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Diary: Serenhedd James

17 April 2020



CHEF’s distribution of the perish­ables from the larders to the few re­­maining residents brought home the stark reality that St Stephen’s House was closing for the duration. Covid-19 succeeded where Kaiser and Führer both failed, and the students were sent home. I did my patriotic duty on my own way out, and rever­ently consumed the last of the Fino in the Common Room fridge.

Public worship was soon halted. On Refreshment Sunday, my social-media feed abounded with videos of the backs of rose chasubles in empty churches, parsonage studies, and gardens. Necessity is the mother of invention, although I felt for the clergy who streamed wor­­­­ship for the first time, only to find after­wards that it was on its side — or upside-down.

A day later, the Prime Minister addressed the nation, and an­­nounced the lockdown. On a beau­ti­ful Tuesday morning, silence fell on the Cowley Road; for the first time ever, I heard a woodpecker in the college curtilage. Almost imme­di­ately, life seemed to grind to a halt. I was left pondering the jol­lities of the preceding weeks, and wondering when what now seem like treats will recommence. Had I known what was coming, I would have probably tried to cram in more.


Table fellowship

OUT in the Oxfordshire country­side, I went dog-walking with a friend; we found St Leonard’s, Sun­ningwell, full of magnificent and over-sized poppyheads. It also has the most remarkable, polygonal, Tudor-Renaissance porch stuck on to its west end. Stepping backwards to take a better photo, I bumped into a beautifully carved modern grave­stone with Hebrew letter­ing. It’s not every day that one finds oneself standing on top of Géza Vermes.

In London, I went to see the Wilton Diptych in its new position at the National Gallery; the small, chapel-like space provides an inti­­m­ate and almost brooding setting for such a lustrous and image-laden treas­ure. Not long afterwards, I took in the sumptuous exhibition “British Baroque” at Tate Britain. I wonder if — as the sun glinted off the axe — the Duke of Monmouth recalled that, in his youth, Jacob Huysmans had portrayed him as St John the Baptist.

Happiest of all was a trip to Christ Church, Hampstead, on an unsea­son­­ably warm day in February, to cel­eb­rate Fr William Davage’s 70th birthday at a sump­­­tuous luncheon-party. Fr Davage was one of the Priest Librarians at Pusey House when I was a student, and friends had come from far and wide to wish him well. Seven years’ worth of sacristans now include a Dominican friar, a priest of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, a Roman Catholic lay­woman, and a member of the Ordin­ariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. The other three are Church of Eng­land incumbents — at the moment.


Ghosts of Easter past

FACED with no public observance of Holy Week, I was reflecting on years past, and a flood of memories gushed in. The earliest were of a cavern­ous church in the diocese of Llandaff; long since demolished, it remains a midnight garden of which occasionally I still dream. The holy matrons who cherished me there are all dead; houses stand in its place, and flats on the vicarage lawn. Yet images endure that I cannot erase.

A Thursday night in a dark church; a new altar in the vestry; the reflection of a forest of candles on a small piece of silver, set among a sea of lilies and white irises. A bell-less, shoes-off Friday; our red-robed, white-haired priest face-down on the floor; a long reading with many readers; my young lips pressed to small, wooden feet. A Saturday sun­set around a small barbecue-fire; pins stuck into a tall candle; a long, mel­­­li­­fluous song; bells rung and lights on; hymns and flowers every­where.

Such was my experience in the Church in Wales a quarter-century ago. My dim recollections of that first Triduum Sacrum form the pattern for all the others since: in snow, in rain, in crisp spring sun­shine, in howl­ing wind, in blazing summer heat; in Llandaff, Swansea & Brecon, Oxford, London, and Cape Town. It never occurred to me that a time would come, while I had my strength, when I would be unable to take my part in the liturgical observ­ance of those Great Three Days.


Pause for thought

HOW doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people. My permitted daily walk has revealed a whole new Oxford: desolate and beautiful, and, in the late afternoon sun, a blaze of golden stone. All the invitations on my sitting-room mantelpiece are now re­­dundant, but I am painfully consci­ous that I am one of the few for whom the lockdown has not nec­es­­­­sarily caused heightened stress.

My freelance-musician friends — not least those who sing and play for the Church — are worried about their futures, while others face keeping their children fed, educated, indoors, and out of trouble for an indefinite period. For me, enforced isola­­­tion has so far been an oppor­tunity to catch up on read­ing, and to touch base online with chums, while keeping up by phone with elderly friends and relations. In all this, I have had the company of a large house spider, who emerges daily from a crack in my kitchen skirting. We fell to chatting after she took an interest in various Church Times pieces on my computer screen. It turns out she’s a web developer.


Dr James is an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House. Oxford.

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