Lord, Teach us how to Pray Aright

Far be it from us to offer lessons in prayer. Especially at Refreshment Sunday when, if anything, we relax our Lenten discipline. But we’re thinking about how we pray today because of something that came up in the intercessions.

That is, the intercessor began praying for ‘all who are disabled and mentally ill: may they find solace, comfort and consolation.’ We know it was well meant. And we hate mixing our politics with church. But today we have to.

Because here’s the thing: we are partially sighted. We are also choristers, dancers, embroiderers, and voracious readers. And with the best will in the world, we reserve the right to take a wooden spoon to any stranger who tries, unsolicited , to escort us off trains, across the road or down stairs. Does that sound like a life in need of consoling?

We were once asked if, given the chance, we’d take full vision over our hemianopoeia, or restricted field. We were horrified. We can no more imagine life without partial sight than we can imagine not breathing. It’s part of us. We’d no more change it than we would our height or our eye colour. And we devoutly hope no one is praying for our miraculous recovery of something we have never missed.

That is not everyone’s experience. But it is ours. There will always be people who do need that petition for consolation, and no doubt some of them will have disabilities and some will not. We’re as rich and varied a community as any other though. So pray for accessibility, and inclusion, and intelligent discussions about integrating us into everyday community. And pray for anyone who needs consolation as you would pray your ill or grieving. But pray thoughtfully. The assumption that we need all the same thing does everyone a disservice.

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Murder in the Vestry: Clergy in Detective Fiction

When PBS first started airing the latest season of Grantchester, WNED ran a promotional ad that was words to the effect ‘Featuring unlikely duo Sydney Chambers and Geordie Keating’  Not a bad line except for one wee detail; fiction is replete with clerical detectives. Many of them are even Anglican. There are so many in fact that to list them all would be unwieldy. Here though are some of our favourites.

Fr. Tom Christmas. He’s not really high enough to be ‘Father’ to anyone, but some last names come with a doom, and that seems to be his. He’s the rector to St Nicholas Church (or course he is) in the parish of Thornford Regis. His mysteries invariably take their theme from The Twelve Days of Christmas and are as cozy as any Golden Age writer could hope for. The fact that Canadian writer C. C. Benson infuses them with that quintessential Englishness that makes the books best suited to dreich, tea-filled afternoons would be impressive in and of itself, but the mysteries are clever and the characters charming. Mind housekeeper Madrun though, she has Opinions and enough prickle to her to run circles around even Mrs McGuire.

Fr. Brown – All right, he’s not Anglican, but if he didn’t invent the clergy-detective, it feels as if he did and any list would be incomplete without him. G.K. Chesterton first priest introduces his sleuthing priest The Blue Cross and the world never looked back. We love Chesterton’s deft welding theology and the murder mystery. We’ve said it before and we mean it, nothing is more addictive in reading than the assumption that the reading audience is intelligent.

Rev. Dr Blake Fisher is Fredrick Ramsay’s detective, and we can’t win with our fictive clergy this evening because this one objects to being called Reverend since it’s an adjective, not a noun. He’s an American detective, an Episcopalian with a gift for observation and making faith accessible without ever reducing it.

Fr. Gilbert for a novelty doesn’t object to his title. He’s also formerly of Scotland Yard, so when we told the WNED continuity announcer (not that he heard us) that we’d heard of stranger pairs than television’s favourite Cambridgeshire clergyman, we meant it. He believes strongly in evil, and unlike rational Fr. Brown, is prone to seeing the odd spectre. We don’t mind though, we were trained on Muriel Spark. There are definitely weirder things in fiction than a light touch of the gothic. No really, go read The Ballad of Peckham Rye and get back to us. We dare you to find a novel more bizarre.

There are others, of course, there always are with lists like these. No one loves a priest so well as a mystery writer, and we can’t blame them. Given our druthers we’d take confessing to any of our detective clergy over formidable Morse, Rebus or even the charming Steve Carella, and not just because biscuits seem to be less forthcoming from fictive police.

