Clerical life: Funerary rites
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Two things we knew about Operation London Bridge: that it existed, and that it was not a subject for conversation: to be seen to plan for the event was at the very least in poor taste, at the worst verging on treason. Here, we’d salted away a leather-bound condolence book for each of the churches about four years ago, but that was the extent of our preparation.
On Friday morning the email came through. By that time our flag was flying at half-mast and our ringers had tolled for the Queen. We found tables, cloths and bunches of flowers, and set up the condolence books. I went off to the local primary school and saw the official Church of England school assembly PowerPoint for the death of the Queen. This opened with a still of the archbishop of Canterbury in black, against a dark backdrop, with his mouth open. He looked a little like Oz the Great and Powerful. The four-year-olds of the Field Mice class, who had never before been in a school assembly, were awed into silence. Thank God there were no nervous giggles when the children were told this was a very sad time, and they would all be feeling very, very sad.
When I got home, I looked through all the Church of England’s documents. There were suggestions for readings and prayers for services, whether on Sunday or on weekdays, whether parish communion or civic commemorations. The suggestions all seemed to come from the standard list of readings for funerals. Was every service for the next 10 days to take the form of a funeral? What about the readings I would have otherwise read from the lectionary—in Amos, Timothy and Luke—which are all about the exercise of power and the distribution of wealth? So many suggestions. So much guidance piled up over so many years, like a centenarian’s list of prescriptions. Ten whole days of this: both too short a time to get over the shock, and too long a time to postpone all the other things that were happening in the villages.
I felt completely insufficient to the task, especially when I started seeing photographs of other people’s churches prepared for the time of national mourning. They seemed to do it so much better than we did, with their black altar frontals, unbleached beeswax candles and framed photographs of Her Majesty. Then it occurred to me to think of the others who were in the same boat: the tired and overwhelmed clergy of the established church doing their best for their people, their God, and their supreme governor while longing for a drink and a nap.
In the end we did our best, offering what we’re especially good at: a service of music, readings, hymns and prayers. We arranged to have it early in the evening, for the children’s sake, and kept it short.
That night I dreamed that I’d returned to Trinity to officiate at Evensong in the presence of the college visitor. Trinity’s visitor is, by statute, the reigning monarch. I’d failed to bring the correct clerical dress, spent ages searching through the cupboards in the vestry for something suitable to wear and failed to rehearse with the organ scholar. At last, I found a lacy cotta—round-necked, and very small and creased. “That will do! Just put it on,” said Her Majesty, sticking her head round the door. So I did, thinking that I could always fall back on the Queen’s words of assurance. I processed in and went up to my old stall, which was vacant, and dizzyingly high up, so that I had to hold onto the lectern. I opened my mouth to begin and realised just in time that the choir always sing an introit. Then, having no idea which set of versicles and responses they were using, I belted out the ordinary version we use at St Vigor’s and it was all right.