Glorious tombs and an old pub draw Ronald Blythe to a small town
MURKY warm December days. Strangely pleasant. We drive to Framlingham on the spur of the moment. The little town, with its great history, is still and wet. I remember once coming home from baking Sydney, and loving the raindrops sliding down the plane windows at Heathrow.
Advent is in the air: an almost tangible time when we “put on the armour of light” – an enchanting activity – and when “love is the fulfilling of the law”. The car splashes past endless empty fields, which are faintly ruled with sugar beet. Framlingham Castle, with its 13 towers, has an ephemeral look, as though it might blow away, and Framlingham School comes and goes on the horizon, as though telling us “Don’t take me for granted.”
It was built to educate the sons of Suffolk farmers with money left over from building the Crystal Palace. This sensible idea came from the Prince Consort, whose statue presides in the distance.
We make for the Crown, and have lunch by the fire. Inertia reigns. The old room is full of ghosts: neighbours from long ago; schoolmasters taking a break; my friend the poet James Turner, who vanished to Cornwall; the Falstaffian rector in his cassock, tweeds, and tennis clothes; and my bike in the courtyard.
It was at Framlingham Castle that Mary Tudor learned of the death of her half-brother, Edward VI, and the accession of poor Lady Jane Grey to the throne. Vast events in a quiet countryside. And now a handful of folk in a bar, and the Christmas decorations.
My favourite reason for coming to Framlingham, however, is to marvel yet again at the glorious tombs of the Dukes of Norfolk, especially the one with its Genesis frieze – a favourite of Benjamin Britten, and from which he took his church parable Noye’s Fludde. He was fascinated, as I was, by the extraordinary things that filled our local churches, and, should one be a composer or a writer, were there for the taking. He would drive off in his big old car on the spur of the moment, as I had done this week, to look once again at what he regarded as his by right of birth: some view, some object in a vast or tiny village church.
But Advent. The liturgy trembles with expectation and dread, with joy and fear. The Creator enters his creation as a child. Advent for Adventus,coming. The liturgical year begins. Long ago, it was as severely kept as Lent. But, now, shopping shouts it down. Some scenes on television of bargain hunters were little less than disgusting.
For me, music expresses it far more than words. Music in which Jesus is given such beautiful names: Emmanuel, Desire of Nations, Wisdom from on High, Dayspring, Lord of David’s Key, names filled with urgency and longing. George Herbert added to the list: “Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life. . . Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength. . . Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart.”
I rake the main paths, and push barrow-loads of sodden leaves out of sight. Robins fly ahead. Keith arrives. May he take some holly? It is berry-less, but shining, an immense wall of it glittering and clattering when the wind gets into it. Geoffrey Grigson said that working holly into Christian belief was easy. It was thorny and blood-coloured. People once believed that the Cross was made from it. In old ballads, Holly is the man, and Ivy the woman.
But I prefer to see it as it is: evergreen, ever present in the farmhouse garden, and stuck behind the pictures on Christmas Eve.
Do not be afraid
Knife crime, gun crime, immigration, unemployment, genocide, the war on terror, nuclear holocaust, Aids, bird flu, anti-biotic resistant super bugs and now Ebola, it feels as if the world is gripped by one potentially life threatening or ‘civilisation as we know it’ threatening cataclysm after another. And we are understandably filled with fear.
Into this maelstrom of panic and dread is the Christmas season a welcome escape, or an opportunity to get some perspective? Well, there are probably many people who will indeed eat and drink and forget the troubles of the world at Christmas, and good luck to them. But for those of us who look to Bethlehem, not Bluewater, for our centre of gravity at this time of year we encounter a very different story and a very different set of challenges.
So may the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary ring out loud and clear across the globe, and if only they were strung up in brightly flashing neon lights in every High Street: ‘Do not be afraid’. Yes, there are the most terrible horrors engulfing our world, not least the Ebola outbreak and its possible consequence for all of us, and the already devastating toll it has taken on some of the world’s poorest communities. But Mary is told not to be frightened because she is to be the one through whom God’s purposes of love and justice will be made known. This can also be true for us, who follow Jesus. We can be bearers of his love and his justice, ordering the world differently.
