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.
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.