Every type of character brings advantages to detection. Morse had his vast intellect, Carella his cohort at the 87th Precinct. Clergy though bring their humanity, or they should. They offer an understanding of people, the good along with the bad that makes them particularly well-suited to solving murders.

To the continuity people over at WNED we can only say that if it’s strange pairs they’re after, they’d be better off reading Witches of Lychford. As mysteries go it has its holes, but we can’t think of a stranger pair than the triumvirate of vicar, witch and hippy it offers. Perhaps you can though, or have a favourite religious sleuth we’ve missed out. If so, we’d love to hear from you!

I Write This…

…Sitting on a startlingly orange sofa, as it happens, and balancing a lap-desk, not being possessed of a proper one. There’s the kitchen table, but we’ve an aversion to putting the computer at the same table where we take our tea. What we really sat down to do though wasn’t catch the atmosphere and character of Kinness Place, but collect together some of our favourite openings to books.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. Is there a better beginning than Dodie Smith’s opening gambit to I capture the Castle? We have spent years trying to equal this one in our own writing, and likely won’t ever succeed. True at once to Cassandra’s voice, the tone of the story and our sense of the castle, this makes the promise that the story more than lives up to.

‘Take my camel, dear,’ said Aunt Dot as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. On the strength of that sentence, an Oxford friend sent us Rose McCauley’s The Towers of Trebizond.  The Oxford friend was right; we did love it. The story of Aunt Dot, Laurie, Fr Chantrey-Pigg and their journey to Turkey is full not only of evocative landscapes but also of some of the most nuanced treatment of religion we’ve read. We still go shivery thinking of Laurie’s first introduction to Jerusalem. We won’t spoil it. Read it. We want another person to help unravel the symbolism of the camel. Unconvinced?  The symbolic camel in question, and the High Mass both transpire in Oxford. Aunt Dot’s just that eccentric.

Long ago in London, in 1945, all the nice people were poor. It sounds like a fairytale, and Muriel Spark does have an ear for modern fairytales. This one is the beginning to The Girls of Slender Means. There is nothing you need to know about it except that the martyr is not a martyr and there is an unexploded bomb in the back garden of the May of Tech Club.

They’re all dead now. So begins Ann-Marie MacDonald’s gothic novel Fall on Your Knees. This was the sentence that set us collecting sentences. The fact that we fell in love with the novel was purely an afterthought.

I suppose it must have ben the shock of hearing the telephone ring, apparently in the church, that made me turn my head and see Piers Longridge in one of the side-aisles behind me. It wouldn’t be us without at least one Pym. She’s best read in well-worn cream paperbacks that smell of book. This is the opening of A Glass of Blessingsour second favourite after Excellent Women. Somehow she cuts right to the inciting  incident while still leaving us with the fuzzy impression that we’re not reading a carefully crafted novel, only a slice of someone’s life.

My father had a face that could stop a clock. This was the sentence that set us on our love of Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next. We don’t read much fantasy or sic-fi. This manages to be both at once, as well as a consummate exercise in spot-the-literary-allusion. We’ve never looked back but have gone on to read this man’s work compulsively. Wherever academic coach Stephen Bloom is now, we owe him a tremendous debt for the recommendation.

Finally, what must be our favourite opening to a novel ever. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles an hour. This owes to David Lodge, specifically Changing Places. No one has ever made us laugh quite so much.

There are others of course; this is by no means a comprehensive list. We’ve tried to dodge our more obvious favourites, but we also can’t believe we’ve omitted so many; Lipman, Hardy, Monica Dickens are but a few. Some day we’ll draw up a list of favourite books and perhaps get around to doing her justice. In the meantime, go read!

Six Little Choristers

It’s well and truly summer here, and we can tell by the size of the choir. We’re not a large choir in term-time, but we’ve halved in size since the students went home. When we came into the choir room on Sunday, the precocious alto looked at us, did the maths and said, ‘we are officially the Trinity Choir.’

‘Yes,’ we said, ‘in every sense of the word.’

