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Diary: Serenhedd James

12 April 2019


Healing touch

A MEDICAL student friend of mine, Euan, has recently developed an interest in the particulars of tuberculosis. For the greater part of the past 70 years, antibiotics have been effective in its treatment; so, long gone are the days of the iron lung, and the consumptive Victorian heroine on her day-bed, coughing gently into a lace-edged handkerchief.

TB has the potential to spread into the lymph nodes of the neck, where it becomes scrofula. In days of yore, this affliction was also known as “the King’s Evil”; and was widely believed to be treatable by the touch of the sovereign’s hand. A whole ritual applied, formalised in the reign of Henry VII; and monarchs touched for scrofula as late as the reign of poor Queen Anne.

George I, a grumpy German Protestant, did away with it. He dared not apply the “royal touch”, of course, not being a Stuart; for, had it been ineffective, the wags would have said that he sat on another’s throne. In 1714, Jacobitism was still alive and well, with the Fifteen and the March to Derby yet to come; it was not until after the death of the Old Pretender, in 1766, that Rome abandoned the cause, leaving it to fizzle out in the personages of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Cardinal Duke of York.

Anyway, back to scrofula. Euan tells me that TB has now developed “multi-drug resistance and extreme-drug resistance”; so he is writing to Buckingham Palace to suggest a new regimen of treatment: namely, that the Supreme Governor get on with some royal touching as a matter of urgency. He hopes to see this included in the next draft of the NICE guidelines.


Terra tremuit

IT MAY not come as a surprise that A. N. Wilson’s latest novel, Aftershocks — his 22nd, as far as I can tell — has a distinctly ecclesiastical flavour, but this time with the addition of Sapphic intrigue for good measure. Wilson is as open-eyed and mischievous as ever, notably when he describes ARCIC as “the committee of optimists charged with seeing their way to reuniting the Anglican Church with that of Rome”.

No spoilers, I promise. Eleanor Bartlett — a daughter of the parsonage, yearning to be a mother but trapped in a loveless and childless marriage — muses on the options that might have been available to her had she not come to hold high ecclesiastical office. “It wasn’t too late to have a baby with someone else. That is what a secular woman would have done.” But, of course, she cannot. “How could she? She with her silvery-haired father, with Wood in the Fridge and the Scripture moveth us in sundry places.”

“Wood in the Fridge”. The phrase released a deluge of memories of Great and Swell; of psalms and beer; of boys now men; and of men now dead. It is, to be fair, a niche reference — which is, of course, why Wilson uses it, and to such evocative effect. I know of two faithful Church Times readers, thumbing through the paper in their sitting room in the suburbs of Windsor, who will certainly recognise it. But will anyone else, in these days of Common Worship and pre-recorded hymns?


Jolly boating weather

ON THE afternoon of a sunny Sexagesima, I attended the blessing of the latest addition to the Oriel College fleet. In a ceremony presided over by the Provost, Church and State came together to celebrate the arrival of a new eight for the women’s side of the boat club. It was duly hallowed by the Chaplain in surplice, scarf, and hood; and named by the High Sheriff of Oxfordshire in full court dress with sword, breeches, hose, and buckled shoes.

Some will tell you that the essential form of this picturesque riparian ceremony was a translation into the vulgar tongue of a medieval rite that survives in the illuminated vellum pages of the Cæremoniale Orielensis: a calfskin-bound volume of c.1340 kept under lock and key in the muniments tower, alongside the college’s copy of Magna Carta. Others may claim that a newly appointed tutor in theology cobbled it together in a spare half-hour before lunch in the Senior Common Room. I couldn’t possibly comment.

What I can tell you, however, is that the reading was Mark 6.48-50 — which Cruden’s Complete Concordance notes is the only reference to rowing in the whole of the Authorised Version — and that the vessel now proudly bears the name of the college’s leading lady. Not that of the Provost’s wife, however; nor even that of Her Majesty the Queen, the Visitor (whom God preserve). She is named for the patroness herself: The Blessed Mary. Floreat!


Dr Serenhedd James is Tutor in Theology at Oriel College, Oxford, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House.

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