As a rule, I feel uncomfortable at church services. It is not that I have an issue with God, or with churches per se. I believe in God, and like most churches built at least 500 years ago. It is the congregation. Everybody looks so sorted. The serene smiles, the aura of security, the confident friendliness. All stir up my natural sense of not belonging. It is not that I do not want to belong. I do. It is just that – like Arlecchino’s dress – I am made up of too many different lozenges to be added to an existing pattern, without one of my lozenges sticking out like a sore thumb. And if I try and ignore the clashing lozenge, then someone will always come along and point it out. Being surrounded by so many sorted-looking people make me feel irremediably un-sorted.
What I love, is to sit in an empty church, gather my thoughts and watch the sun rays play hide and seek with the colours of the stained glass windows. That, however, is a thing of the past. Most churches are now locked outside service times. Or else they charge admittance but then tend to be full of tourists, so robbed of the intimate silence I long for.
My relationship with the Church is ambivalent. After all, I graduated from St John’s College, Durham. That would be St John the Evangelist. Moreover, that was under David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham. It is important to understand that, back in the late Eighties, religion had such a strong presence in College life, that it was difficult not to form a strong opinion about it. Undergraduates experienced different reactions. Mostly – at least among my peers – you either embraced the overwhelmingly evangelical College style, or went flying towards the formality of High Church. I fell in with the “spike” clique. I feel inspired by the poetry of the King James Bible, and the soothing mist of frankincense. A professional standard choir is a non-negotiable requirement for me – trebles, please, rather than girls. Again, because of my love of language, I am partial to the Book of Common Prayer. If, in addition, the reader completes the Old or New Testament reading with “Here endeth the (first or second) lesson”, then I am in Seventh Heaven.
For as long as I lived in Cambridge, King’s College Chapel embodied my church ideal. Of course, there was no question of my ever belonging there. I could sit and gaze with longing at the raised, wide seats in the back rows of the choir stalls – complete with their 17th Century editions of the Book of Common Prayer – till Doomesday. I would never be permitted to sit there. They are reserved for members of the College. Perhaps that is why, with some perversity, I felt I did belong there on some level or other. After all, if the Chapel Administrator guarded the hierarchical order, the music, on the other hand, shared its sublime perfection with anyone willing to listen. And listen I did. Almost every evening.
Since coming to London, in 1994, I have not been a regular church goer. I could not seem to find a place I “clicked” with.
For some time, I had been aware of the Temple Church but, each time I walked past, I found it locked. Moreover, I got it into my head that, after its noteworthy mention in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, it would be swarming with tourists, and one would have to queue for Sunday service.
No such thing.
The Temple Church is a jewel tucked away in the labyrinth of barrister chambers off Fleet Street. Built in 1185, it was the focal point of the Knights Templar. On the floor of the Round, lie effigies of Knights, in full armour, swords at their sides. Soldiers? Conspirators? Personally, I lack the necessary faith in the human ability to be so well-organised as to sustain a thousand year-old conspiracy. Mystics? Scapegoats? Who knows? I like to think of them as seekers of knowledge. The armoured figures appear to state that this is a place to inspire action, and not merely contemplation. The latter is there to serve as a key to the feats you elect to undertake.
The sober beauty of the Norman architecture seems designed to open the way to magnificent thoughts, not dazzle you away from them. The church itself is small enough for your focus not to be scattered, and for the atmosphere to be intimate. The minimally decorated grey pillars, the sand-coloured stone arches and the somewhat deviant layout of the wooden pews evokes a sense of mathematical precision. Of order.
The same order permeates the glorious singing by the choir. Every breath, every voice, every note is woven into a sublime musical tapestry that sounds tailor-made for the size, the light and the material of the building itself. The sound of King’s Choir equals in my mind the uncompromising whiteness of a moonbeam. The Temple Church Choir, on the other hand, has something of the glow of gold in its tone, which complements the austerity of the building, seamlessly. It is an understated kind of perfection, which supports your imagination without ever imposing on it. Here again, you witness the comforting sense of order. My friends gently tease me for my search for order, but it is just another word for harmony. Without order, there can be no harmony, as we have daily proof in nature.
The first time I went the Temple Church, I was encouraged by the fact that the service follows the Book of Common Prayer, and cheered up by the sight of a King James on every pew. Then, my heart leapt for joyous disbelief when I heard the reader close his Old Testament reading with the words “Here endeth the first lesson”. It was like coming home.
Another important quality of the place, is the unobtrusive friendliness of the clergy. There is no smothering inclusiveness, nor looking over your shoulder – your head a clear nuisance to the view – while talking to you. The Master and the Reader make a point of greeting and saying goodbye to you when you enter and leave the church, and there is obvious sincerity in their handshake.
Belonging, of course, is something I never could in what is known, for good reason, as a barristers’ church. That is one job I have never done. Writing a barrister as a character in a play does not count. However, that matters little. Every so often, for as long as the glorious music, ancient stones and inspiring atmosphere issue me with a generous invitation, I shall accept – gratefully.
© Scribe Doll