To the 12th Century Church of the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, as is my custom, to celebrate the habits of my tribe. This time the service of the Nine Carols was in the evening under a full moon veiled in winter’s hazy clouds, though enough to light the road past the carp pond. The church was candle lit, and cosy.
The service began with the priestly warning that although his lapel microphone was working, the fixed microphone for the reading of the lessons was out of order. To make the point clear to those who would be doing the readings, he walked over to the mike and tapped it. A loud thumping sound filled the little nave. “It’s a miracle” said several parishioners.
Whereas in former times, when the village was visited by musicians and choirs, “Once in Royal David’s City” always began with the crystal-clear solo from a hidden soprano, these were more straightened circumstances, and the service notes said merely that the first verse would be sung by the women.
For the second carol the Reverend, perhaps conscious of the need for vocal equity, said that one verse would be sung by the men, who did so after their fashion. For the third carol, in a further variation, he proposed that one verse be sung by women and one by men. “Which verse for the gender fluid?” my pewmate muttered, and in the spirit of Christmas I told him to shut up. The rest of the carols we sang together as parishioners of all sexes, guided by familiar melodies.
The first lesson was read by one of our oldest residents, whose progress to the lectern was determined but frail, but with the gospel words he was transformed into a sonorous authority, in full command of himself and his text. The other readers were similarly direct and clear in their solemnity. There were no children doing readings, perhaps because among the 45 or so attending there were only three young children, and two teenagers.
By now the story of the birth defied any sense of news. Even the manifest ambiguities of the account were so familiar as to evoke no bemusement. The congregation was not there on theological grounds alone. The field and woods were wetly outside, and in the relative warmth of the village gathering a small hotplate in the chancel heated up the mulled wine, so the tempo of carols and lesson was in synchrony with these preparations, meaning that the candle light very occasionally gave way to dull torchlight when the stove needed adjusting.
No village can be a representation of a nation, still less a Saxon village with a hundred households, but the impression was of retreat and age, as if clustered round a dying flame, the ritual shorn of the numinous, a prelude only to refreshments, wine to pour out, another year, relatives to collect, problems at the airport, smiling at grandchildren, and outside the double oak doors the pond, Manor and maypole, the emblems of our past.
Saying farewell to the priest, with whom I had had a companionable Harvest Supper some months before I remarked “Thanks for separating us into the men and the women”. “Yes” he replied with a smile, “we make such separations, but do not ask them to cover their heads”. “That will come”, I replied. In jest, perhaps.
On the way back home the moon still shone on the wet road and the old buildings, a village half asleep.