Jesus is born to show us what humanity is supposed to look like and to restore lost community with God. In doing this he reminds us that we are one humanity inhabiting one world, that we are all children of God and that we belong to each other. This should change the way we approach the horrors and challenges of the world. There are some strident, cynical and scaremongering voices around. We should be suspicious of them. This is not the time to pull up the drawbridge. On the contrary it is the time to put extra resources into helping those in need, especially the poor, for our well-being is tied up with theirs.
Finally, Jesus was born into a persecuted people living in an occupied land. In an effort to rid the world of the threat he posed, a despotic puppet of a leader wiped out a whole generation of little boys, and Jesus and his family fled into exile. If we make this story ours, then we too must change the way we treat strangers, the way we confront tyrants and, yes, have an immigration policy that is as much concerned with hospitality for those in need as it is for the feathers in our own nest. The Son of Man had no place to rest his head. He was born in what was the equivalent of a bus shelter at the back of a pub. We cannot claim to follow him and ignore others who share his plight. We cannot confront the brutal terrors going on in Iraq, Syria and other places in the world, and at the same time close our doors to refugees, asylum seekers and displaced and persecuted minority groups.
So free yourself from fear this Christmas. Follow the one who alone offers hope in the midst of the very real challenges we face. Discover that his way of peace – upside down thought it seems to so much of the received wisdom of the world – is actually the way of justice, prosperity and well-being for everyone. It is available, gift wrapped, with lashings of love, free of charge and ready to go at a local church near you. Have an interesting Christmas.
St Edmund watches as Ronald Blythe takes shelter from the rain
TORRENTIAL rain for St Edmund, our Sebastian-like protector, his cult a thousand years old. Thin and shiny on his plinth, bristling with arrows, he watches us process by under our umbrellas as we hurry into the dry.
Legend has it that he was 15 when they crowned him King of the Angles on Christmas Day on the height opposite my bedroom, this being the borderland of the East Angles and the East Saxons – a German prince who had inherited the crown. For many years, he was our patron saint. Then the crusaders changed him for a soldier – St George. Some would change George for Edmund at this moment, but when one is old, one tends to make do with existing arrangements, all passion being spent.
Frances Ward and Janet Wheeler are less feeble, and have presented us with a fiery anthem in which holy Edmund’s decapitation, horribly reminiscent of what has been occurring at this moment, makes him a shockingly contemporary Christian. There is no escaping the darkness of every age.
Time was when history in church was a local tableau staged by children. Now, it is terribly grown-up. Bronze St Edmund on his plinth in the pouring rain is the young man who leaves England for Syria to “help out”, and is murdered for his pains. Time was when days like this were county pageantry; now, they stage human history of the moment, and it can be terrible.
No peasants today, only mayors in tricorne hats and golden chains, a Lord Lieutenant, the higher clergy, bell-ringers, and the dear familiar faces of those who make great churches spotless, who launder, brush, polish, arrange flowers, mend, lay markers in huge books, carry processional crosses, hand out this and that, and keep the rich interior movement going. And trumpeters for Britten’s Fanfare. And then Marriott’s oceanic plea for wisdom, love, and might to “move o’er the water’s face”.
I fancied that I could hear the rain bouncing on the leads and the gargoyles’ guiding it to the ground. Old churches take the local climate in hand, splashing it away from their walls, channelling it into graves and beneath huge trees. The distant sound of it accompanies the anthem, a Beowulfian hymn by the Dean and her friend, a confrontation of the barbaric and the Christian. That continuous war of opposites in which nothing seems to change whatever the century.
Christ is revealed, but so is human enormity. Hope looks on. Robert Bridges echoes Christ’s sad prophecy on the Jerusalem Temple, then brand new. When George Herbert died, they called his poems The Temple. He called them “my writings”. But the Church of England sees its language architecturally, building up its faith to dizzy heights and allowing it to sink to depths from which it has to be rescued.
