THE other morning, at an uncomfortably early hour, I made my way to St Pancras Station. I paid my respects to the fine statue of Betjeman, holding on to his hat, his coat blown back in an imaginary wind, as he gazes up at the great ceiling, which he did so much to save. Then, having touched base with Sir John, I set off on the hunt for clergy. They were not far to find, and I soon joined a great crowd of them, clustered around the departure area for the Eurostar.
Perhaps “crowd” is too poor a word for the rich collection of individuals that gathered there. Is there a better collective noun? A posse of priests? A collation of clergy? A vaguery of vicars? Whatever our collective noun, we were slowly collected together and made our way, I might almost say, processed, to and through ticketing and security, and were soon settled into a couple of carriages on the Eurostar, and on our way to Merville, the little town, once Flemish, and now in the Hauts-de-France, whose cloistered diocesan retreat house was hosting us for a conference of the Two Cities Area of London diocese.
I was there as a speaker and poet-in-residence; but I was also there, as the Irish would say, “for the craic”, of which there was plenty. The cities of London and Westminster have between them so many beautiful old churches, so many extraordinary, diverse, eclectic, and contrasted congregations, churchmanships, and traditions, all with diverse, eclectic, and intriguing clergy to match.
Indeed, as the conference unfolded, I was put in mind of Betjeman again, remembering the story of how he was once asked to give a talk on the “C of E”. “I’ve been puzzling all week”, he began, “over what these mysterious initials stand for. My first observations led me to believe that they stood for ‘Comedy of Errors’, but on closer examination I see that they really mean ‘Co-inherence of Extremes’.”
While there are extremes in the flamboyance and ardour of high and low churchmanship on offer in the churches of the two cities, I was impressed at this conference by the degree of coinherence, too. Coinherence, as Charles Williams asserted, involves a mutual indwelling, a recognition, in and through difference, of the sustaining presence and coherence of Christ in us, the hope of glory. There was, of course, plenty of convivial ribbing and teasing, but there was also a level of mutual recognition.
I’m sure the place itself was part of that. Not just the good French food and wine on offer, but also something more. As we travelled from Lille to Merville, we passed the signs to the battlefields of both world wars, and, in all those flat Flanders fields, there were no trees more than 100 years old, no old buildings that had not been completely rebuilt from ruins. We were travelling deep into a land of death and resurrection.
In the retreat-house garden, they had set the Stations of the Cross, beautifully painted. But, beneath each image of the Passion, on this local Chemin de Croix, were black-and-white photographs, taken in 1919, of all the neighbouring churches, desolate and ruined and with scarcely one stone left standing on another. Yet, from that garden, you could scan the horizon and see their spires, risen again to the sky.
As we returned from the conference, each to conduct Remembrance Sunday services according to our own tradition, we had every reason to be glad of our coinherence in Christ, and to be bearers of the good news of resurrection.
Special offer: After Prayer: New sonnets and other poems by Malcolm Guite (Canterbury Press) is available from Church House Bookshop for £9.89.