ONE of the fun aspects of ministering near Theatreland is when actors who are unfamiliar with church life find themselves with a part that demands some research into religion, and those of us who are parish priests near by get a call.
So this Lent I spend an interesting couple of hours with actors who are in Henrik Ibsen’s 1886 play Rosmersholm. Ostensibly, they come to talk about what happens when a pastor loses his or her faith. I try not to worry that they have selected me to talk about this particular topic, and get on with the job at hand. But our conversation quickly turns to the place of religion in today’s society, in which the majority are no longer familiar with Christianity’s stories and revelations, let alone the hinterland or nuances of faith.
All the actors say something like “I’m spiritual but not religious,” and all of them are curious about what religious practice brings to a life — both for an individual and for a community. We get on to singing. We get on to confessing, and being forgiven. We get on to love. And I’m reminded, as so often, by someone who is not anywhere near wanting to be part of the church institution that building a church community is unlike building any other community in today’s world.
The actor says, very seriously, and with great respect, that taking part in liturgy — praying — is unlike any other human activity that he can think of. And, in a social-media, high-energy, target-driven city environment, he can see why people would want to connect, not only with a sense of community (as he puts it), but with a transcendent life among all the hectoring immanence. In his own way, he describes, with great emotion and accuracy, the redemptive arc of Christianity which is once again being described for us this Holy Week and Easter.
I leave our conversation instructed, provoked, and moved; resolving to think more deeply about how to have these kinds of discussions more often.
What’s in a name
THE man who runs the flower stall in the street has ordered the palms for Palm Sunday, and the plants for Easter Day. And the verger team have been full of the planning: the oils for Maundy Thursday; the bowls of water for the washing of all those feet in the congregation; the life-sized — or, rather, death-sized — cross for Good Friday; the ingredients for the bread that will be prepared on Easter Eve and left to rise overnight for communion in the garden at dawn; the bells and yew branches for the declaration that Christ is risen; and rehearsal schedules for the visiting trumpets so that the pop-up “Hallelujah Chorus” goes with a swing on Easter Day.
Each year, the head verger puts up in the vestry a plan of all the services, and who is responsible for their organisation — mostly so that the team can tick them off as they’re done. And, each year, the festivals get new branding. Last Christmas, it was “Mamma Maria, here we go again”, not to be outdone by “Three Wise Men and a Baby” the year before. Who knows what this Easter will bring?
ONE change, this year, will be a different kind of vigil on Easter Eve. Normally, we say compline at 10 p.m., and then people stay overnight and sleep in the church, taking turns for an hour at a time to read the vigil readings and pray in the side chapel.
The combination of through-the-night trepidation and expectation brings to the experience a certain giddiness — not unlike, perhaps, the atmosphere in the first century: the disciples uncertain, in locked rooms, afraid, exhausted, short on sleep, but hearing intimations of glory and rumours of resurrection, even in the middle of the night.
This year, it coincides with our hosting of the winter night shelter; so our homeless guests will sleep here, too. I wonder what they will make of the shadowy figures moving about just before dawn, and the faint, premature jangling of bells as they are placed on the marble floor.
Benedicite, omnia opera
WHATEVER form Easter 2019 takes, it cannot provide me with any more extraordinary moment than last year’s.
At 4.30 a.m. on Easter Day, while some were keeping vigil in the church overnight and the bread was rising in the church kitchen for the 6 a.m. eucharist, I took myself out into the chilly garden so as not to disturb those sleeping in the pews. I went to practise the Exultet, that extraordinary, ancient song of the Church that bursts into life on the morning of Easter Day, after all the stretching exhaustion of Good Friday and the void of Easter Eve. Hoping that I could manage to sing at that time in the morning, I tried it out: “Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!”
I realised, as I continued, that I wasn’t alone. In the middle of the well-lit city, the blackbird doesn’t really know that it is not yet day, and so he sings. Loudly. At the top of his lungs. So, together, we sang the dawning of a new day, and I felt that my rather feeble praise was simply joining in the praise of God which is already going on, sung by every creaturely voice in heaven and on earth.
A friend told me recently that one of the mantras that she lives by is that comparison is the thief of joy. Given the superlative singing of the blackbird, I feel that, for him, comparison can be nothing less than the path to joy. If he even knew what comparison was.
DAWN breaks. Colossal piles of beer bottles are shovelled into the recycling truck with deafening noise; late-night revellers stumble towards the night bus; our homeless guests are helping to cook breakfast for everyone; and — with Mary Magdalene, and despite our exhaustion — at first light, we are somehow able to say, with trembling voice, “I have seen the Lord.”
And, as I walk along to Piccadilly Circus with our crew, very early, to leave Easter eggs there for anyone who finds them, I wave at the street cleaners, bus drivers, and kitchen staff leaving their hotel night-shifts, and find myself able to say with C. S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in London.