THERE is someone — no one knows who (their identity is one of the sacred mysteries of the church) — who rings our parish office every October with the same question: “Are we going to sing ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ at Harvest this year?” The administrator, not being himself responsible for the choosing of the hymns, takes an educated guess. The person on the other end declares that if we are, they will come; if we are not, they won’t. So much for mission and our attendance figures.
If only pleasing people was that easy. Some time ago, we held a consultation about music, surveying the congregation on all aspects of the variety of music we enjoyed on a Sunday. Hymns elicited the strongest response. “If you pick any more hymns by X, I’m leaving”; “Leave George Herbert alone”; “Why do we have to sing outdated theology? More modern words, please”; and many more diverse and impassioned views, some of which verged on unprintable.
It’s said that, in some churches, such as the one I am in now, we are not very good at singing hymns because we are always looking at the next line to see if we agree with it before we sing it. But that’s not always true. For the record, we did pick “We plough the fields” this year, and, even in the middle of London, we sang with great gusto.
NOW we are not only in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but also in the season of remembrance. As I walk the dog in the park, I often have in my mind the line from ee cummings “i thank you god for most this amazing day”, but also D. H. Lawrence: “As autumn deepens and darkens I feel the pain of falling leaves.” These seem to me to capture something of the paradox of this season: the dying leaves that are so richly coloured in their dying; and which, as they fall and rot, nourish the earth.
I confess that, for me, this is absolutely the best time of year. I seem to like things when they’re more than halfway through. Autumn is my favourite season; five o’clock in the afternoon my favourite time of day. It’s the sense that a lot has happened, but there’s a bit more to come. I am, in my 50th year, having the time of my life. . .
A RECENT visit to Durham Cathedral reminded me of the centenary of the Armistice, being celebrated this month with such poignancy and imagination all over Europe. In the nave pews at Durham are transparent cutouts of young men from the cathedral who were killed in the Great War: There but not there. Ghostly presences that sat beside me as I joined in the Nunc Dimittis at evensong. They are simple, heartbreaking, and — given the precarious state of the world order today — I found them acutely challenging.
THE Imperial War Museum has a new, immersive exhibition with first-hand testimony from the First World War. As part of their commemorations, in the week of Remembrance Sunday, they will hold a panel discussion that takes as its premise the idea that the use of public silence as a method of commemoration is no longer appropriate; it’s had its day. Public silences are not always well observed, for instance at football matches, and even coffins are now often greeted, not with silence, but with two minutes’ applause.
I will be there arguing for the opposite: that public silence is more appropriate than ever, in a talkative — often bellicose — public square where the coarsening of vivid and aggressive political rhetoric across Europe, in the United States, and in Brazil and Australia hovers dangerously close to incitement to violence. Of course there is a time to speak, but there is also a time for silence.
We have just hosted, in our church courtyard, a sensitive protest against the 2017 murder of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose life was words, and the way in which the organisers chose to make their thoroughly contemporary protest was with a silent vigil. It occurred to me, again, that the power of silence is significant and underestimated; just because some people on some terraces can’t keep quiet for two minutes doesn’t mean we should all give in and make more noise.
LIKE many churches, we have used this Armistice centenary to find out more about the stories behind the names on the memorial stones that we walk past every day. Our dedicated researcher has been Chris, our Head Verger — a young man in his twenties, who would undoubtedly have been conscripted himself. We will tell the stories that have emerged as carefully as we are able, as a way of expressing the mixture of pride and fury that the suffering and waste of war evokes.
Right by our war memorial is the font at which the poet William Blake was baptised. I stood there last month, in the peace of a chilly London Saturday, to baptise the latest addition to the Christian family. I had been sworn to secrecy by the parents, but was asked to announce, at the end of the service, that they had got married, without telling anyone, the day before.
Just before the blessing, I felt a little nervous as I announced this news, not sure of what the reaction might be. My “Father, Son, and Holy. . .” was interrupted with a rather plaintive “Sorry we didn’t invite you” from the young mother to the assembled congregation; but the joy and surprise of their families was palpable, as they slowly realised that they were at a wedding reception as well as a christening.
After the liturgy, a question hung in the air, from the poem that they had chosen for their child — written by Mary Oliver, and read by a young godfather to his new charge. Standing by the memorial to all those young lives cut short with such violence, it seemed even more appropriate to ask, in the presence of God, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The Revd Lucy Winkett is the Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly.