Having not been to church for two weeks because of transit, I gave today over to God.
And some transit and sightseeing.
But mostly God.
My end-of-tour hotel was a fifteen-minute walk from Westminster Abbey, so I took off around 9 this morning to walk by the Thames, over Lambeth Bridge, and then up by the park and the Houses of Parliament. Arriving at the Abbey by 9.20, I was one of the very first in line for seats for the morning services.
One of the joys of attending the Abbey is the chance to be seated in the Quire, very near the singers, under the organ pipes, within breathing space of the Precentor and Lector. I was in the last seat of the second row, immediately adjacent to the Lantern, for both Mattins and Holy Eucharist.
One of this morning’s sermons was splendid. The liturgy was faultless, perfect in allowing the worshipper to give him- or herself over to the inner meaning and beauty, and to adoration and true worship.
Add to that the music, with works by three dead white guys who were each buried just yards from where I was seated. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Purcell, Frank Martin, Hassler, William Walton — all were represented this morning.
Of course, the great jewel of the British choral tradition in cathedrals and collegiate chapels is Evensong. After moving from the tour hotel to an inferior model close to Paddington, I made my way by Tube back to the Abbey for that service. I arrived to find a huge queue; high summer tourist season is now, coupled with the ‘Valediction of the Choristers,’ the formal end to the school and church-music year when the 8th-grade boys are sent away to another school, to sing Treble no more.
I chose to sit in the nave, rather than back in one of the transepts. And here’s a play-by-play:
–the Purcell introit was evening more lovely and aching this evening. There’s just something about singing in front of the Quire Screen at the Abbey that concentrates sound.
–The psalm was fine, to a Barnby tune I didn’t know.
–Howells’ Gloucester Service has that goosebump moment in the Gloria on ‘As it was . . .’ and I goosebumped right on cue. What glorious music this is!
–Parry’s ‘Blest pair of sirens’ has never sounded more beautiful, or more perfect for the setting, as it did today.
–The Dean preached a magnificent sermon about music and the boys and family & fellowship. He set up perfectly what was to follow.
–I choked back tears on ‘The day thou gavest,’ the most perfect and quintessential of all Evensong hymns.
Then we get to the Valediction. Seven choristers, most of them heads taller than the rest of the boys, stepped forward to be given a send-off by the Dean. They were each named individually. Prayers and blessings were said. And then the service was over.
Imagine this, though: the seven boys were then at the end of the final procession, surrounding the Dean in a special place where they will walk only once, at this particular service. Most of them were in tears. They’ve spent the last four . . . five . . . six years singing nearly daily in the Abbey — eight services a week, nine months of the year. They have toured the world on the Abbey dime. They are among the elite of the elite, singing a prodigious amount of music to incredibly high standard, educated in one of the finest private schools in the UK, meeting kings and queens and Popes and more dignitaries — in one year — than I will meet in a lifetime.
And then, just like that, on July 14, they walk out for the last time. The robes, the music, the friends, the in-jokes, the splendour and beauty of that place — it’s all over.
I’d cry too.
And I did, when I looked behind me and saw all the rest of the clergy greeting the boys, all gathered in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier resting in his grave lined with dirt from the French battlefields of World War I.
I said to Fr. Jamie, who preached so magnificently this morning, “What a blessing and joy it must be to serve in this holy place.” He assured me it was.
One final note: some years ago, I was at the Abbey on a day when four new choristers were admitted to full choir membership from probationary. I think I blogged about that at some point. Well, today, the circle was complete. At the end of each service today, ten short little robed boys, each of them seven or eight years old, walked solemnly into the Quire before the service, and exited at the end, two by two. The probationers are watching and learning. Among those ten are the seven who will step up at some point next year, and say “With the help of God, Sir, I do” when summoned by the Dean to full membership.
The Lord giveth, and The Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of The Lord.