Never despair, never presume. I thought I’d got away with it, and dodged the Covid bullet. Then, on the Monday after the Third Sunday in Lent, first a touch of fever, and the faint but unmistakeable second red line. I had caught the virus, and while soldiering on at the desk was just about manageable, going out and about to celebrate, baptise and confirm certainly was not. So hats off to Bishop Peter Wheatley and Bishop Robert Ladds, who ensured that seven candidates (teenagers and adults) could receive the sacraments of initiation at St Matthew, Kensington Olympia; and no fewer than 16 children at Holy Trinity, Hartland Road. What a blessing to have such willing retired brother bishops, to whom one can hand over with absolute confidence and trust.
On the Solemnity of the Annunciation, masked, I crept into the Guild Church of St Andrew (‘Fulham Towers’) here in Holborn for the Friday lunchtime mass. Many of you will know how large a church it is – and, pressing myself against the south wall, looked across to the Lady Chapel in the north aisle where mass was being offered for the feast. I could just about hear the words of the mass being spoken by Fr Rimmer (a still freshly minted, if not brand new, priest), and the responses of the small weekday congregation. But I could see, clearly, the manual actions and the Host and Chalice being elevated at the consecration. I imagined myself to be a medieval peasant, gazing down the church at the drama unfolding at the altar. It was beautiful, and (of course I did not go anywhere near the congregation, let alone receive) I was convicted afresh of how the important thing is that the mass is offered, and that by attending (in however exiguous a fashion), we can unite ourselves with the cosmic, saving, action. The experience made the various controversies about receiving Holy Communion in these Covid times feel very silly indeed.
I was fully recovered in time to take a few days’ planned retreat in Walsingham during Passion Week. Of course, one can never truly be on retreat (in the strict sense) at the Shrine, and I was generously entertained to supper first by Stephen (formerly of this parish) and Jo Parkinson, and then by the Vicar, Fr Harri, and Mrs Clare Williams. Otherwise, I really did keep myself to myself and enjoyed the quiet and the chance to read. Fr Kevin Smith celebrated a beautiful early morning mass each day with recollection and unfussy reverence, the Shrine Church swathed in purple veiling and the high altar with its mosaic of stone fragments exposed: austere, powerful, elemental. The weather was elemental too, my one attempt at a serious walk thwarted by hail, thunder, and lightning. A brief glimpse of a growling and chilly North Sea was enough, the library in St Augustine’s the better part of valour.
Palm Sunday brought something completely different. I had been invited to preach at Hampton Court Chapel by the Chaplain, Fr Antony Howe. Resplendent in red cassock, Fr Howe celebrated the Prayer Book communion service, arranged as an unarguably catholic rite, with great dignity and the occasional flourish. Though the boys were on holiday, the choir was excellent. The congregation – regulars, visitors, tourists – was large and, I thought, attentive and very appreciative. Concluding the mass with the first verse of the National Anthem provided an unexpected thrill. ‘We’re so glad you’ve come,’ said one lady to me as we shook hands at the west doors afterwards, ‘you’d be so useful in Sainsbury’s, to reach things down from the top shelf.’ The people of God (thank God) keep us humble.
What a joy and a privilege to celebrate the Chrism Mass for the Fulham clergy and people. What a gathering! 70 concelebrants and many more priests present, and the church packed with laity. After the desert of 2020 and a very limited celebration last year, the sheer pleasure in being together without restriction or qualification was palpable. The congregational singing was thunderous. The liturgy was excellent, and I can only say that without fear of pride because of course the bishop has the easy bit – turn up, don’t get in the way, don’t fall over. Which management consultant said that the most important thing about leadership is picking your team? They were right, whoever they were.
It’s not all church. Praise the Lord, I tested negative in time to take up a friend’s generous offer of tickets to Peter Grimes at the Royal Opera House. An amazing evening: orchestra and chorus excellent, the production very fine. But truly outstanding was the quality of the three principal male voices, just unparalleled in my experience of live opera. It’s a haunting piece at any time but particularly so when seen with Holy Week not far away; the story of a scapegoat, a hunted man, and a cruel public who know not what they do.