid-January.

I spent a couple of days at the college as an official visitor, and enjoyed the hospitality of the Rector, Mgr Philip Whitmore, and his staff and students.

History oozes from every wall in the place — and from quite a few ceilings, too. The vaulted refectory, with its ceiling fresco by Andreas Pozzo (1642-1709) of St George and the Dragon, knocks ours into a cocked hat.


Roman candles

MY TRIP to Rome was not entirely without yearning, however, and not just because my favourite café on the Piazza Farnese was closed for its Christmas break.

When the Year of Mercy began with a light show projected on to the façade of St Peter’s — while we were simultaneously being exhorted to conserve the world’s resources by living out Laudato Si’ — it occurred to me that the old way of illuminating the building might not have been such a bad one after all.

The basilica used to have large iron sconces all over it, designed to hold thick candles with shades. These would be lit as evening fell on high days of jubilee, so that the outline of the building would be visible from all around, flickering gently.

Lighting the candles on the dome and cupola was particularly dangerous work; so they used to borrow a few expendable convicts from the local prisons. By the 1930s, they had moved on to professional trapeze artists, who brought their own ropes.

I last climbed the dome in 2012. Since then, it has been cleaned. It looks lovely, but the sconces have been removed. I suppose we are stuck with the electricity, then, until it runs out.


Called by name

BACK in London, I had cause to visit to St Thomas’s Hospital, and was delighted to encounter a sign announcing that one of the orthopaedic consultants was a Mr Bone. That kept me going for days — until I discovered that the RC cathedral in Leeds had appointed an organist called Mr Pipe.

As I can never bump into the Vicar of St Alban’s, Holborn, without recalling that one of his predecessors was called Father Priest, I thumbed my way through the current edition of Crockford. There remain, I am pleased to say, two Priests and six Deacons.

But there are 15 Deans, and 28 Bishops — counting only once the reverend gentleman who appears twice. Some might regard this as an accurate reflection of the staffing priorities of the contemporary Church of England; but, whatever the case, the five Popes have got their work cut out.


Return to sender?

FROM time to time, the goings-on reported on social media prove beyond doubt that life is stranger than fiction. A priest in Lichfield diocese recently took to Facebook to express his exasperation when a courier approached him and asked him to sign for a delivery to the vicarage.

Had the courier bothered to deliver the parcel to the address on the label, he would have found the priest’s wife at home, and ready to sign for it. As it was, he saw the church door open, wandered in, and asked the priest instead.

This might have been reasonable enough, had the priest not at the time been in the process of leading a coffin out of church at the end of a funeral. The result was embarrassment all round (except on the courier’s part, apparently), and a surfeit of distress for the mourners.

The issue has been taken up with the company in question.

Meanwhile, others have added their own stories. High above them must be the motorcyclist who appeared at the back of one church in the half-light of the Maundy Thursday watch, wandered around looking confused for a few minutes, and then asked the Vicar if anyone had ordered a pizza.


Spires and spaces

I CANNOT end without giving praise where praise is due. The missing book lamented in a previous column (Diary, 4 December) has come home to roost with its companions on the shelves of the Bodleian Library’s Lower Reading Room.

For this, the theology librarian, Dr Hilla Wait, is to be thanked. I have also discovered that that a good chunk of 19th-century material has been digitised, and is, therefore, viewable at the click of a button from the comfort of my desk; so not all change is bad.

Some documents, however, must still be consulted in person; and I am becoming increasingly familiar with the Weston Library, where the Special Collections are housed. It used to be known as the “New Bod”, and is now known as the “Old New Bod” for the sake of clarity.

One of the best things about it (besides the manuscripts, naturally) must be the roof terrace that opens off the fifth floor, and its panoramic view of central Oxford. The view to the west is dominated by the roofline of Exeter College chapel, with its 150-foot steeple: Oxford’s first foray into French neo-Gothic. Everyone always says that George Gilbert Scott based it on the Sainte-Chapelle at Paris; but I think that it has got far more in common with the lovely abbatial chapel at Chaalis, in Picardy.

I am an Exeter man, and so was the late Brian Brindley. A story does the rounds from time to time which may be apocryphal: that when he was JCR President, in the mid-1950s, there was discussion whether it would be possible to floodlight the chapel’s elegant, thin spire.

In the end, it was decided that the weight of the bulky lights then available would be too much for the delicate structure. Brindley is said to have lamented: “The spirit is willing, but the flêche is weak.” Welcome to Lent.


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

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