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Angela Tilby: In dark days, celebrate Eastertide

01 May 2020

Martin Addison/Creative Commons

St James’s, Muswell Hill

St James’s, Muswell Hill

MY EARLIEST liturgical memory is of kneeling in church on a faded blue hassock beside my mother, as we joined in an abbreviated form of matins at St James’s, Muswell Hill, in north London.

St James’s, these days, is a beacon of conservative Evangelicalism: male clergy sport the smartest ca­­­­­­­­sual, and the women’s ministers are listed below the operations man­­­­­ager and other support staff. The St James’s of my childhood was dom­in­ated by the BCP. On Sun­days, there was an 8 a.m. holy com­munion, with a 7 a.m. at Christmas and Easter, surplice and stole, north end. Then, matins at 11 and even­song at 6, the English Hymnal and a splendid robed choir under H. R. Bate, the father of Jennifer Bate (obituary).

St James’s provided my basic Chris­­tian formation. From our pew, I looked up to the east win­dow, which was dominated by a huge red-robed Christ in majesty. I thought it was God watching my every move. I have never lost the rhythms of, “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep . . . we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Simple, monosyllabic words of prayer go in deep.

I can’t remember when I grad­uated to grown-up matins (full choir, Sumsion’s Te Deum in G, con­gregational psalm-singing), but I have a vague recollection of the Easter Anthems’ replacing the Venite on Easter Day. Originally part of a separate service, they were moved to this position in the 1552 Prayer Book, and are a mini-anthology of verses from 1 Corin­thians 5, 15, and Romans 6. I had no idea, at the time, what the words meant, only that they com­mun­icated Easter joy and hope in abund­ance.

The Easter Anthems survived fur­­ther liturgical change and are now part of Common Worship morning prayer in Eastertide. They remind us that authentic Christian hope outlasts and out-sings our human lamenting, no matter how profound and appropriate that la­menting may be. This Easter has inevitably seemed low key, with no sacramental participation and only canned music. But, for once, the season of Eastertide has not seemed an afterthought. In worrying times, the good news needs extra time to be absorbed. In quiet­ness and with­drawal, we can still rel­ish the tone of victory in the Easter Anthems.

My childhood self recognised what my adult self sometimes for­gets: the faith is bigger than our experience of it. Today and tomor­row, the risen Christ still calls us, small, sinful, and reluctant as we are, lost sheep as we may be. But, in all the losses and uncertainties of these weeks, we need not lose hope. Christ our Passover has been sacri­ficed for us; so let us celebrate the feast.

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