The Book of Common Prayer we knew
Was that of 1662:
Though with-it sermons may be well,
Liturgical reforms are hell.
The injunction on Auden’s memorial, ‘Bless what there is for being’, is a quotation from a poem of his, ‘Precious Five’, about the five senses; surprisingly, this would also be an apt epigraph for the Cathedral’s new window, which celebrates St. Francis and his love for the natural world. Like all good stained glass, it challenges you to keep looking and to keep coming back to look again. At first sight, seen at a distance from the nave, the design looks almost abstract though with a strong sense of movement. The lower third of the window is predominantly patterned grey (almost a kind of grisaille), though with strong upward flashes of light and dark green and occasionally blue. Come closer, and you can see that the patterns are ferns, grasses, leaves, stems and twigs, even (in the lower, right-hand section) the gnarled and twisted branches some may recognise as belonging to the famous Jabberwocky tree in the Christ Church garden.
Come closer still: in the centre light a small grey figure seems to be emerging from the surrounding
The service begins with a processional hymn. From the ante-Chapel at the west end of the Cathedral emerge the choristers, then representatives of the college and University, then a cluster of mainly elderly and mainly well-dressed men and women, members of the Order of St. Frideswide, scuttling down the aisle to keep up with the rapid pace set by the girls and boys of the choir. A solemn procession this is not, at least not until the Verger, wearing a black gown trimmed with scarlet panels and tassels, leads in the Cathedral clergy, the Dean and the Bishop’s party wearing golden vestments – copes, chasubles, dalmatics. It is an undeniably impressive spectacle, and the hymn is hardly long enough to allow the Bishop to reach the High Altar, commit his crozier to the deacon’s care and his mitre to his chaplain’s, and begin the liturgy.
Now comes the St. Frideswide procession, in which we are all encouraged to join. Led by an acolyte swinging a thurible of incense, we follow choir and clergy into the Latin Chapel and assemble around the shrine of the saint. It is very pleasing to hear an extract from the ‘Life of St. Frideswide’ read in the original 14th century English. Clouds of incense (the acolyte now in full swing) accompany the description of how Frideswide’s father, pleased that his daughter wanted to become a nun (and in the very church where today she lies buried), sent for the Bishop of Lincoln to perform the ritual of admission:
The byscop for the kynges heste thuder he cam hymsulf
And share hure in the nonnerie with hire felawes twelve.
At the king’s behest the bishop came in person and cut off her hair
alongside her twelve companions’ in the convent. [share : sheared]
At this point, we too are cut off – by the fire alarm.
First the bell, and then a stentorian recorded voice barking at us to leave the cathedral; the verger, having abandoned his tasselled gown, reappears in a high-viz jacket exhorting members of the congregation not to go back for their coats (it is raining outside). Eventually we are all out, and for fifteen minutes we huddle in the nearest corner of Tom Quad, wondering whether we shall be allowed back in or whether the whole service will have to be abandoned and the new window remain undedicated. ‘If they really wanted so much incense,’ I heard someone mutter within hearing of the Dean, ‘they should have remembered to turn off the bloody fire alarm.’
But all is well: we are allowed back in, the liturgy is resumed and soon we are processing again – and rather less formally this time – to gather around the St. Francis window. It is remarkable how rapidly the atmosphere of the service is re-established: Prayers are said and thanks expressed: for the life of Edward Burn; for the generosity of the donor; for the vision of the window’s designer and for the artistry and craftsmanship of those who made that vision a reality (stained glass is always a collaborative art). At the climax of the act of dedication the Bishop asperges the window and says:
I dedicate this window in honour of St. Francis
And hallow, bless and consecrate it
For the adornment of this holy place.
As we return to our pews, I am struck by what I have just witnessed, by the sense that hallowing a window and sprinkling it with holy water is as much an act of faith in the future as an acknowledgement of our need to remember the past. Can I have been the only person to have had this thought?
I think not, for this is one service I shall always remember. A fire alarm set off in a cathedral by a cloud of incense is a story too good to be wasted. No doubt it will become a tale ‘that has often been told and often been changed in the telling’. But I hope there’s every chance that this beautiful, challenging window will survive for centuries, long after the fire alarm has been forgotten.
Illustrations: photographs © Jane Moyle, by kind permission.
I have written several times in my blog about stained glass, e.g:
George Herbert’s ‘brittle crazy glasse'
Auden’s verse about the Book of Common Prayer comes from the poem ‘Doggerel by a Senior Citizen’ in his posthumous collection Thank You, Fog (Faber, 1973)
‘The Life of St. Frideswide’ (whose original name was Frithuswith) comes from The Shorter South English Legendary, a compilation of the lives of the early English Saints, mostly dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries.
‘a tale that has often been told…’: I have slightly adapted the words of Thomas Becket in TS Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral (Faber, 1935), when he speaks of how, in time,
…age and forgetfulness sweeten memory
Only like a dream that has often been told
And often been changed in the telling. (Act 2, p.69)