To the 12th Century Church of the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, as is my custom, not for Nine Carols but for the Christmas Day service, on a blowy, very wet warm day, the small stone refuge almost full, the candles lit, and as the plain text service wended its way through the Offices the wind howled in rage outside, as if announcing a numinous new world.
In the pews whole families sat, the children quiet, the clear glass windows engraved with the texts of the waters of life, the carols reproduced on small sheets, the yellow offertory envelopes laid out expectantly. The celebrants were of all ages, though the elderly predominated, the dress code mostly tweeds, country suits, a shooting jacket, sensible shoes, a few brighter sweaters and sneakers.
The service followed the flat tone of motorway English: “And you too, mate”. The faintly remembered sonorous triads of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were banished to an outbuilding, like a smoky diesel. The improbable story was like an overheard conversation, snatches of incongruous gossip, the extenuating circumstances rehearsed without too much credence: some sort of problem about an unplanned pregnancy.
The requirement, at one point in the service, to Make a Sign of Peace, usually an occasion of deep English embarrassment, as they contemplate fellow humans with whom they have little in common, and much to regret and dispute about, was managed with aplomb. Perhaps the culture is changing, and on one day of the week, or perhaps only one day of the year, the English can tolerate close contact with those of good faith. Tempting to believe that in the eight centuries gone by the villagers loved their fellow Man better than they do now, but that is the deception of history, because, as Dryden observed: “Mankind is ever the same, and nothing is lost out of Nature, although everything is altered”.
Almost all took the sacrament, at first in absolute silence save for the wind, and then when the organist got back to her seat, to respectful accompaniment.
For “Oh Come all ye Faithful” we were permitted a descant on the penultimate verse, to which invitation heroic sopranos soared, dancing on harmonic rooftops of more lowly vocal structures. Unusually, this glorious departure did not unsettle the melodic progress of the congregation. They also serve who hum in lower registers.
In all, a good show, and as we rose at the end to face the wind the farewells were joyous in unfeigned fellowship. A moment of peace.
Reversing my car out of the sodden field, I got stuck in the mud, and in a golden example of Christian charity one neighbour, far more knowledgeable in these matters than most, advised on gear ratios for some minutes and pushed as I tried rocking the car back and forwards, until the other provided a rope and towed me out.
And so endeth the lesson.