On St Edmund’s Day, everything is said, sung, and done to the sound of the rain – a steady autumnal downpour that finds out where roofs are fragile, and roads are sinking. Our car has to nose its way through it, like an ark pointed towards a haven, its windscreen wipers like a metronome. Or a pulse.
We travel through a hurricane, but when we brake and stop, it is hardly raining at all. It is not quite light when I look for Edmund’s coronation hill over the Stour. It is, at usual, no more than a watercolour brush-stroke; a barely visible sign that he was there. And thus here with us still.
My first Christmas Message as Priest-in-Charge! What an honour and responsibility. A message that reaches hundreds of people, courtesy of our village Magazines and website – an opportunity to say the right things, but with the possibility of getting it wrong!
At Christmas, we often consider Jesus’ birth as the start of God’s mission to bring back mankind to a right way of living, to a personal relationship with him, and to the Kingdom of heaven. But the truth – the glorious truth – is that God has loved us since the creation of the world, and throughout Biblical history the world has had his consistent promise that he would send his only Son, that all who believe in him may have eternal life. Christmas, that historic event just more than 2,000 years ago, was a key moment in that plan, which culminated in Jesus’ death and resurrection; but for God, the greatest moment will be when the job’s complete, and we are once more with him in his Kingdom.
So I have the same task today that Jesus had then; sent to a people to declare God’s love, in what he did and what he said. That means I should choose my words wisely, but perhaps it would be better to choose His words wisely! Here are a few quotes:
The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10)
I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17)
I have come that you may have life – and have it to the full (John 10:10)
I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11)
I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).
Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21)
May peace be with you indeed, this Christmas. As we pray for world peace, the absence of war and settled hearts everywhere, may we also seek out the areas of our own lives where we are unsettled – perhaps matters of family, health or work – and ask Jesus to come to us with his wisdom, love and grace. In the words of the well-known carol ‘O little town of Bethlehem’:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in – be born in us today.
When a dad said to his young son: “I reckon this is the best Christmas ever!”, his son replied: “But dad, I thought the first Christmas was the best Christmas ever!” If we invite the Lord to share our Christmas, then both will be true. May you have the best Christmas ever!
Yours in Jesus,
A seagull’s wing reminds Ronald Blythe of carved angels in Blythburgh
JUST up the lane, children are snatching at breakfast, and grown-ups are snatching at time. But I am looking out of the window, as usual, and musing on birds; just as R. S. Thomas did, when he walked to the Llyn peninsular to give them a piece of his mind.
It was an uncompromising mind: God-questioning, restless, brilliant in patches, and, while thoroughly Franciscan, not at ease. Like my seagulls at this moment. White and impatient, they whirl around Duncan’s field. How black they are on the wing, how snowy when they land. And how angelic. They remind me of Francis Thompson when he said: “The angels keep their ancient places;- Turn but a stone, and start a wing!”
The gull’s wing on the kitchen table has started these thoughts. I cannot bear to think of how it has landed there. It is pure and perfect, yet mutilated. A friend took it out of her bag and left it there. I put it on a shelf, and then in a rose bed. I think of wooden wings in Suffolk churches – the ones that the reformers tried to shoot down, but only succeeded in winging. So they continue to fly to us from the Middle Ages, some of them nesting in Blythburgh to hold up the manorial claims of our gentry.
My gull’s wing is a far cry from all this. When we were children, we wondered when wings would sprout from our skinny shoulder-blades. Much later, as a fanciful grown-up flying to Sydney, I would meditate on the thinness of the plane floor that cut me off from the earth. Neither angels nor gulls flew past this window, only nameless cities, miles below. Coffee was served. A novel spoke of love.
But today my feet are very much on the ground, because I am raking up autumn leaves. All around there is a haunting autumn quiet and a ghostly November mist, a great yellowing and nature’s terminal beauty. Ash leaves actually tumble down on to my head, like the sad artificial poppies in the Royal Albert Hall a fortnight ago.
