The angels’ banquet

One of the joys of Southwark Cathedral is the long association we have had with the arts in their different forms. A trip around the Cathedral will reveal associations with Shakespeare, of course, but also Chaucer and Gower, Massinger and Fletcher and, suprsingly, Oscar Hammerstein! When Bankside was the refuge for artists, during the years of the Liberty under the Bishops of Winchester, the theatres flourished and, I suppose, artists of all kinds found a home in the area.

It has been a good week to remember this as we began with a fantastic evening celebrating the poetry of George Herbert. Poet in the City is a great organisation for bringing poetry to people who may not have heard the work of some of our poets. They were working on this occasion with Penguin Books who had published John Drury’s biography of Herbert called ‘Music at Midnight’. The evening was fantastic. Some wonderful poems were read by Tim West and the various speakers drew out of Herbert’s work, gems and nuggets of deep truth.

George Herbert - priest-poet or poet-priest?

George Herbert – priest-poet or poet-priest?

I began the evening by saying that Herbert is one of my poet ‘pin-ups’, in that I often find myself drawn to him in thinking about my preaching and end up quoting him. In the presence of some other poets that evening I didn’t rehearse my complete list of poets that I turn to, but they include R S THomas and T S Eliot, both people who, for me, manage to unfold deep mystery and, in the case of Thomas, in a way of supreme honesty ask the questions and air the doubts that many of us wish to express. However, there are others in my list – Carol Ann Duffy of course and it was good on this evening to meet Wendy Cope who was surprised when I said I had quoted her in a sermon!

But what impressed me was that all those who spoke made reference to the things of God. I suppose that is inevitable speaking of Herbert but they did so in such a way that was more than a glancing acknowledgement that Herbert was a priest first and a poet second. He was also, for me, someone who did and who does help define what it means to be Anglican. He seemed to inhabit the role of the ‘parson’ in a way that helps those of us who must inhabit it today.

Poetry touching on the things of God continues and we were privileged that Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem about Southwark. The poem is called ‘A Human Haunt’.

A human haunt - Bankside in fomer times

A human haunt – Bankside in fomer times

St Mary Overie, St Saviour, Southwark,
over the river, a human haunt in stone,
thousand years here, the sweet Thames well recalls.
Who came? Nuns, brothers, in good faith, saints,
poets- John Gower, whose blind head, look, rests
on the pillow of his books; Chaucer, imagining
the pilgrims’ first steps on the endless written road
we follow now, good readers; Shakespeare,
with twenty cold shillings for a funeral bell-
players, publicans, paupers, politicians, princes,
all to this same, persistent, changing space,
between fire and water, theatre and marketplace;
us, lighting our candles in the calm cathedral,
future ghosts, eating our picnic on a bench.

You will hear the poem quoted in the forthcoming BBC4 edition of their new season ‘Cathedrals’ which began last week. The Southwark programme is on Tuesday 26 November at 9.00pm. The series began though with Wakefield and the story of the reordering of the Cathedral and the ‘reordering’ of three of the Yorkshire dioceses. Deans are in a small and close group and my heart did go out to the Dean of Wakefield as the story was told. Whether it gave the whole story, who knows, and as someone whose story has yet to be told I would be the last one to comment on someone elses’ performance. But what I will say is that the three programmes will give three very different pictures of three very different Cathedrals – and that is true and honest. No two of us are the same, our histories and traditions and situations are completely different and that has to be a good thing.

One of the things about Southwark is obviously that we are a central London cathedral and so the opportunity to do very interesting and surprising things come along and we grasp them with eagerness and joy. In fact, sometimes, something in the diary that looks interesting takes on a life of its own. That was true of the concert which brought the week to a close. The South Iceland Chamber Choir had been booked in for a long time to perform a programme of music which would include the world premiere of a setting by Sir John Tavener of three Shakespeare sonnets. When the death of Sir John was announced last Tuesday the concert took on a massive significance and the tickets became the hottest in London.

Sir John Tavener

Sir John Tavener

It was a privilege for me to be able to welcome Lady Tavener to the Cathedral on Friday as these sonnets and other pieces of Sir John’s work were performed. It was a bringing together of our artistic inheritance in which, in the Poet Laureates’ words, ‘players, publicans, paupers, politicians, princes’ have played their part with music that draws on the rich veins of the Christian tradition. Sir John did not disappoint us and neither did the choir. The poignant setting of Sonnet 71 was a moving way to end an historic concert.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sudden bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that write it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

It has been very much an ‘angels’ banquet’, the meeting of the divine in the arts which have lifted the soul to heaven and brought the imagination into a deeper knowledge of the Living God. That wonderful phrase I’ve focused on this week comes from Herbert’s amazing poem ‘Prayer’ and I offer it as a prayer to prayer, a feast of ways of describing the indescribable.

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Amen to that.

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