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Diary: Graham James

23 April 2021

ISTOCK

The long view

CORNELLY is only a few miles from Truro, but so obscure that even most of the Cornish would not know of it. It has a small but fine 13th-century church, although the parish has disappeared (only two houses beside it). These days, it is part of Tregony near by. I’ve been celebrating the eucharist there regularly over the past year.

As the place name may suggest, the church is dedicated in honour of St Cornelius. Until helping out at Cornelly, I was woefully ignorant about him. He was chosen by the clergy and people of Rome to be their bishop in 251, just after the Decian persecution subsided. But, within two years, he became a martyr himself.

That wasn’t all. Cornelius faced plenty of trouble within the Church. Persecution did not cause everyone to sing choruses of “Bind us together, Lord.” A clever and articulate priest, Novatian, said that the Church could not pardon Christians who betrayed their faith when persecuted. There were a lot of them. Cornelius argued instead that Christ gave the Church authority to forgive sin, even apostasy, after due penance was done. Dissatisfied, Novatian set himself up as a rival Pope.

Whenever I think that ours is a particularly difficult and divided age for the Christian Church, a little historical perspective puts me right. Thank you, Cornelly, for that gift. I’m glad the Church made the forgiving Cornelius a saint, though how he came to be commemorated in this land of Cornish Celtic saints is a mystery.

 

Babies and bath water

CORNELLY uses only the Book of Common Prayer. I’ve been pondering what the worship there would have been like in earlier centuries. It may not have been so much different in 1921, except that the women would have worn hats rather than face masks. In 1821 and 1721, there would not have been holy communion every week, whereas now there is only morning prayer if no priest is available. We would have to go back to 1521 for worship to be as sacramental as it is now, but lay people would have received communion only rarely.

I like to think of this ancient church building as observing these changing fashions of worship within it in a kindly and indulgent way. What fascinates me is that most worshippers seem unaware that our patterns of worship do alter so much. Left to the laity alone, that would probably not be the case.

Now that I’m using the Prayer Book again so regularly, it’s intriguing to discover how its cadences are so firmly planted in my mind. I hardly need to refer to the book at all. Is it the beauty of the language? My Nonconformist family became Anglicans only when I was 11; so I have no memory of the Prayer Book before then.

My father was drawn to the Church of England because of its “incomparable liturgy”, a term once used without irony. He soon discovered that most of his new colleagues preferred to jettison it for Series 2 (you need to be of a certain age to remember that). What my father would say about the C of E today, now that parts of it are keen neither on liturgy (incomparable or not) nor the sacramental life, I dare not imagine.

 

Colour contrast

I’VE always admired the way the Quakers see all life as sacramental, although I’ve never understood why Christian sacraments become unnecessary when you see things that way. On spring Sunday mornings at Cornelly, as I emerge from the eucharist, the churchyard has been full of daffodils and primroses in their different shades of yellow. This riot of sacramental colour feels like another means of grace.

I recalled in some dark recess of my mind a sermon by Michael Stancliffe, in which he pointed out that the whole of the New Testament contained not a single reference to the colour yellow — or blue, or brown, for that matter. The few scattered references to colours were, he said, almost always about the colour of clothes rather than those found in the natural landscape.

He offered several reasons for this, observing that in the Holy Land the light is so dazzling that the landscape is drained of colour. It’s the contrast between light and darkness that’s more obvious, and there’s lots about that in the scriptures. His sermon — a masterpiece, like so many he preached — is titled “The Rainbow round the Throne”.

 

New lenses

AFTER tracking down that sermon, I was looking out of our kitchen window and spent a few minutes gazing at a chaffinch on our bird table. Unusually, it stayed around for quite a while, and I marvelled at its colourful plumage. Apparently, there are more than six million chaffinches in the UK; so it’s not exactly rare. Then came blue tits and robins, before a jay appeared, and the smaller birds scattered.

The exuberance of colour in creation is no greater than it’s ever been, but perhaps it’s a gift of lockdown (and retirement) that I’m noticing it more. Had I ever preached about colours, I asked myself, or heard a sermon about God’s kaleidoscope of colour? (Actually, there’s rather a good one by Alec Vidler in his collection Windsor Sermons, preached in 1953, and accessible still.) Be prepared, good people of Cornelly — I think you will be getting a homily on colour soon.

 

Identity challenge

A FEW weeks ago, a friend of mine — another retired priest — was approached by the person sorting out the parts for the dramatic reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday. “Would you like to be Jesus?” he was asked. Now there’s a colourful question: one to make you think.

 

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich and Assistant Bishop in the diocese of Truro.

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