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Diary: Serenhedd James

19 May 2017


Palms of Glory

THERE was no Palm Sunday donkey at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town; but my disappointment was short-lived. The verger trans­formed the cathedral into a veritable forest of enormous palm branches, which arched over to form huge triumphal passageways in the nave and the aisles. At one point, I think I saw a lion slink into the Lady chapel. I may have been mistaken.

We gathered for the palm ceremonies in the Company Gar­dens, with one of the local Christ­mas Bands all done up in khaki. Before we processed to the cathedral, the choir sang the Bene­dictus from Harold Darke’s Com­munion Service in F. I had never heard it accompanied by woodwind and brass before. The obbligato banjo was a revelation.

Alas, the festal mood was soon tempered by the news of the attacks on the Egyptian Copts at the other end of the continent: more horror; more bloodshed; more martyrs.


Full house

ON THE morning of Good Friday, the cathedral was packed for the liturgy of the day: we had to sing the reproaches three times over to cover the creeping to the cross. It was full again for the Three Hours in the afternoon, and then again for Bach’s St John Passion in the evening. I sang at the first and last, and preached in between; but not for the whole three hours, to my own and everyone else’s relief.

In Hertfordshire, my four-year-old godson and his family joined their local walk of witness. There was far too much silence for his liking; so he decided to liven things up with an impromptu chorus of “Blame it on the boogie”. As I pointed out to his mortified parents, it could have been worse: at least he didn’t blame it on the Jews.

Back at St George’s, the Easter vigil was attended by the Fourth Estate. Having hallowed the new fire and blessed the paschal candle, Archbishop Makgoba used his sermon to address the troubles that have beset the country since Presi­dent Zuma’s catastrophic cabinet reshuffle in early April, and the subsequent plummeting of the rand.

Many a turbulent priest has spoken truth to power from that pulpit. There was standing-room only at the main mass on Easter Day, and the Dean was equally robust. The setting, appropriately enough, was Haydn’s “Nelson” Mass: his Missa in Angustiis: “Mass in time of trouble”.


Remembering Rachel

I RETURNED from Cape Town early on the morning of Easter Saturday; and later that evening Rachel Boulding went to her rest, just as the glory of the Easter octave was moving to its close.

When I was the new bug at the Church Times, Rachel sat at the desk diagonally across from mine. From there, she guided — and gently corrected — my efforts at subbing with a stream of constant encour­­age­ment intermingled with affect­ionate personal abuse. If the press-day copy wasn’t arriving fast enough, she would saunter over and merrily start prodding me in the ribs with the blunt end of a pen.

Rachel edited my first diary column with characteristic firmness; but she could be, and often was, indulgent: “Go on, then. They can always write in.”

My mind keeps going back to those early Wednesday evenings in The Trader on Whitecross Street, after the paper had gone to press, all of us gathered round a couple of tables laden with too many glasses and not enough crisps, full of chatter, gossip, and laughter — and Rachel in our midst. She seemed almost always to be on her way to the theatre: “Right, chaps; I’m off. See you next week.” We shall all miss her terribly.

Not long before she died, Rachel said that she had left something for me at Golden Lane. On Low Mon­day, I went to the Church Times office, as I couldn’t really think of anywhere else I wanted to be. I was duly presented with her Pope Inno­cent III action figure: “Weapon of Choice: Excom­muni­cation.”

As I write, it sits on a shelf above my bed, ready to smite the Cathars, convene Lateran IV, and reclaim the papal states. Truth be told, I had coveted it for years.


Queen of the May

AND SO Eastertide draws on, and with it our Lady’s month. The feast of St John Before the Latin Gate fell, as always, on 6 May. It is one of the patronal festivals of the Society of St John the Evangelist; and, when the foundation stone of what is now our college church was laid in the octave in 1894, it was placed on earth brought from the site of St John’s trial by oil just outside the walls of Rome.

This year, the Sunday in the octave was the Fourth of Easter and the first in May, and one of those days when nature conspires with art to lift the spirits. At solemn mass, the spring sunshine cut shafts of light through the clouds of incense. We sang Vidi Aquam at the begin­ning; “The happy birds Te Deum sing” to The Lincolnshire Poacher at the offertory; and the Regina Caeli at the end.

Our relic of St John was offered for veneration afterwards. In the cloister garden, the wisteria had burst into flower, and the bluebells were at full peal. A long lunch followed, and then vespers and bene­diction at the Oxford Oratory: all gold, and birettas, and Alleluia.


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

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