Diary: Serenhedd James

17 January 2020

ISTOCK

Turn of the year

NOVEMBER took me back to Cape Town, to attend the wedding of friends whom I met singing in the choir at the city’s St George’s Cathedral way back when. It seems more like a homecoming every time. Levi and Janine were married on the last day of the liturgical year, during nuptial high mass at the high altar of the cathedral, beneath the enormous hanging rood that dominates the apse of Herbert Baker’s magnificent neo-Gothic edifice — now happily watertight once more (Diary, 31 March 2017).

The sacristies yielded up their treasures; the biretta-topped sacred ministers processed, clad in wavy-braided cream damask, through clouds of incense, maniples blinking in the light. The bride entered to Parry’s “I Was Glad”, with liberal application of the cathedral organ’s splendid solo reeds.

A simple service followed: just the plainsong propers; Vierne’s Messe Solennelle; Bruckner’s Locus Iste; Rossini’s O Salutaris Hostia. Jazz came later — over dinner out east at Simondium, with the sun setting on the Franschhoek mountains where elephants once roamed free.

 

North and South

THE familiar imagery of moving from Advent in winter to Easter in spring makes little sense south of the Equator. It brings home the inescapable consideration that the Western Rite is also distinctly Northern in its configuration. Nevertheless, at the carol service on Advent Sunday, the old favourites tripped off the tongue as we made our way around the cathedral and the light streamed in through the stained glass, casting kaleidoscopic patterns across the floor.

My favourite window at St George’s is in the north transept. Were it a verse of the Benedicite, it would sing “O all ye Holy Ones of Africa, bless ye the Lord: praise Him, and magnify Him for ever.” Depictions of the Flight into Egypt — the dedication, as it happens, of the nearby Roman Catholic cathedral — and Our Lady teaching Our Lord to walk on African soil are flanked by saints of the North: Augustine of Hippo, Monica, Mark the Evangelist, Athanasius, Catherine of Alexandria, and Cyprian of Carthage.

Also present, however, are Sophia Gray (1814-71), the indomitable, talented, and energetic wife of the first Bishop of Cape Town; Bernard Mizeki (1861-96), baptised by the Cowley Fathers and Protomartyr of the South; the ermine-trimmed Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), who endowed the see; and Charles MacKenzie (1825-62), leader of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, on whose grave David Livingstone erected a cross as he made his way up the Zambesi. The river of African Christianity has many tributaries, and runs very deep.

 

Last Things

I WAS delighted to find Pat Ellis reading one of the lessons at the carol service. We had kept in touch since I first met her at the counter of the cathedral bookshop, which she used to run.

As a former novice with the Order of the Holy Paraclete at Whitby, she well remembered the Cowley Fathers; so we had much to discuss. She had been thrilled to receive a copy of my tome, which she had begun to read; she insisted that I sign it for her later in the week. I duly obliged, and we spent a happy afternoon in dappled sunlight laughing over tea, scones, and melktart.

Alas, Pat never finished the book. She died just over 24 hours later, at the hands of robbers who forced their way into her home. Her sudden death in Advent came, quite literally, as a thief in the night (News, 13 December 2019).

South Africa is a beautiful but broken country. Even in a place where crime is rife, though, the brutality attending the robbery of a diminutive, white-haired septuagenarian was particularly shocking. Archbishop Tutu led the mourners at her funeral.

May Pat’s decades of work for the Church in the diocese of Cape Town be counted to her for righteousness. I shall miss her.

 

People, look East

CHRISTMAS brought a plethora of behind-the-scenes vignettes of preparations: from cloth-of-gold establishments as grand and well-resourced as Westminster Cathedral and the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace, to holly-dressed backwater churches of limited means making the most of what they had.

Somewhere in between, I am still not quite sure who eventually won the Great north-London Christmas-tree war of 2019 — but the cribs looked lovely, and all must have prizes.

For all the jollity, there was profundity, too. Most moving, I think, was the story of a Chinese woman who approached a friend of mine after he had sung mass on Christmas Day. Tearfully, she pressed into his hands a silver necklace with a cross at its end. “I need to give you this. I am going back to China tomorrow, and I can’t take it with me. Will you have it?” He accepted it on the condition that, when she returns, she comes to retrieve it and take it up again.

 

Long service

WHEN I was the Church Times office boy, my first task every Monday morning was to check the contents of that week’s Gazette. I soon came to realise that the jobs done by the people who were dead sounded considerably more interesting than those being done by the people who were still alive. To this day, my favourite remains the Chaplaincy to the Bechuanaland Railway Mission — an extra-diocesan cure of souls several hundred miles long and about ten feet wide.

I was also responsible for checking the accuracy of biographical details in entries, and was struck by the length of time some clergy spent in the same place. That said, none of them could hold a candle to the Revd James Cocke — until recently the longest-serving incumbent in the Church of England (News, 4 March 2016) —who has stepped down as Vicar of All Saints’, Highfield, in Oxford, having been in post since 1957. He held the freehold; so perhaps we may say that he has taken early retirement at the age of 92.

 

Dr Serenhedd James is Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and the author of The Cowley Fathers: A history of the English congregation of the Society of St John the Evangelist (Canterbury Press, 2019).

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