Poetic Justice? – Sunday 4th July 2010

Posted on July 4, 2010


Psalter dating between 1400-1424

Many will remember the visible signs of previous recessions; the power cuts, the rubbish piling up and the seemingly never-ending strikes. So far, this time things seem to have changed. Speaking with friends recently it became apparent that the reality of this recession had passed some of us by. Without the visual cues of the past, the gargantuan numbers in the news reports were even more unbelievable. Even though many of us knew people who had suffered, it still didn’t seem ‘real’. Like Saint Thomas, we needed proof before we could believe – to see and feel it for ourselves. As I write, the new Chancellor is presenting his budget but, perhaps so as to spare us from a summer of discontent, we will not know whether we will receive our proof until the autumn, when the rather euphemistically named Comprehensive Spending Review is published.

Taking place just a day before the budget announcement, I am told that the conversation at the Lambeth Palace garden party this year was as fiscal as it was clerical. The event drew a considerable crowd despite the competition from the World Cup and Wimbledon, with guests able to enjoy the beautiful flower gardens in the fine weather. My invitation must have been lost in the post, so I was thankful to discover that a friend would be attending. I despatched him with express instructions to steer clear of the canapes and champagne until he had sought the views of senior clergy (and passed on my own) about a developing local story, so that I might be able to bring you exclusive copy (albeit without a byline) courtesy of this very column. Those parishioners who no longer receive the local papers may not be aware of the decision of the new Mayor to replace the prayers that precede each Council meeting with a poetry recital, which she says will support and encourage the arts in the borough. Her ruling made the national headlines in June along with a related case in Bideford where the local authority – which has retained it’s traditional pre-meeting prayers – is being challenged through the courts by the National Secular Council.

I was delighted when my friend emailed me photographs of him talking with The Archbishop of Canterbury and was anxious to hear his views. It turned out that their conversation was not about poetry at all, but bee-keeing – an activity I had not previously associated with the Archbishop, who I discovered had re-introduced hives to Lambeth Palace some years ago. Apparently, the warmer conditions in the city and the plentiful supply of exotic plants in the gardens make Lambeth Palace honey especially good. Further reserach reveals that many of the advances in bee-keeping were the result of the work of the church. His Grace is not alone in continuing the link between the clergy and the hive; The Rt Rev’d John Gladwin, former Bishop of Chelmsford, distributed honey made by his bees to hayfever sufferers, considering it to provide a natural immunity.

Not being particularly receptive to change, I am a semi-professional ‘Outraged from Southgate’ – and this sweet talk did little to dilute my rage induced by the ‘poetry for prayers’ affair. I was poised to put pen to paper when our enthusiastic Director of Music paused while peddaling through a Stanford postlude and, after putting his shoes back on, reminded me that the Book of Psalms is a collection of poems containing some of the most powerful text in the Bible.

The Psalms (sung so beautifully by our choir at Choral Evensong from September to July and said or chanted during the Eucharist) are some of the most widely read parts of the Old Testament – perhaps because they deal with the relationship between ordinary people and God or maybe due to the accessible structure of the Psalter? They are so popular that they are often appended to the New Testament in pocket volumes. Early scholars interpreted the psalms either as personal poetry or records of key events in Israel’s history. Today it is generally accepted that most of them had their roots in the worship of Solomon’s temple and the Psalms continue to provide a guide for worship, prayer and meditation.

Like my friends, distant from the effect of the recession, perhaps our new Mayor needs to ‘feel’ what worship can do? A regular at Choral Evensong, I cannot fail to be inspired and moved by the beautiful psalmody. Singing psalms outside of church has been popularised by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, who, whilst chaplain of Clare College Cambridge, was arrested for singing psalms on the runway of RAF Lakenheath as part of a CND demonstration twenty five years ago. A sung psalm before each Council meeting would fulful the Mayor’s desire to support poetry and the arts and appeal to the majority of people in the borough (the Book of Psalms is common to Christiantiy, Judaism and Islam – the Zabur being one of the four inspired books of the Islamic faith and David, who received them, considered a prophet by Muslims). It may also give the Mayor the opportunity to ‘feel’ worship at first hand.

Could the words given to David slay the giant of misunderstanding and political correctness?