ON SUNDAY, nearly 20 of us queued in the rain for the 8 a.m. traditional-language service of holy communion. Portsmouth Cathedral eight-o’clockers are friendly. We smiled and waved, enquired about how we had been since the end of March, and lamented the state of our hair. On this first Sunday of restored worship, we kept our patronal festival in honour of St Thomas of Canterbury. In the event, we were a full house. More eucharists followed on the hour, the last at noon.
I was glad that I had chosen to go at 8 a.m.; 1662 (with, in our case, 1928 additions) seemed right for the end of the lockdown. Its sober Protestantism reminded us that God is transcendent, majestic, and free; that we have a civic duty as well as our duty to God; that we cannot escape the constant struggle for sanity and balance; that, in spite of adversity, we have many reasons for gratitude; and that, in spite of our best efforts, we always fall short.
As the well-known phrases resonated through the socially distanced spaces, I had a new appreciation of how complete Cranmer’s rite is, even without music. I have to confess, with a smidgen of shame, that the well-spaced chairs provided a perfect environment for semi-gregarious introverts like me.
Yet it was just so good to hear each other’s voice again. In the lofty emptiness of our cathedral nave, the responses sounded as though they came from thousands, not tens. It was possible, once more, to believe that, even in our mortal frailty, we were, indeed, accompanied by angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.
It had not been the first time that I had received communion since the beginning of the lockdown. I had celebrated for an online service, and “answered the mass” on other occasions.
But our common communion on Sunday made me aware once again of how physical the sacraments are. We know the Lord in the breaking of the bread, and being present to one another is an inescapable part of that knowing. Sunday began the end of our exile. We got through. There were some tears. And the awkwardness of distancing, the screens enabling communion to be safe, the ritual hand-sanitising — all still carried an inescapable note of regret and sadness.
One of our congregation, who cannot yet get to church and watched one of the later services online, messaged that she was reminded of the scene described in the book of Ezra (3.11-13), when the foundation stone of the new temple was laid. While many shouted aloud for joy, others wept, remembering how glorious the old had been. I think that there will be a great deal of weeping and rejoicing in the days and weeks to come.