Diary: Catherine Fox

30 November 2018

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The Advent cry

AS A chapel-going child, I was always confused by the Advent hymn “On Jordan’s bank, the Baptist’s cry”.

I could picture our whole congregation gathered at the river edge, the aunties (all grown-up women were aunties back then) in their Sunday coats with sparkly brooches pinned on. They’d be carrying their stiff-clasped handbags, where they kept handkerchiefs and peppermints. They’d be wearing their Sunday hats made of felt, or what looked to me like plaited raffia. And the uncles would be there, in tweed suits with shoes polished up like conkers. They’d be wearing hats too, as it was outdoors — tweed trilbies, sometimes with a jaunty little feather.

All of them, in my imagination, stood with tears streaming quietly down their cheeks. They were singing (with the trademark Nonconformist swoop) a wonderful old Baptist anthem: “Till we me-eee-eet, till we meet again! God be with you till we meet again.”

No wonder they were crying. Those old hymns have a way of tugging at your heartstrings.

 

Rebels with a cause

I WORKED out, long before my theological formation at St Maniple’s, that I’d misunderstood Charles Coffin’s lyrics. I was a dreamy child, whiling away the long sermons by escaping to my imaginary worlds, absentmindedly pulling tufts from the pew carpets and dropping them on the floor.

Obviously, I wouldn’t do that at St Maniple’s. There are no pew carpets. Funnily enough, there are plenty of heart-tugging hymns with a distinctly Nonconformist flavour to them. This was a surprise — possibly because my very first visit was on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, when the hymns had what I privately think of as a high TQ (Taradiddle Quotient).

I’m coming to see, however, that, in an odd way, Nonconformity and Anglo-Catholicism almost join up round the back of the globe, in much the same way as extreme right- and left-wing politics do. Both are non-establishment, heart-on-the-sleeve, not-quite-respectable enterprises. (For some reason, the phrase “faintly bonkers” also keeps flitting through my mind.)

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Historically, you did not belong to either by default. You had to align yourself voluntarily. Voluntarily aligning yourself with a group that, from the outside, looks faintly embarrassing and requires a certain “What the heck? I’m going for it” conviction. You have to lay down your cool, down by the riverside, and decide not to study cynicism no more.

 

Upstaging with humility

IN SUGGESTING that Nonconformity and Anglo-Catholicism join up, we have to take Mary out of the equation, clearly. When I was small, Baptists nursed a deep suspicion of anything that smacked of popery.

I remember being taught the new hymn “Living Lord” in Sunday school. The minister’s wife at the piano adjusted the words so that we sang “Son of God” in each verse rather than alternating it with “Mary’s son”. You can’t be too careful, or we’ll all be hurtling to Walsingham in a handcart. Not that I’d even heard of Walsingham back then.

Nor had I really heard of Advent, either, other than in the context of calendars. Liturgical seasons simply were not on my radar, but Advent calendars definitely were. They involved cunning and strategy. I made the sly calculation (as the second of four daughters) that, if I piously volunteered to go last when it came to opening the windows, I’d bag the big one on the 24th. Result!

I brought this tactic this to my marriage, actually. I could see from the competitive glint in his eye that my new husband wrongly believed that there were 25 windows to open. Amateur. As the years went by, and we had two small boys to fight over the 24th window, I found ways of acting both fairly and lovingly. Each Christmas when the cry went up “How come he gets the big one?” I took the disgruntled son aside and explained gently “Because he’s my favourite.”

They’ve both turned out remarkably well, really.

 

Lounging at leisure

OH, THE Christmases of childhood! How do they measure up against the M&S advert “Must Have” list? Looking back, I can now see how overshadowed my Sixties childhood was by the spectre of Second World War rationing. Must have? I’ll give you must have, young lady! You’ll have what you’re given, and like it.

I remember one Christmas that was blighted by the wrong slippers. Unaccountably, my gran bought me some ghastly pink monstrosities rather than the blue fluffy pair that I had so clearly indicated in the catalogue. I got short shrift over that. Back then, it was more “like it or lump it” than “must have a sense of rampant entitlement”.

Perhaps that early experience accounts for my loathing of slippers. In fact, let’s broaden that category to include “loungewear” in general. (Who invented that concept? I bet they’re making a large amount of money.)

I cannot be doing with all this snuggly-sparkly-pastelly-tartany caper. Bring me my ankle-length smoking jacket of burnished velvet (with gold frogging)! Bring me my Ali Baba leather slippers of desire (with turn-up toes)! Then we’ll be talking lounging. Lounging like a Georgian exquisite, not like a giant giggling marshmallow.

 

Prolier than thou

IT OCCURS to me that I may do well to give up snobbery for Advent. One Lent, I gave up pretending I had heard of things when I hadn’t. That was interesting. It revealed that people didn’t think I was an idiot for being ignorant. (Well, it revealed that they daren’t say it to my face, anyway.)

Renouncing snobbery is something that I have theoretically been doing for years. Snobbery is a policing of other people’s taste, or boosting yourself by measuring others against your standards, then finding them wanting. “What not to wear if you’re over 50”; “100 bad tattoos that will shock you.”

It comes from a fear that, if other people are shining brightly in their own preferred way, you must be dimmer by comparison. So I will remind myself again, this Advent, that there is enough glory for all in the divine economy, and lay down my snootiness, down by the riverside.

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