The Prayer Book lists names for the boy who will soon be born. They are very grand, but his name is Jesus, his carpenter father says. There is a Staffordshire figure of the three of them – Joseph, Mary, and their child – on the farmhouse mantelpiece, on the run to Egypt: father carrying his tools; Mary seated on an ass, clasping her baby; Joseph walking. The everlasting refugees.
These ornaments were “fairings”, something you won on coconut-shies. Rural treasures which saw the generations out. I must wash it for Christmas. In church, I must remember to repeat the first collect throughout Advent, the one that promises us to rise to immortality. The one that is perfect liturgy and theology. The one in which we put on the armour of light, rising white like the gulls.
The Christmas shopping-list begins with a new scythe, the old one having got crooked in the wrong way. I must be the only person in my circle who is able to swing one. Passers-by watch me nervously. Never mind, one can do with a bit of awe. The withering orchard grass falls before it, sowing next year’s seeds on the way. A somnolence attends everything, but next summer’s flowers are counting the days.
Christmas shopping battles away in the country towns – although people are hard-up, they say. I think of the oaks and ashes that were felled to make angels.
Ronald Blythe is struck afresh by the words of a familiar hymn
LOVELY but sad days. The leaves fall, the sun shines, in church we muster for the Remembrance. It has become a kind of saints-day, filling the aisles with its devotees. We turn to its memorial, and I say its liturgy. Its words are by the librarian-poet Laurence Binyon, and were published in The Times long before the Western Front massacres had begun. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.”
As a boy, I used to think that these soldiers would have found this cold comfort, and would have very much liked to have enjoyed a long life. But their melancholy suits the Georgian language of the Remembrance. We sing Isaac Watts’s “O God, our help in ages past”. Charlotte Brontë has a girl, “her voice sweet and silver clear”, sing it in Shirley. Our voices, though darkened by time, do justice to this masterpiece. And so the service goes on, inside and outside. I preach on poppies, botanical and symbolical, blood-coloured and bloody.
It was the Jewish poet Isaac Rosenberg in “Break of Day in the Trenches” who released, as it were, our emblematic poppy, the one we button-hole. A rat touches his hand “As I pull the parapet’s poppy To stick behind my ear”.
Flanders was traditional farmland. Corn and its wild flowers had grown alongside there for centuries. Just as its birds sang above the din, so did its poppies bleed in its mud. The imagery seems to grow more intensely every Remembrance, and my sermons ever more botanical.
But our greatest time-hymn, “O God, our help in ages past”, says more and more to me about mortality and immortality. Or so I find. It is grand, sonorous, truthful, accepting, tragic yet comforting, and it first appeared in Wesley’s Psalms and Hymns in 1738. A poignant verse was left out long ago, but it uncannily suggests the Western Front:
Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light:
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ’tis night.
Too far to walk, we drive from our church to a steel memorial by the side of the road. It is to the American airmen who came to Wormingford on St Andrew’s Day in 1943. Some 200 of them were killed – too many names to read out and halt the Sunday traffic racing by. Their colonel, almost a hundred, sends a message from the United States.
My father, a teenager at Gallipoli, refused to attend these rites, the band playing, the mayor in his robes, the snowy war memorial in the little Suffolk town. Once central, it has long been put at the side of the road so as not to delay a flood of cars. Otherwise you would have taken your life in your hands.
I say Binyon’s words all over again. They float in the mild air. I remember my friend John Nash, who painted both the trenches and the Second World War docks, and Christine, his wife, who ran a canteen at Portsmouth for the sailors. John told me that 1939 never meant as much to him as 1914. His brother Paul painted the Battle of Britain, the Heinkels and Spitfires like stars in the Kent sky. And so it continues, the reality and the dream.
Between services, I rake up fallen leaves, mostly from the giant oaks which stare out of the valley into the next parish. They are all in line, their roots in the everlasting stream, their tops spying Little Horkesley.