I’m ashamed, but when I saw that Evensong last Sunday at St Paul’s was a commemoration of former choristers who had died in the First World War, I wasn’t thrilled. I prepared myself to enjoy the music and endure the sermon, then I’d hurry to school to take my own chorister son into town for tea and buns.
The service began unremarkably. As always, I smiled at Psalm 147. God ‘hath no pleasure in the strength of an horse,’ we were assured: ‘neither delighteth he in any man’s legs.’
An impenetrable portion of Zechariah gave way to a wonderful Magnificat – the Collegium Regale by Charles Wood. The whole canticle is a joyful proclamation of faith, culminating in a soaring Gloria that insists with assurance that, as it was in the beginning, the glory of God is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
This was a theme reflected in a letter that was read to the congregation by a descendant of its author. Written in France before a big ‘Push’ in 1917, he informs his family that he is not worried about death, but ‘perfectly happy to leave the issue in the hands of God’ in whose ‘good time’ he hopes to be reunited with all his ‘dear ones’.
The letter segued into the anthem, The Great Silence, a setting by the contemporary composer Samuel Bordoli of some words by Ivor Gurney, written in 1916 and entitled Song and Pain.
Out of my sorrow have I made these songs,
Out of my sorrow;
of the making’s eager pain
From Joy did borrow.
Someday, I trust, God’s purpose of Pain for me
Shall be complete,
And then – to enter the House of Joy …
Prepare, my feet.
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
This is an unexpected statement of faith from a poet who suffered much and asked in his poem To God, ‘Why have you made life so intolerable?’ As Bordoli explains, Gurney ‘reflects the mood at the end of the war that from the ashes, the soldier poet will endure his pain and enter the House of Joy.’
The anthem, a very fine piece, ended with the names of each of the twenty-four fallen choristers sung by a cantor, a roll-call (as they would have heard at school) of those who were mown down or blown up by guns or bombs or mines. And then there was silence, for us as for them. But the names (perhaps once painted in gold on honours boards to mark a cricket captaincy or exhibition) continued to echo in our heads, leading us to focus on boy after boy with the lingering attention of a camera.
There was a further remembrance of the twenty-four: their successors, unequivocally alive, standing in the stalls that they themselves had occupied, robed as they had once been robed, singing from the same Prayer Book the very same words. They were as far from any thought of warfare as the previous generation must have been, neatly embodying Edwardian propriety and completely ignorant that the gates of hell were about to open and flood the world with demons.
It is unthinkable that any of the current choristers be caught up in the sort of barbarity that silenced the two dozen young men we were commemorating. Yet, for all its golden grandeur, St Paul’s seems unexpectedly vulnerable, the apple of the nation’s eye and, like Westminster, an icon for aggressors’ hate, a symbol to be destroyed. In truth it is at no higher risk than any of us: it is terror’s random striking that makes it most effective. We are at risk in central London, yes; at risk on the trains; at greater risk, no doubt, in a crowded pub or provincial sports ground. We are at risk in the shopping arcade; in the park; in the sleepy market town a hundred miles from London where – you can hear the news reporter’s quiet voice – ‘ordinary people were going about their daily business, never imagining that such devastation was about to strike.’
But strike it will. This is the nature of evil’s war with good. More and more of us will know people ‘who were there’. We ourselves will be the ones who only just missed the bomb or avoided the carnage by half a street. New names will be read out, mine or my loved ones’ names among them. Such are the days in which we live, violence no longer confined to the vasty fields of France, but brought by blind and hateful fervour to our own front door.
Our young grow up, and we all grow old, in a new age of fragility. Once we fell victim to the plague of disease. Now we contend with violence. It is an epoch requiring courage; but more urgently it calls for wisdom. There is the wisdom of those elected to guide and govern. And there is the wisdom we all must cultivate: wisdom to see clearly; to value ourselves and each other; to be agents of goodness and peace for all the earth; to spend time’s treasure in every passing moment as if it truly were our last. We must, in short, learn the wisdom of love, for love will never be defeated. Its ever-creative offering of new possibility will always prove stronger than the urge to kill. Like the untameable jungle reclaiming the land, love marches on, the heartbeat of reality.
This lesson of love was surely what gave these young men confidence to commit their uncertain futures to God. And now their pain is ended and they have been called by name into the House of Joy, where love is endless and triumphant. Today, where they have led, we all must follow.