IT WAS one of those weekends: from St Stephen’s House to All Saints’, Margaret Street, an overnight stay at Christ’s Hospital, and to St Leonards in the morning. I was on my way to the commemorations of the centenary of the death of Friederica Frances Swinburne, foundress of the Cleaver Fund, when I bumped into an urbane and nattily dressed RC clergyman, as he was coming out of Paxton & Whitfield on Jermyn Street.
I was greeted with his beaming: “Smell my truffles.” He dramatically produced a small Camembert that had been infused with truffles; and, yes, it did smell sublime.
I was at the 10.15 parish mass at Christ Church, St Leonards. It is a proper old-fashioned barn of a church, full of beautiful things — including a splendid depiction of St Hugh of Lincoln with the face of Edward King — and it remains a beacon of Catholic faith and order in one of the poorest and most socially deprived corners of the country.
The living is in the gift of the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith, of which I am a trustee, and I had lunch afterwards with the Rector and his family. The assistant curate was also at the table: he is better known, perhaps, from the cover of last year’s Church Times ordinations issue (10 July 2015).
He has since been ordained to the priesthood; so thumbs-up all round.
Fathers of my land
FROM Christ Church, St Leonards, to Christ Church, St Aldate’s. I returned to Oxford to find that the clergy of the diocese of Llandaff had been summoned here for a few days with the Archbishop of Wales. As I drew my first breath in the diocese of Llandaff, it was serendipitous that on my birthday I was able to have dinner with the present assistant curate of the parish in which I was born.
The Llandaff clergy were not the only visitors to Oxford in April. On the Queen’s 90th birthday, we entertained a group from the diocese of Fort Worth to tea in the common room. After they left for a tour of the college, it occurred to me that they might think that there are always champagne flutes laid out, that the Queen’s portrait is always decked in bunting, and that the room is always dominated by a large Union flag. No need to disillusion them, I suppose.
FROM Christ Church, Oxford, to Christ Church, Tunstall. In happier days, tub-thumping Anglo-Catholicism flourished in this part of industrial Staffordshire. But now the “biretta belt” has contracted, and churches have been closed.
The Revd John Stather has diligently saved various pieces of liturgical ephemera, and given them space in his sacristy. When he showed me over the place, I counted no fewer than six thuribles, all brightly polished and ready to go.
When the Catholic faith is restored in the fullness of glory to the rest of that corner of the vineyard, I think it is safe to say, it will be the clergy and servers of Christ Church, Tunstall, who fill the house with smoke.
THE Christ Church hat-trick complete, I spent a couple of days at the end of April in Venice, moonlighting as accompanist for a choir on tour. In these circumstances I always try to get into churches before mass for a quick recce of the instrument; but I was foiled in St Mark’s Cathedral by the fact that no one was expecting me, and the time I had been given clashed with first vespers of Sunday. The public are not, it seems, invited to join the Canons of St Mark’s for the offices, although confessions are heard near the door. As I had got into the nave with an explanation of “sono l’organista”, I took a seat at the back, and waited.
A handful of canons soon filed into the nearly empty basilica in their capitular choir dress: rochets with scarlet-backed lace under purple mozette, and pectoral crosses on red-and-gold cords. They took their stalls and proceeded to sing the office enthusiastically, but with only a token nod in the direction of the key. This was a small price to pay for the opportunity of sitting otherwise undisturbed in one of the most captivating buildings in Christendom.
After mass, we made our way back to our lodgings for supper. On St Mark’s Square, a band had struck up a selection of old-time favourites, and the crowds of tourists were beginning to disperse in favour of fashionable Venetians beginning their evening passeggiata. As we passed one of the areas of elegant outdoor restaurant tables, a hapless pigeon flapped limply around on its back while a huge seagull ripped it apart with gusto.
Everyone studiously ignored this brief danse de mort, and the band played on.
A WHOLE gallery at the Museo Diocesani has been given over to beautiful, precious metalware that formerly adorned sanctuaries across the city. This included dozens of reliquaries.
I soon realised with a start that the contents of most of them had been left in situ. Here a withered hand, there a desiccated foot; several pieces of the True Cross and parts of the Crown of Thorns; and a piece of bone taken from the body of St Mark — the glories of generations of honest people’s devotions now shut up in a series of glass cabinets for the benefit of anyone who wishes to pay €5 for the privilege.
Not many do, it seems; for I had the place to myself. But it will take more than a shaky interpretation of the Code of Canon Law to suppress the devotion of faithful Venetians to their Apostle: the glass in front of the reliquary of St Mark was smudged with kisses.
Dr Serenhedd James is a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, and an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House.