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.