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Diary: Serenhedd James

02 November 2018


Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

Wiltshire wanderings

LATE in the summer, I went to Salisbury with — obviously — the sole purpose of visiting an unremarkable, semi-detached house in a suburban cul-de-sac; and accidentally wandered past the cathedral on my way. I hadn’t even known it was there.

Many of my friends think that I am a perfect heretic on Salisbury Cathedral, but I find little to excite me in a building of that size, all built in the same style. It makes it difficult to play church-architecture bingo, spotting where elegant Early English gentrifies dog-toothed Romanesque; or where delightful, playful Decorated gets bullied out by heavy Perpendicular.

At Salisbury, one can only marvel at how the cathedral came to be built so quickly. For the record, I do think the building is beautiful, and a rare example of 14th-century architectural unity. I just think that it’s uninteresting for the same reason — while conceding that the spire is jolly tall, and the clock very old.

Before any disgruntled readers write in, I know about the water feature in the middle of the nave, whose designer was asked “to do something that would become a major attraction to the 90 per cent of visitors entering the Cathedral who are not there to worship”. What I don’t know is whether the vergers conduct visitors who are there to worship to seats as far away as possible from the noise of constantly running water.


Going to Halle

IN EARLY September, I found myself at Halle, just south-west of Brussels. Piety has it that, in 1580, the powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary saved the town from being overrun by its Protestant neighbours. Flemish Calvinism was stopped in its tracks, and the grateful townsfolk collected fallen cannonballs and piled them up in St Martin’s in thanksgiving. Devotion to the Mother of God under her title of Our Lady of Halle, already strong, increased.

The smoke-blackened image of Our Lady of Halle was given to the church by St Elizabeth of Hungary. It continues to draw pilgrims in their droves, and the form of the annual pilgrimage to the shrine has remained unchanged for more than 700 years. Walsingham would have been going for longer, of course, had there not been a rupture. History is a fickle old thing: Henry VIII himself presented the shrine at Halle with a silver monstrance, which is still in use.

Begin at the beguinage

I WAS in Flanders as the guest of the Catholic League, addressing their own pilgrimage to the Begijnhof at Bruges. The Sisters who now have their home in the buildings of the former royal beguinage keep the Nativity of the BVM as their patronal festival, under the title of Our Lady of the Vine. Their yearly practice of bedecking their magnificent medieval statue of the Virgin and Child with bunches of grapes echoes the true-vine imagery with which our Lord’s “I am” sayings culminate in St John’s Gospel.

Across town, we attended one of the numerous ceremonies associated with Bruges’ famous relic of the Precious Blood. A quasi-Ruritanian procession of black-gowned burghers, wearing distinctive pious-pelican badges — members of the Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood — escorted the reliquary from its shrine in the south aisle. At the front of the nave, their Provost, wearing his heavy chain of office and pristine, white kid gloves, presented the ancient phial to the rector of the eponymous basilica. He duly carried it to the high altar, placing it in the hands of the two golden angels who kneel above the tabernacle, before celebrating mass.

It occurred to me only much later that my trip to Bruges had encompassed a little vignette of the signs of salvation: from beguinage to basilica; from vineyard to altar; from grapes into wine; from wine into blood.


Superlative sacrifice

BACK in London, on 12 October, I was on my way to the Chandos, just off Trafalgar Square, to attend a meeting of the Riotous Confraternity of Shenaniganists — presided over by my chum A. S. H. Smyth, of The Spectator — when a mound of fresh flowers stopped me in my tracks.

They were at the foot of the monument to Edith Cavell, left over from that morning’s anniversary ceremony. The significance of the date had completely slipped my mind; amid some of the buoyant silliness of life, it is a sobering thing to be reminded of how easy it is to forget.

All Souls’ Day today, then; and, next Sunday the centenary of the Armistice of 1918. So many graves to be blessed; so many requiems to be sung. When I was a boy, my parish priest collated lists of names to be remembered throughout November; but very correctly did not mention any individuals at the three masses proper to today, which apply to the weal of all the faithful departed.

Earlier this year, the Bishop of Norwich recalled dedicating a new war memorial in Felmingham, and noting at the time that three of the dead bore the family name of Self: “Self, or selfless?” (Diary, 31 August). Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum. Three names on the memorial in the narthex of my school chapel were those of brothers killed and buried in Mesopotamia within six weeks of each other, in early 1917. Their name was Best.

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

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