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Diary: Graham James

14 June 2024

ISTOCK

Rhetorical question

I SAW Jesus Christ Superstar again last month. Tim Sheader’s production completes its national tour in August. These days, Truro gets included as a venue since the revamped Hall for Cornwall can accommodate big productions. Its capacity is 1329 people. (The Theatre Royal over the border in Plymouth can hold only 1320. Enough said.)

Seeing it again after an interval, I thought Sir Tim Rice’s lyrics assumed a greater knowledge of the Jesus story than many people in the UK may now possess. To make Judas the narrator remains a clever artifice, though. And, given what’s happening in Israel and the Palestinian territories, it seemed very powerful when Judas asked Jesus why he chose the time and place he did — why incarnation in first-century Palestine? Jesus does not say.

The current production portrays the bloody horror of crucifixion graphically, and does so with lights and visual effects that seem to give glory to the crucified Lord. Well, that’s what I thought — but I noticed that, as Jesus breathed his last, someone in front of me finished their ice cream. That seemed quite authentic, too.

I came away pleased that the Jesus story resonates sufficiently that this rock opera can still draw crowds everywhere.

 

Soft-soap operas

I FIRST saw Jesus Christ Superstar when I was a curate in Peterborough, back in the mid-1970s. I took members of our church youth club (remember those?) to the Palace Theatre, London, for the experience. They enjoyed the outing much more than the performance. I’d expected them to be impressed, and so was disappointed, but I had not factored in the conservatism of the young. “Too much like opera,” one of them said, although I doubt she had ever seen an opera in her life. My explanation that it was an opera — a rock opera — fell on stony ground.

The first opera to which I took my wife was Götterdämmerung, at Covent Garden, back in the 1980s. Some friends gave us tickets. Julie endured the five hours, but was not thrilled by the experience. Rossini said that Wagner “has beautiful moments but some awful quarter-hours”. I may have quoted that to her, which probably did not help. Over the years, though, she has come to enjoy opera, since almost everything that she’s seen since Götterdämmerung appears light and accessible by contrast.

 

Covert operations

NO OPERA, however, for Julie’s recent significant birthday. I had planned a weekend away, and managed to keep all the arrangements secret. It was only when I started packing something for breakfast that she guessed that we might be self-catering, and thought (correctly) that the family would join us.

Julie’s detective powers (she loves crime fiction) are considerable, and it was challenging not to let slip clues about what was happening. Quite how some people manage to lead double lives, or conduct illicit affairs without their spouses’ finding out, amazes me. Subterfuge is exhausting.

When we finally arrived at our Wiltshire cottage, Julie was surprised that the door was unlocked. I told her, entirely truthfully, that the owner had said that that was how it would be, and that the keys would be on the kitchen table. They were. Our daughter and her husband had got there first, and hid in the house awaiting our arrival. They emerged so dramatically that Julie’s scream must have been audible in the next village. A scream of delight, of course.

 

Trust and obey

WITHIN half an hour, we were off for our first mystery outing. I had booked a narrowboat for the evening on the Kennet and Avon Canal, and the sun shone. There we met our son, and his wife, too, and were given a brief introduction to canal navigation. Our instructor said that no one would be around when we returned, and indicated how to berth the vessel alongside another one. He gave us a telephone number in case we got into trouble, but it was clear that we were trusted.

Our son-in-law, who had just returned from a few days driving at high speeds around the Nürburgring circuit in Germany, was the skipper, and took charge of this slow vessel with great responsibility.

Had we discovered the most trusting area in England, one where it was simply assumed that people were honourable and dependable? In an age when there is so much surveillance and suspicion, it all added greatly to the enjoyment of a special weekend.

 

The glory of the Lord

IN MY last Diary column (Diary, 15 March), I noted my devotion to Corpus Christi, and recently had the privilege of presiding at that festival in Truro Cathedral, thanks to the kindness of the Dean.

It was while I was at university that a fellow student took me to Liverpool, to St John’s, Tuebrook, on the eve of Corpus Christi, in days when crowds attended vespers and Benediction. I found the procession of the Blessed Sacrament immensely moving, especially as two young girls, one black and one white, threw rose petals before the sacrament.

I had little understanding of what was going on, but sensed the divine presence more keenly than I had ever done before. It was a conversion experience of a rather particular kind. This wasn’t accessible, easily understood worship, but it was an invitation to go deeper into God, a sign that there was more to worship than singing hymns or listening to sermons. It captured my senses (I had hardly experienced incense before then), and invited adoration of God.

At Jesus Christ Superstar last month, the clouds of smoke made by the dry ice filled the stage constantly, rather like incense, but without the sweet smell. I wondered whether anyone there felt invited into the mystery of the divine found in human life. I hope so. A bit more divine mystery in much of our worship these days would also not come amiss.

 

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich, and now an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Truro.

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