Easter Sunday 2018. London, England.
I attended the standing-room-only festive Choral Eucharist at Westminster Abbey this morning. Tourists were everywhere, but enough of us were taking matters seriously that I knew I was in a holy place.
On the way to communion, I walked right over David Livingston’s grave!
And the Dean himself, The Very Rev. Dr. John Hall, administered my communion this morning.
At noon, with the service ended, I found the sidewalks around the Abbey and Parliament Square and Westminster Bridge to be jammed with tourists on a very chilly early Spring day. So half-way back to my flat, I jumped on a bus for the final blocks.
Luncheon was a Sunday pub meal of pork roast, crackling, Yorkshire puddings, potatoes, carrots, broccoli, parsnips, and applesauce. And a Fuller’s London Pride. I couldn’t finish it all!
Oh — and kale. I didn’t even try.
Now for Evensong at St. Mary’s Bourne Street, with the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The music list includes Harwood in A-flat, one of my favorite settings of the Mag & Nunc.
With the rain on Wednesday, I stayed in at my flat and did some school work and email management.
Just before 12 noon, I bought an Oyster card at the Lambeth North stop and walked half a block to catch a red double-decker bus, and then rode across Westminster Bridge to Westminster Abbey.
The bell tower (‘Big Ben’) at the Houses of Parliament is completely shrouded in scaffolding, so I’ll have no iconic photos this trip.
At 12.30 p.m. sharp, the bell rang inside the Abbey and a priest walked toward the altar in front of the grave of Sir Isaac Newton. And 100 or so pilgrims celebrated noonday Eucharist together in this most special house of worship. No matter that tourists were milling around on three sides, or that the din of their chatter never allowed for holy silence. God is in this place.
N.B. — in this country, when asked where you are from, kindly say “Saint Louis, USA.” Missouri means nothing in the grand scheme, but many Britons know of the Arch and Saint Louis.
After Holy Eucharist, I lunched in the Abbey Cellarium on salmon with blistered cherry tomato, artichoke, new potatoes, and capers. And feasted on dessert of white chocolate and lemon mouse, with a black cherry sauce. Lunch was heavenly.
As I was finishing dessert, two older gay men with American accents sat down at the adjacent table.
Said one, “I wonder what the soup is today.”
I leaned over, feigned a shudder, and said “sweet potato and celery,” which was true.
Then ensued a brief conversation. One of the men took degrees from SLU and WashU, and used to go the Opera Theatre on the Webster campus before moving to San Francisco. His partner grew up in Cape Girardeau. They met in Saint Louis.
By the way, they did not order the soup either.
The world is plenty small sometimes!
Here’s a shot of the west front of the Abbey from a couple of blocks away, taken in the rain today:
In the distance at left, you can see the scaffolding that is completely hiding the famous Big Ben.
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.
- up early for travel to Victoria Station
- breakfast at a quick restaurant
- walk to Westminster Abbey
- tour the Abbey; I also was anointed by a priest, in the Islip Chapel, in the Anointing of the Sick
- up Whitehall to Ben Franklin House
- tour Benjamin Franklin House (something I wouldn’t do again, except on their one-day-a-week architectural tours, but it was fun to think that I was walking on the same floors and stairs where Franklin himself walked over 250 years ago)
- then a spa day!
- and finally dinner at a Brasilian restaurant near our flat, then a walk back to the flat with some groceries.
I am doing whites in the small washer/dryer right now, and attempting to deal with school emails.
July 4 = Paris!
At 8.50 a.m., I’m back from Westminster Abbey.
Let me just say: there’s nothing quite like leaving your hotel, rounding the corner onto Bridge Street, and seeing the Clock Tower housing Big Ben two long blocks ahead of you. Every day this week, I’ll walk that mile, past the old County Hall, over the Thames on Westminster Bridge, past the Houses of Parliament, and to Westminster Abbey, at least once and sometimes twice a day.
So the rhythm of the day is already set. Up at 6, breakfast at 7, walking to the Abbey by 7.40. Breakfast is a wonderful full English, altho I skip the baked tomato and the beans. Scrambled eggs, potato, ham, a croissant, fruit, jam, coffee . . . this is my breakfast of champions. And as I eat, I read the paper, and I listen to the melange of languages all around me. No city in the world is as relentlessly cosmopolitan, and dare I say ‘worldly,’ as London.
Now it’s time to plan the rest of the day. I’ve been here often enough that I don’t do the intense planning any more. I purchased a 2012 guidebook to give me Web addresses and current information, and off I go.
Today, by the way, is the Feast of St. Theresa of Avila. We celebrated her life and works and writings at Eucharist this morning.