While I don’t fully agree with Philip Larkin’s great poem “Church Going,” it reminds me a bit why I always loved the Church of England. Of course, the main reason was musical: I used to attend Anglican Mass at one of the University Choral Foundations in England just to hear the choir. It was superb! (I should point out that the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral choir is also glorious.) Such a choir is all men and boys in the all-male tradition that lasted long past Bach, with a purity of tone that cannot be matched by even the best women singers. This is a matter of opinion, but I still have the English Choral Foundation sound in my ear. Boy soprani and alti or counter-tenors along with the lower men’s voices is perfect for early music, and I am of the opinion, as I may have said before, that music died with Bach, Mozart wrote its Requiem, and Beethoven, the Jazz Funeral. (One of the great joys is telling one’s stories again or quoting one’s well-honed witticisms as I have this one. I had a colleague who used to remind me that I had told her a story before, which I always thought extremely ungracious. My Parisian Aunt would start one of her stories with “Please don’t tell me if I have told you this; I so love to tell it.” When I ask an English friend if I have told her a story before, she just says “Tell me.” This is civilized behavior and I love those who indulge not only my retelling a story but who also indulge all other repetitive raconteurs as well.)
Unfortunately, I am not even sure King’s College, Cambridge, can save the Church of England, despite its glorious Lessons and Carols on Christmas Day Eve. In a lifetime, the Anglicans and the Episcopalians have introduced such drastic changes that I find them almost unrecognizable. I don’t much like change, especially liturgical ones.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I accepted an old friend’s invitation to Christ Church, Kensington, Sunday morning. I almost didn’t make it. First of all, my iPhone wanted to send me to a Christ Church in the Antipodes, and while I got to the right tube stop in London, I couldn’t get WiFi and had to take a Black Cab. These cabbies are phenomenal in “The Knowledge” of how to get about in London, so I made it just after the opening hymn.
There was a Baptism first. The child was christened “Mark Alexander Thor” with two separate surnames, or one family given name and surname. I am not making this up; he may well need a few extra prayers with such a long moniker. I thought it rather a splendid name, but it does make for rather an extensive monogram. I did wonder about the “Thor.” Would priests living in earlier times, closer to the Viking Invasions, even have allowed it? Perhaps his parents were fans of Marvel Comics, about which I know nothing. At any rate, I hope the kid won’t get too much teasing in school.
One of the things that interested me was the priest’s insistence that the water was not magical; it was just water. I hope that this does not mean the cleric was a memorialist who thinks the Sacraments purely symbolic, as Cranmer in the 16th c. seems to have opined, though one can read pretty much any theology one wants into much of the glorious Book of Common Prayer Cranmer fashioned for the English Church. Its magnificent prose sang in Anglican ears until some pointy-headed bishops decided to allow for more modern services, which in my opinion are Rite Dreadful. The Te Deum, in Cranmer’s superb prose, rolls out over the congregation in a tsunami of praise: “We praise Thee, O God: we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord. All the earth doth worship Thee, the Father everlasting. To the all angels cry aloud; the heavens and all the powers therein; to the cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, Holy, Holy, Holy: Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of Thy Glory . . ..” In the modern wording, this is reduced to “You are God; we praise you,” which in comparison has all the majesty of a government warning against driving under the influence of alcohol. It may be sage advice in any form, but the modern service lacks gravitas. Cleanth Brooks once said that, if the Episcopal Church took its teaching function seriously, it could discuss the change in the meanings of a few dozen words and maintain the greatest translation of Medieval Latin liturgy ever devised. Amen.
The traditional English hymnology is usually good. We sang “Be Thou My Vision,” which is a favorite of mine. The choir was professional, which is almost always acceptable for making a joyful noise. I understand that there is a debate in this church about replacing the pipe organ. A good pipe organ may not be necessary for salvation, but it is for civilization. I hope they decide in favor. (Whenever I enter a church with a really fine Baroque-style tracker organ, I want to know who the SOB was behind it. Almost invariably, it takes someone with enough clout and stubbornness to shame the clergy into getting something worth having. I say, “illegitimi carborundum!” It may be bad Latin, but it makes for good music.)
The service at Christ Church, Kensington, a Victorian gothic edifice, used both “Thou” and “You.” It is odd that we no longer realize that “Thou” is actually a familiar use, like the French tu. Instead, we think it stiff and formal. Pity.
The men in the congregation may occasionally have sported a coat, but I was one of the few in a tie. If I wore one for my students, I rather think I can wear one for God.