We drive slowly through the ancient paths of the New Forest avoiding herds of tiny ponies towards our first host. Our gentle hosts will have to remain nameless because if we begin to praise one we have to praise them all and any gradations in gratitude or enthusiasm would be immediately noticed and although no one would say anything – we are, after all, English – deeply resented! However, without the prodigious hospitality we enjoy, our walks would be bleak indeed. We so often find ourselves arriving smack in the midst of a Wimbledon tennis joust which we usually miss as we lie cowering in a steaming bath.
The day is terrifyingly hot and a touch humid. Worrying this. We have to be wary of dehydration. I prefer grey skies myself as our English summer views are best seen through a faint haze of mist, the essential essence that paints our Eden with such delicate colours and provides such glorious views. I can’t imagine Heaven can compete, particularly in the months of June and July. Anyone who chooses to leave the UK at this time of year for anywhere else in the world has to be crazed.
We are in “Dad’s Army” country. Only 80 years ago and the sky would have been scored with the vapour trails of the Battle of Britain. Who under fifty remembers that now?
Our eldest daughter, Clare, told me that she would be preaching at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford (where she is the chaplain), and so of course I was careful to arrive on time.
I am always overawed by the cathedral’s majestic interior. Over the centuries, countless men and women have come to kneel with prayers listing everything from black misery to thanks for incredible joy. I sat in a vaulted space of quiet reverence gently lit by waterfalls of silver light cascading down from above. Behind, were the gilded pipes of the organ, which soared upwards towards the ceiling like prayers. There is always a great sense of drama that attends cathedral services. I sat enthralled, listening to the beauty of the choir.
But no Clare. Right place, yes; right day, yes. Then some chap began to preach. What was going on?! Had she been dropped? Poor Clare, what could I say to comfort her?
A Tale of Two Churches
I sidled out of the door and steamed over the road to St Aldates. If you are not a churchgoer, you may be blissfully unaware of the different styles of service that exist between churches such as Christ Church and St Aldates. All I can tell you is that the difference is as profound as can be. Christ Church’s services are so high you can scarcely see your feet, while St Aldates… well St Aldates is everyman’s church. Guitars, drums, noisy praise songs… The church is run by my pal Charlie Cleverely. As ever, he was brimming with joyful enthusiasm, as was the vast congregation made up of people of all ages, classes and types.
I slipped into a pew alongside the associate vicar, my old friend Simon Ponsonby (he was looking more like Ernest Hemingway than ever). Simon chatted with great affection about Oliver, our younger son, who worked at St Aldates for many years. Then Simon asked me why I was there? I told him about Clare’s mysterious absence from the Christ Church service.
Simon looked at me curiously. “The clocks went forward an hour, last night, Tom. You do know that?!”
I charged back to Christ Church, just in time to hear Clare give a peerless sermon! Then there was a second communion service. What is the theology of participating in two communions inside 20 minutes? How many sins were committed in the time I spent running between the two churches? I sat on my hands and wondered.
And how could I have not known about the clocks? Am I going potty?