Fair reader, as we move into December, I have all manner of festive things planned: there’ll be festive dancing, eating, carolling, running and (inevitably), shopping. So the blog should be pretty jolly busy in the run up to December 25. I am a woman of lapsed faith, but I wanted to start our descent into all that festivity with what all that festivity is supposed to be about: chaps, we are going to start with some religion at God’s head office – St Paul’s Cathedral.
One Sunday evening after a day’s Christmas shopping, laden down with carrier bags, I tippy-toed past the anti-capitalist protesters and tippy-toed into St Paul’s Cathedral. Normally, these doors would be firmly barred to me, as tourist entry to the premises costs £14.50. Of course, services are free, although naturally one is invited to make a donation, which I did.
From the St Paul’s Cathedral website.
The annual Advent procession is one of the grand set pieces of the ecumenical calendar, and one which is designed to be as accessible to as wide an audience as possible. It is made very clear that as this is a House of God, there must be no photography or recording and all mobiles must be switched off. I happily complied with this, but others among our number did not and got a firm yet fair dollop of wrath. Some of the stewards took to this role with rather more enthusiasm than others, I couldn’t help but notice. After the service there was a rather ungodly melee of people under the grand dome of Saint Paul’s taking shot after shot, often with flash. Part of me didn’t blame them – it is a simply astonishing building. Spouse and I got married in church, and so attended a number of services before our wedding. During one of the family services, the vicar asked a young member of the Sunday school how his home differed from God’s Home. The young man looked at the columns and stained windows and statues and said it didn’t look like his home at all. This always seemed like a jolly good answer to me – but Saint Paul’s takes that one stage further and doesn’t look like any of God’s other homes either. It is a triumph of renaissance style proportion. It makes the soul positively sing as the eye climbs the columns to the glorious dome which so dominates the proceedings, it also puts one curiously at ease, as the proportions are designed to belie the building’s astonishing size.
From the Saint Paul’s website.
At 5:55 introductory remarks were made before the lights dimmed and the choir set to singing. Goodness me. I presume the choirs of angels were still in the heavens rather than in old London town, but honestly, it was difficult to tell what the difference might have been. There were obscure ancient poems set to modern music by Taverner, new pieces of poetry and prose set to ancient music and every other combination in between, and it was all fairly astonishing. Classical music is not really my thing (thing 326 refers https://1000thingsinlondon.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/final-catch-them-while-you-can-special-attend-the-proms-before-10-september-2011-thing-326/), but even I could tell this was something truly special, and it was a privilege indeed to be allowed to listen to it. My favourite piece was a round. It started with a (very) soprano, soprano to the point of shrill, but that melody was then underpinned by the contralto and the bass bringing unity to the different parts. The choir had split and quietly processed to different parts of the cathedral, so the whole building was resonating with it. It was a beautiful treatment of these ancient words of power, and I was genuinely impressed.
You’ll have noticed by the way that very little of my description has focused on the actual procession. That is because I couldn’t see very much of it. Given I tippy-toed in at 5:50 when the service began at 6pm, I was frankly astonished to get a seat. At one point in the service, it is certainly true that a large number of children, many of whom sported Little Lord Fauntleroy curls and collars walked down the aisles carrying candles, but it was difficult to tell why this might be. But no matter. It was a privilege to be able to hear the readings and music and to see what I could of the pageantry. As I listened to the words, so clearly rooted in a genuinely held faith, I shuffled uncomfortably next to my carrier bags of clothes and shoes. These words were from people down the ages who were waiting for their Emmanuel to come, and wanted a close relationship with Him. I had bought myself a shedload of stuff, and got so wrapped up in the architecture, pageant and song, I had forgotten that this symbol of London was actually just a church. The uptight stewards had not. As the service ground to a halt, and the organ began to play, they waited as long as they could before shooing us from the building. We were handed leaflets with details of the other Christmas services, and those who were involved with the service itself thanked us for being there one by one. I gratefully thanked them back, thinking that the Christmas service itself must truly be an amazing thing to see.
Sightseeing entry to St Paul’s is available from 8:30am to 4pm, Monday to Saturday and costs £14.50. This link sets out full details of all the Christmas concerts, carol concerts and services over December. http://www.stpauls.co.uk/