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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

28 June 2024

As the election approaches, Malcolm Guite attends a hustings in his parish church

NORTH WALSHAM’s hustings — part of the current General Election campaign — took place, I am happy to say, in the parish church, and was chaired by our Vicar. This seems to me a proper fulfilment of the injunction in Jeremiah 29.7 that we should “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Of course, there is one sense in which the sacred space keeps its distinctive identity, a sense in which we know that here we have no abiding city, and that we can never identify any political regime, nor, for that matter, any ecclesial institution, entirely with the Kingdom of God. Nevertheless, prompted or led by the Spirit, we seek to further whatever works of compassion or justice might be consonant with our vision of that Kingdom.

The Vicar, quite properly began, in his welcome, by remarking on how many changes not just of regime but of dynasty and epoch the Church had already lived through, putting our immediate concerns in a longer and larger perspective.

I enjoyed the hustings itself, the chance to see local candidates in the flesh and assess their persons and their policies for myself. I was glad to note that, for the most part, they didn’t simply mouth undigested gobbets of their party’s national manifestos, but genuinely addressed local issues, local places, local people.

There were times, I confess, when my attention wandered, and, in one of those times, I found myself musing on the word “hustings” itself: a word that is, in fact, even older than the Norman church in which we were meeting. It comes into English from the Old Norse húsþing, which means, literally, “house thing”, the “thing” being the Norse word for an assembly; so a húsþing was an assembly of all the members, followers, and retainers of a household.

When many households gathered together, it was called an “althing”, and The Althing is still the name of the Parliament of Iceland, founded in 930, well before our parish church was built. So, the Viking forebears of some of the North Walsham folk attending our hustings last week would have had at least some clue as to what it was.

It’s interesting that the word “hustings” has survived into modern usage — and even lent its name, by association, to the temporary wooden platforms erected for such political meetings. English hustings, especially in the 18th and early 19th century were not always as sedate and polite as our gathering at St Nicholas’s this week; for, until the introduction of the secret ballot (which came as late as 1872), the hustings was not only the scene of declamation, but also of the poll itself, taken with a show of hands. As one can imagine, the temptation to push and shove, to heckle, to call for recounts, to ply potential voters with drink in return for a raised hand, was all too great, and the Ballot Act of 1872 was introduced in an attempt to restore some order to the proceedings.

For my part, though, I think that the place itself, the presence and atmosphere embodied in an ancient church, also contributed to the charity and civility on display. I certainly found it helpful to weigh the words of the candidates in the same place — indeed, from the same pew — in which, Sunday by Sunday, I hear proclaimed the two great commandments, the novum mandatum, the new law of Love.

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