Piccadilly Seraphics

The church of St James Piccadilly is not perhaps the first port of call in the West End for members of Reform or Forward in Faith visiting the big city. Not for them the alternative forms of Druid massage, moon meditation or inspection of the inner woman.

But no church is without seeds of hope. This is where Common Praise (aka A&M2000) was launched within living memory. But imagine yourself as its first-ever incumbent, about to appoint an organist for this vibrant, gleaming fresh centre of Christian faith in the metropolis. Clearly, a key decision.

And somewhat to your own surprise your choice falls on 15-year old Raphael Courteville. A promising lad with good references, a fine musical touch, and a name stylish enough for his exalted environment. A prophet in the pulpit; angels, no doubt, in the choir; but an Archangel at the console; could anyone ask for more?

You would be even more surprised to learn that he would still be at his post eighty-one years later; that he would serve the church, if not you, from c1692–1772.

Imagine some of the dialogue over the decades. ‘How about this tune for number 345?’ ‘No, we tried that 78 years ago; it didn’t go too well.’ Mr Chips isn’t in it: ‘Well, lad, when your great-grandfather was in the choir he held a better line than you ever will.’

Did they mark his twenty-five years of service and wonder if at the age of forty he would soon want to spread his archangelic wings? After bus-pass time, did they wonder if he would retire? ‘Well, I don’t mind doing one more year. You just can’t get the organists these days; not the same commitment at all…’ At 75: ‘I think he’s always been here’.

During his time one or two vicars and hymnbooks came and went; kings and queens, poets and paraphrasers. As he was just settling to the job, the exciting new Tate and Brady Psalm collection of 1696 was elbowing out the ‘Old Version’ of Sternhold and Hopkins. Did they persuade him, or he them, to have a brave shot at ‘As pants the hart for cooling streams’, or (at Christmas) the daringly innovative ‘While shepherds watched’? ‘Swathing bands? What are they supposed to be? Thus spake the seraph? It wasn’t a seraph, it was an angel!’ Raphael should know. Did he like all this Tate modern?

Mr Courteville could have played, if asked, at the funerals of Baxter and Bunyan, Dryden and Addison, Henry Vaughan and Thomas Ken. He was available, if required, for the baptisms of Thomas Kelly and James Montgomery, not to mention Wordsworth and Coleridge – to confine ourselves to hymnwriters. For Cennick, Doddridge and Whitefield, he could have done both.

Except that some of these were Dissenters and hymns were not legal tender for Anglicans on Sundays. Not that this would worry the folk of St James’ Piccadilly. But the tune which leads to all such speculation has lasted – the suitably named ST JAMES. It bears its own witness to John 14.6 by the much later American words we sing to it; ‘Thou art the way; to thee alone from sin and death we flee’.

Forget Piccadilly Jim; St James, thou shouldst be living at this hour. But alas! I must end with a confession. Some fussy old scholar has now decided that the career outlined above actually combines those of two men, father and son of the same name. What a shame!

Christopher Idle works within 4 miles of Piccadilly.