Monday, November 24, 2008

I All Dressed Up

I first met Hannah at the local baths. ‘You do more chatting than swimming’, says R. He doesn’t understand that women can swim and talk at the same time.Hannah commutes from Haringey and swims before going to work. A lay reader, she more or less lives for the church, so I listen, fascinated, to accounts of retreats, sermon preparations and what the bishop said to the other bishop. She’s also kind and funny and brings in all kinds of back-up literature for me to look at.

Last Wednesday R went with me to the ‘Readers’ Quinquennial Eucharist’, at St Pauls, a kind of re-licencing ceremony for lay readers as well as a swearing-in for new ones. I’ve never been inside before, which is probably because there’s a £10 charge for sightseers. It was all very dramatic, and we had good seats under a high side arch to the left of the main arena, under the great dome. The infamous acoustics scrambled the hymns. We could gawp at gold-leafed cupolas and the inside of the dome itself, with its railing.

By chance we were seated alongside a marble statue of a local naval hero, Nelson, on a plinth above smaller figures. To our right was another battle hero, some Marquis who was Governor of Bengal. They're not exactly religious subjects, I thought. On the other hand, these national heroes were no doubt associated with religious inspiration in peoples’ minds at the time.

The only other person on the back row with us was a vicar with a purple shirt, letter-box collar and Lancashire accent. He’d recently been posted to North London from Manchester. ‘You won’t get used to it’, I told him, but he assured me the people were very pleasant. I suppose it makes a difference when you’re a vicar and people habitually defer. He wondered how the England v. Germany match on TV that night was getting on, which I assumed was ‘man of the people’ talk for R’s benefit. He was on a loser there, though, and Roy adroitly changed the subject. The vicar revealed that now he’s in London he has a free pass to St Pauls, which was the least I'd expect. He said he too had been a lay reader before becoming a priest, and when I asked him was it a natural progression he said no, he’d resisted, but his own vicar had said he had a vocation.

This reminded me of Francis Thompson's poem 'The Hound of Heaven' :
'I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;I fled Him, down the arches of the years;I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter.'

An officious usher or ‘wandsman’, told him off for trying to take a photograph.

I was astonished to hear R say St Pauls was built on the bones of our ancestors. I wonder if all the regalia and ceremony was getting up his nose and provoking a kind of displaced anti-royalism, as he’s usually so discreet. Apart from the visual splendour and the singing, plus a short but topical sermon by the Bishop of London, there was the dramatic dialogue during the service. It’s designed, I suppose, to check out the aspiring readers’ resolution, a bit like the marriage ceremony when they have to declare any impediments, except there were more questions along the lines of ‘Will you endeavour to fashion your life according to the way of Christ?’To which they had to answer : By the grace of God, I willAfter the ceremony there was general mingling and photo-calls, the Bishop of London happy to pose with his crook alongside groups. I was pleased to find Hannah alongside a minor bishop. She’s uncharacteristically stern in the photo, but I think she was still feeling nervous, and the robes crackled with starch. She looks quite different with no clothes on.

Afterwards we went to an O'Neills pub near Cannon Street station. It was all quite festive, large-sized bunting with pictures of Irish menu dishes strung across the bar and young men in suits who'd removed their ties. I told R that as his ancestors were Welsh he could hardly claim St Pauls had been built on their bones. He said he meant his ancestors on the other side. As to that provenance I think I'll draw a veil.

Here’s a website with a commentary about St Paul’s :

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