A COLD end to June meant that, for once, the annual round of ordinations and first masses was not spent in stiflingly hot churches. In Norwich, it was so chilly at Petertide that at least one canon was spotted sporting the Chapter’s distinctive winter fur almuce; but the Continent was at least reliably hot.
A correspondent of mine who was visiting Verona to conduct marriage preparation did the unthinkable, and removed his collar and stock. Later on the same day, when he discovered that clergy visiting the Basilica of San Zeno could get in for free, he put them both back on again, and saved himself €2.50.
The weather had picked up by the time I passed through Ely in July. As far as I can remember, I had only ever seen the cathedral on the television many years ago, when my godson’s father was thurifer at a live broadcast of midnight mass. What a treat it was. Lovely things, everywhere — although I now understand the fuss about “Charlie Dimmock” in the Lady chapel — and, on the day I visited, the whole place was bathed in midsummer afternoon light.
One thing stood out immediately, however: apparently, there has never been a cathedra proper, only a return stall where the Bishop of Ely sits as abbatial usurper. But let there be no thought of anyone commissioning a new throne for that graceful quire — not after what happened at Leicester. I will organise a proper, longer visit soon.
AUGUST can be a tricky time to have a patronal festival; but a friend runs his — on the Sunday nearest St Laurence’s Day — with aplomb. This year, the local bishop was the preacher, and the sun shone on lunch afterwards on the vicarage lawn. It was quintessentially the English parsonage summer garden-party, down to the bunting, straw hats, and light jazz. All we needed was a dead body in the rose garden and Joan Hickson rummaging around in the bushes.
I found myself eating lunch on a table in the marquee, seated opposite the bishop. His wife bought some raffle tickets from the young man who had been the subdeacon at mass — and then won first prize, to the delight of the parishioners. It was, naturally, a framed print of the church.
I wonder if she has a collection of them, clearly indexed, of which she causes the appropriate one to be hung in the second-best guest bedroom when the relevant incumbent is invited to stay.
An ecumenical matter
I HAVE spent quite a bit of this year working abroad. With that in mind, I decided that August was best spent at home. My plan had been to get to Walsingham in good time for the Assumption celebrations; but I left London later than planned. When I finally arrived, the streets were eerily deserted. The parish church was packed, of course, for the ecumenical vigil, and the torchlight procession had just begun.
The litany of Loreto came to an end, and St Mary’s was full of incense. I was given a hymn-sheet and a paper-shaded candle, and marshalled into place. As daylight began to fail, the image of Our Lady was carried through the village in the centre of a snake of flickering flame. The procession paused in the marketplace for a reading, reflection, and a decade of the rosary, and then moved on to the shrine.
By then, it was night, and the moon, almost full, shone brightly over the outdoor altar of the Mysteries of Light. The first firework went off as the final hymn drew to a close; the roosting birds shot out of the trees, and a lady standing near me nearly jumped out of her skin. The various rockets exploded over that sleepy corner of Norfolk to the usual accompaniment of “Ooh” and “Ah”, while the organist played Handel’s Musick for the Royal Fireworks.
BACK in Oxford, I spent a few hours one day in Pusey House library using the archives of the English Church Union. The library was open all summer, which was something of a novelty. When I told a contemporary that I was going there in August, he didn’t believe me.
The obvious thing to do at lunchtime, on a Friday, was to pop into the Eagle and Child a few doors along St Giles’s. It was full of Americans on an “Inklings” visit, where they go to drink a pint of warm ale in a place where Tolkien or C. S. Lewis once drank a pint of warm ale and have a deep and meaningful experience.
SO I ended up at the St Giles Café instead. People used to go there with a hangover, because everything was fried. I went there once early on the morning after a ball, before sliding on to the organ bench for high mass at Pusey House. This time, I was able to order a smoked-fish platter with rye bread. The place has changed hands, and is unrecognisable. Ten years ago, you fought your way to the counter through a thick grey haze. At least it was cheaper than buying cigarettes.
Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.