Education by evensong

May 17, 2011

Noth­ing enshrines so com­pletely the idea of decline as an Eng­lish cathed­ral. Mil­len­ni­al in age, monu­ment­al in scale, metic­u­lous in dec­or­a­tion, the cathed­ral is ded­ic­ated to a medi­ev­al deity. A god of build­ings, wor­shipped through spires and fly­ing but­tresses and arches, feared through plaster paint­ings of dev­ils and awed in roof bosses carved with angels and apostles. A god built by masons and mor­tar. A god now gone.

Meso­pot­ami­an zig­gur­ats and May­an pyr­am­ids may have been aban­doned to jungle and desert but the church and the Eng­lish county town allowed cathed­rals their con­tinu­ance. There were no longer cowls in the cloisters, nave walls were scrubbed of paint, brasses lif­ted from the fam­ily tombs, and now dead dukes and earls interred them­selves by pref­er­ence in chapels on their grand estates.

But the church, like ivy, covered up the ambu­lat­ory and tran­septs, its ritu­al curled along the grave stone pav­ing, up to the great wooden doors that would no longer open to a crowd.

Into the mouth of this god­less cav­ern, divorced from its estates, its wealth, and its power, I came, aged six years old, clutch­ing my father’s hand. Togeth­er we walked alone to the song school, down the dark arcade sep­ar­ated from the nave by the worn black tombs of bish­ops. How like an Angel came I down! How bright are all things here! When first among His works I did appear. O how their glory me did crown!

The church wanted unhappy little boys to sing for god and, in return, it would edu­cate them. My fath­er did not real­ize that I was Isaac in this bar­gain. God provided no altern­at­ives. Closer than my hand, he held his own unhap­pi­ness and dis­ap­point­ment. And what, after all, do little boys know of sac­ri­fice?

Bul­ly­ing was worn with the same resig­na­tion as the sur­plice and the ruff. The kick and the rab­bit punch on blind corners in pro­ces­sion, the swinging of the heavy sil­ver medals of chor­al office ensured that the very young­est would arrive swal­low­ing their tears, swear­ing dur­ing the gos­pel read­ing to carry for­ward the pun­ish­ment to the next arrivals. Bul­ly­ing was only the back­ground noise of boy­hood, the 32′ pipe in our incess­ant, futile fugue.

This was my edu­ca­tion: to stand in a build­ing aban­doned by its ideo­logy, kept alive by shad­ow priests and shad­ow con­greg­a­tions, and won­der.

ALMIGHTY God we con­fess that we have sinned against Thee and against our fel­low men, in thought and word and deed, in the evil we have done and in the good we have not done, through ignor­ance, through weak­ness, through our own delib­er­ate fault.

The good we have not done.” Every good act pre­cluded a host of bet­ter acts. Even to con­tem­plate the order of actions and their good­ness was to risk being plunged into a cycle of eval­u­ation and pro­cras­tin­a­tion: the oppor­tun­ity cost of good­ness. The impossib­il­ity of good­ness. The require­ment for wor­ship.

We knew the psalms by length and dreaded day 15. The longest. Every pray­er, every liturgy, every les­son passed before us. Lent. East­er. Whit­sun. Pente­cost. The long weeks of Trin­ity. Advent. Christ­mas. Epi­phany. Saints days and Sundays.

For an hour each even­ing, any­one with a mind to could have come to listen to the anthem­ic coun­ter­point of Palestrina or Byrd, or the mags and nuncs from England’s age of empire — Stan­ford in G, Bair­stow in D, Sum­sion in A.

But in the even­ings, nobody came. The green-bound, fine-leaved pages of the Eng­lish Hym­nal were left unthumbed. The kneel­ers — boldly pat­terned and strongly stitched — were unneeded. We sang for a few small mat­rons in sens­ible shoes who strode to their sta­tions. They posi­tioned them­selves like chess pieces, Staunton queens, always leav­ing enough space between to avoid cap­ture.

The choir filled the stalls, dec and can. We would still have been obliged to sing for no one. These were the rites. Our songs were the sands engulf­ing the colossal wreck. Noth­ing beside remained.

This then was my edu­ca­tion, con­scrip­ted into chor­al ser­vitude, to serve a church that clung to a build­ing whose stone tri­fori­um dwarfed its influ­ence, and mocked its min­istry. The cur­riculum was decline: the sud­den end­ing of a high ascent; pro­gress and its reversal. The les­sons were in drowned poly­phony; the ines­cap­able pun­ish­ment of being made to be present, to prac­tise and per­form and wit­ness every night the same. I am poured out like water. My coun­try.

Previous post:

Next post: