Word of the Lord
I GENERALLY disapprove of keeping Christmas in Advent; but I suppose one has to think of the children. Back in mid-December, my American ward invited me to join him for his last carol service in the college chapel at his school, Eton, and I felt it would be churlish to decline.
These days, the boy’s school dress includes a wing collar with white bow tie, rather natty houndstooth strides, and various lurid waistcoats of dubious provenance. Considering that he arrived on these shores only just over four years ago, this is not bad going. His new tailcoat seemed something of an extravagance, but it is very smart, and I suppose he can always wear it to weddings in the years ahead.
I am immensely proud of him, naturally, but I just wish he could sing. What he lacks in tonal finesse he makes up for with ample enthusiasm, however, and, between us, we happily romped our way through the usual hymns as the service progressed. Some of the readings were magnificently done, although the final lesson was slightly unnerving.
No one was verged to the lectern, and the Johannine Prologue was declaimed through the speakers in sonorous and patrician tones. It turned out to be Lord Waldegrave, reading from his stall under the enormous stencilled organ pipes
at the west end of the chapel. Not the disembodied voice of God, then, but that of the Provost of Eton. The boy and I irreverently agreed that, in the setting, it amounted to much the same thing.
THE service was led by the Conduct, the Revd Stephen Gray, who graciously nodded to me on the way out. He captained the Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI until last year (News, 16 September 2016), and we teased him at the time of his appointment to his liege’s Alma Mater that he could hardly have become more Establishment.
I may have to eat my words. Back in Oxford, I was invited to read a lesson at the Cowley St John carol service on Gaudete Sunday as a representative of St Stephen’s House, the patron of the living. It seemed strange to be taking part in a service as a community representative with a reserved seat (from which I was escorted at the appropriate moment), but I suppose I could get used to it.
The parish church is dedicated to Ss. Mary and John, and still has the sort of wall-mounted heaters that fry the top of the head and leave everything else frozen. We were glad of them, none the less; only that week, there had been heavy snow in Oxford. When I shuffled my way down the Broad a day earlier, all the stone emperors outside the Sheldonian Theatre were wearing little white skullcaps, as if each were his own chiselled pope.
How much more lovely the church would have been had all its intended carving been finished. Many of the pillars still have massive uncut capitals, which only emphasise the exquisite delicateness of the work that was completed.
The high altar looked very noble indeed with its rose hangings and magnificent reredos — particularly as the Vicar, the Revd Philip Ritchie, had removed the old-fashioned wooden table that used to clutter up the chancel. Suddenly, all the sight-lines made perfect sense.
Time of gifts
I HAVE in the past used my January column to carp about the proper length of Christmastide; but this year I have too many correspondents to thank for things generously given and gratefully received, and not enough space to list them all. From one came the titbit that a company, Hirsute History, offers T-shirts bearing Lord Williams’s likeness. This discovery is too splendid for words; so here is a picture.
Among the books that arrived, perhaps the most impressive was Derry Brabbs’s Pilgrimage: The great pilgrim routes of Britain and Europe (Frances Lincoln, 2017). Large, heavy, and sumptuously illustrated, it charts the history of European pilgrimage in glorious Technicolor; and the photographs fit the text perfectly. St Cuthbert’s Way is covered first, and among other routes described are the Chemins du Mont-Saint-Michel and the Camino to Santiago de Compostela.
The best comes last, and the most attractive account must be that of the final stage of the Via Francigena, which takes in some of my favourite Tuscan treats on its long journey towards Rome.
Finally, my chum Peter Allingham has branched out into Mother’s Ruin, and was kind enough to send me a couple of bottles. He is a staunch papist and a stalwart member of the Order of Malta, and now, also, the genius behind the appropriately named Archangel Gin.
Its website boasts “Angeli ab Oriente, Angels from the East; spirits with a distinctive Norfolk heritage”. The finished product — in shapely bottles with a lovely neo-Art Deco label inspired by the Watts Chapel, in Surrey — even uses water from Walsingham.
As you may well imagine, it made for a very merry Christmas indeed.
Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.