The sometimes-tenor then entered and completed our set. In light of this we’ve been driven to that poem we’ve been threatening to write for months. It comes from a place of great affection, and sympathy for diminished choirs the world over, because after all, three’s a choir -isn’t it?

Six Little Choristers

M.C.Steep

Six little choristers, sit cantores side,

One collided with the organ, leaving only five.

Five little choristers censed by the thurifer,

Asphyxiation by incense reduced them to four.

Four little choristers waiting in the vestry,

One fell out of procession and then there were three.

Three little choristers uncertain what to do,

One fled from sentimental motets then there were two

Two little choristers led Solemn Evensong,

One thought it much too catholic, and then there was one.

One gloomy chorister with conductor does conspire,

To halt music for the summer as one is not a choir.

A Calculated Shambles

This week confirmed a pet theory of ours; namely that far from choreographed Mass, the key to succeeding at Anglo-Catholicism (or in this instance Scottish Episcopalianism) is to be jolly good at making things up as one goes along. Advent II for instance.

‘Today’s complicated, so I’ll outline what’s happening,’ said Conductor with accuracy of a service involving everything bar the kitchen sink; Introit, Asperges*, Baptism, Communion, all the key parts to the Mass –the only thing we didn’t say was the Credo, we swapped it for the Apostles’ Creed.

Anyway, he began outlining the beginning, starting with ‘we’ll sing the introit from the usual place.’

Had he never mentioned ‘introit’ we might have got it right. But he did, and in the same sentence as ‘usual.’

Our long-resident Sometimes Tenor (we’ve made him a bass at the moment so we can still call the choir SATB) heard this and once the Conductor had gone for the organ, said to us, ‘that means we’re beginning singing from the side-chapel then.’

We had doubts, but didn’t mention them, because he’s been there years longer than the measly almost-three years we’ve sung in the choir. We duly told the crucifer to stop at the side-chapel, which he did, and we waited for the organ to stop. And waited. And waited. And went on waiting, because it turns out all the Conductor meant was that we sing from the usual place –the choir stalls –and consider the Advent Prose an introit. Right. And we couldn’t tell the Sometimes Tenor ‘I told you so,’ because as it turned out, we hadn’t.

Eventually someone told Conductor he’d better stop expecting us to appear, because the crucifer had apparently taken root and anyway, we’d opened our folders and it would have looked odd to resume processing after the servers anyway. We sang the Advent Prose from the side-chapel, it was fine, the world did not end. Only we couldn’t then resume processing because of the usual preamble into worship. That was fine too, we said the General Confession jammed between the crucifer and the font, and we thought, ‘well, it will be all right, we can sing the Asperges while processing.’

What actually happened was that we landed a spontaneous solo leading into the Asperges while the other five choristers scrambled to access their copies of words and music. We don’t, you’ll gather, usually sing the Asperges, except at the Easter Vigil, and that in plainchant. Also, we did not process. The thought that we could either hadn’t struck the crucifer or he had sensible reasons for not doing so. We don’t know and can’t be sure.

That lead directly into the Kyrie –Oldroyd until we’re out of Advent –and this meant that not only us but also the Sometimes Tenor actually knew what we were doing for a wonder. We once sang Oldroyd for a whole year. We were therefore able to say as the men lead us in, ‘we can process in now, while singing the Kyrie.’

Luckily the crucifer overheard and that was more or less what happened. In case you’re curious, it’s terribly hard to reverence the altar while balancing an open music folder and trying not to trip on the acolytes.

‘Well that was a disaster,’ said the Choral Scholar to me in an undertone once we were all back in our rightful places among the choir stalls.

‘Nonsense,’ we said, ‘it was a calculated shambles.’

*In the event that you, like us, have never heard the Asperges by their proper name before now, it’s the bit about You will sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be clean. We think it has something to do with reaffirming baptismal vows. What it’s doing leading people into the Advent Sundays we couldn’t hope to tell you. But if you know, do by all means enlighten us.