Every year, since ordination as a bishop, I have tried to spend the Sacred Triduum in the same place and with the same people, as I did for many years residentially with the community of Pusey House at Ascot Priory. This year, I was able to do even better, presiding and preaching every day (Holy Tuesday only excepted) at All Saints, Margaret Street, from Palm Sunday until Easter Day. This was an immersive and exhilarating experience. Attendance was excellent, the ‘in-person’ congregation (as we are learning to call it) augmented by a significant on-line community watching both the live-stream and the recordings on YouTube after the event. The choir sang magnificently throughout. I took some of the Divine Poems of John Donne as companion pieces for each day of the great and Holy Week: on Easter Day, inevitably, I turned to the best known of the Holy Sonnets – ‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die’. The Paschal candle at All Saints, which I duly lowered with trepidation three times into the font in the course of the Easter Vigil, must be the heaviest if not in Christendom then certainly in any of the parishes in my episcopal care.
If Easter Day was spent in Fitzrovia, then Low Sunday began in Hatch End and concluded a few kilometres outside Rome. St Anselm’s, Hatch End, is (only in the geographical sense) on the periphery of the Fulham family of churches; it is the last parish to the north-west of the Willesden Area of the Diocese of London, a step further and you are into St Alban’s diocese – Richborough territory! St Anselm’s has a collection of very fine Arts & Crafts stained-glass windows, one of which includes a fragment of glass from the medieval Ypres Cathedral in Flanders, devastated during the Great War. It also boasts an impressive carved rood screen in oak, to the installation of which (in 1902) the diocesan Chancellor originally objected, fearing that the figures of Our Lord, Our Lady and St John might become the objects of ‘superstitious reverence’. St Anselm’s sits comfortably in its relaxed Catholic tradition today. It was very good to be presented with four candidates for confirmation, one of whom (a young adult male) had begun his journey by telephoning the Vicar and asking whether he was allowed to come to church, and, having come once, whether it would be alright if he came back again.
Built on the site of a pre-Christian Roman villa, at various periods in its history a Cistercian, Carthusian and Franciscan monastery or friary, and a hospital for (among others) recovering alchoholics, Palazzola sits above Lake Albano with views across the lake to Castel Gandolfo, used by popes – before this one – as their summer residence. It now belongs to the Venerable English College, and, from Monday to Friday in Low Week was the home to 50 Fulham clergy (together with their bishop) and our own Tom Middleton, representing the other 98% of the church. One of the slogans painted onto the refectory wall by the doctor who ran the clinic, in that phase of Palazzola’s life, reads ‘mangiare adagio e masticare bene’ – eat slowly and chew well. We certainly ate well, and chewed well on food for the mind and the soul as well as the body.
We began each day with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at 7am and ended with Compline. In between there were visits, too numerous to mention them all, to places and institutions in Rome, with hugely informative and engaging conversation in each. Mention should be made of time with Fr Stephen Wang, Rector of the English College, exploring issues of clergy formation and evangelisation today; and with His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch, Prefect of the Dicastery for Christian Unity, who shared with us a masterly overview of the work of the DCU from dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox to that with the emerging new and Pentecostal churches. Cardinal Kasper, Cardinal Koch’s predecessor at the (then) PCPCU (Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) came to dinner with us, just a few weeks after his 90th birthday, and addressed us with huge warmth. A different sort of speaker who gave a fascinating account of his working life was the British Ambassador to the Holy See, His Excellency Christopher Trott. All of this and privileged seats at the Wednesday general audience with Pope Francis, who came to greet us afterwards. Another bonus: three masterly talks on England and Rome from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I by our guest lecturer David Starkey. Presented with miniature biretta and purple socks, Professor Starkey is now Honorary Canon Theologian to the See of Fulham. In every sense, quite the week.
Back in England, it was good to celebrate the patron of England on his day, at St George’s, Hanworth Park. This time, eight candidates to baptise and confirm, across three generations. It was good to be able to preach about St George and remind the congregation of how widely he is venerated, among Oriental and Eastern Orthodox as well as in the Western church. Truly, a patron for ecumenism. Having said all of that, it was good to enjoy the voluntary after mass – Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.