Thursday, 28 March 2013

Old Saint Paul’s

Office of Tenebrae, Wednesday 27th March 2013, 7.30pm
Led by: choir and clergy

Old Saint Paul's isn't your run-of-the-mill Anglican church. Its colourful history is worth a read, and its ornate building with its feels-like-you're-outdoors-when-in-fact-you're-indoors stonework is worth a visit. Nor is the Office of Tenebrae your run-of-the-mill church service. Composed of the offices of Matins and Lauds, but celebrated the night before, this is how the order booklet described what was going to happen:

“Apart from the chant of the Lamentations (in which each verse is introduced by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet), the most conspicuous feature of the service is the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church, until only a single candle, considered as a symbol of our Lord, remains.

“Towards the end of the service this candle is hidden, typifying the apparent victory of the forces of evil. At the very end, a loud noise is made, symbolising the earthquake at the time of the resurrection (Matthew 28:2), the hidden candle is restored to its place, and by its light all depart in silence.”

And that’s exactly what happened. The chanting was performed by sixteen choristers in red robes and white surplices; the first traditional church choir encountered in my mission so far, which seems surprising somehow. There were also four clergy, one of whom had the job of extinguishing candles at regular intervals, but I didn’t see what became of the others once they all got up beyond the rood screen. Maybe they were also involved in the chanting, but from the nave there wasn’t a great deal to be seen, and the less so the dimmer the lights got.

The chants were all set in plainsong or faux-bourdon style, the Benedictus and Miserere having particularly lovely harmonies. All in all, it was a sterling effort by the choir. There’s a lot of text to get through in an hour: Psalm 69, Lamentations 1: 1-14, Psalms 76 and 77, 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34, Psalms 90 and 36, Luke 1: 68-79, and Psalm 51, all sung and interspersed with sung responses. In fact, the only words spoken throughout the entire service were the Collect.

It all sounded very pretty, of course, but it scored nil for audience participation. All the congregation had to do was stand, sit and kneel in the right order, and listen. But God likes a song well sung – it pleases him better than a bullock that hath horns and hoofs, as Psalm 69 points out – so he ought to have enjoyed last night’s Tenebrae.

I found myself wondering how soon there would be too little light to read my order of service by, and what the choir would do at the point where all the lights were finally extinguished. Answer: they withdrew to a room beyond the choir stalls where there was some dim light, and the bright lights from the stairwell were still visible through the glass doors (health and safety, one presumes) but apart from that almost all the lights went out, creating a quite eerie atmosphere as the last five minutes or so were conducted if not in complete darkness at least in shadow.

And then there was the Collect, a good loud bang to symbolise the earthquake, and the restoration of the hidden candle. Supplementary question from curious bible reader: why did only Matthew mention the earthquake? You’d think the other gospel writers would include it if it happened, wouldn’t they? The synoptic problem rears its ugly head again. 

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