Now You See Him…

AFTER 35 YEARS of ministry, you could be forgiven for thinking you had seen most things. The exciting part is, something new may always turn up. It happened the other Sunday around ten o’clock.

I was the visiting celebrant, waiting in the ambulatory between vestry and chancel behind the crucifer, candle-bearers and other ministrants. Not quite my style, but I was a guest and these days vicars need their sabbaticals. The deacon was due to announce the opening hymn. Slight pause. Some shuffling around the organ was half-hidden from our view. Perhaps a hymnal had been mislaid? Not quite.

The deacon squeezes past to the back of our small procession. ‘Do you know the first hymn?’ Funny question, funny time to ask it, but ‘Yes’ is my answer. My book is open at When morning gilds the skies; I have noticed with pleasure that our seven verses include the sweet church bell, chanting in the choir, and of course my canticle divine. But then, ‘Can you lead us? The organist has gone!’

Edging forward, I clear my throat and launch recklessly into the first line. Mercifully I am not left alone, and soon a full-throated, mainly Afro-Caribbean congregation is echoing ‘May Jesus Christ be praised’ around the arches and up to the roof. I have pitched it a bit high, but we get through. Except that my attention wanders slightly as I visualise the four hymns to come, including Blessed assurance, and hope we can manage the Gloria, acclamations et al.

Say what you like about The Peace, it does give you the chance to regroup. Handshaking like mad, I work my way over to my wife, and am able to enquire if she feels like taking over at the organ. For some reason she seems to think we are doing splendidly unaccompanied, and she will stay put, but thank you for asking. Funny creatures, women.

But what can we say about the men? We gathered later that the organist had arrived with seconds to spare, having crossed London to get here. A churchwarden commented helpfully, ‘Cutting it a bit fine, aren’t we?’; exit one organist. You can negotiate, as the old joke says, with a terrorist…. But for all I know he may have had bad journeys and that was the last straw. I’m only filling in, remember; someone else can sort it out.

In the cold light of hindsight, what did his departure demonstrate’? That organists are not essential to the rite, and that he knew it! If I, or a Sunday School teacher, or the lady with the safe key, had walked out, that could have been tricky. But we managed without music; organs are not essential to the sacraments. Some would add that they are not even of the bene esse, since we may sing better without them. Try it some time; but choose the hymns carefully and avoid Kendrick. We finished with Glorious things of thee are spoken, and by then I was confident enough to offer a choice of AUSTRIA or ABBOT’S LEIGH. Judging the congregational murmurs to be about 50-50, my casting vote went to the first, more for safety than for preference. We gave it everything.

If that story reflects on organists, let me add that next Sunday another visitor was the celebrant elsewhere. This time the pause followed the Gloria. Plaintive voice from the microphone: ‘Has anybody got today’s collect?’ Unsurprisingly, since booklets have replaced the Prayer Book, nobody had. I once forgot the water at a Baptism, but that’s another story featuring my wife. Guess who went to fill the jug.

Christopher Idle fills in in the Diocese of Southwark.