This morning I took myself to St John’s College, Cambridge for a Solemn Eucharist for the Feast of St John before the Latin Gate. The what, I can hear you ask. There’s certainly no mention of such a feast in my 1962 missal but it’s there in the 1928 BCP and also in my copy of The Anglican Breviary which is based on the 1911 reform of the Latin Secular Breviary.
For those who need a memory refresher, the episode commemorated is the occasion when in AD 95 the Emperor Domitian convicted the Beloved Disciple St John of atheism and ordered him to be boiled in oil. He was immersed in the cauldron ante Portam Latinam but emerged completely unscathed He was exiled to Patmos and died a natural death as foretold in the final chapter of St John’s Gospel.
Anyhow St John’s College are keeping the Feast alive and long may they continue to do so. I’ve always thought Ss Stephen and John get a bit of a raw deal coming as they do immediately after Christmas – a bit like children whose December birthdays get subsumed within the generalised seasonal festivities – so for St John to get another go in the middle of the year is no bad thing.
Actually this was my second consecutive Sunday at St John’s. Last week I went on the spur of the moment without first checking only to find that the service was the College’s annual act of thanksgiving for its benefactors. Not exactly my cup of tea – a sort of BCP Matins but without the Benedictus – but it did provide me with an opportunity to remind myself just what a good choir St John’s has and to reflect that there’s now clear water, if you’ll forgive the rowing analogy, between the top half dozen or so English cathedral and collegiate choirs and ‘the rest’. It’s not that the rest are any worse than they used to be – indeed some of them are excellent – but that the front runners – St John’s, King’s, St Paul’s, Westminster Cathedral and a handful of others – are absolutely superb. Last week we heard Britten’s Te Deum and what in all honesty is probably the best performance I have ever heard of Parry’s I was glad. Hearing Sir Hubert’s coronation anthem for George V these days is a bit like hearing yet another performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. Everyone does it and it has become so familiar that for a performance to raise more than an appreciative eyebrow it has to be superb. This was, believe me, superb.
But even that paled when compared with what was on offer musically this morning. Frank Martin’s mass setting is no pot boiler. It’s difficult to perform and even harder to bring off. This morning the combined choirs of St John’s and Clare College blew our socks off. It would be difficult to imagine anything more thrilling.
And yet this was not a concert but a church service, a celebration of the holy mysteries. Self evidently there came to mind the old accusation that the worship of the Church of England represents the triumph of style over substance. And yet the substance was present this morning if only in the words of Common Worship which, like those of the ASB that preceded it, are so very close to those in the Roman Novus Ordo. The choreography had been meticulously rehearsed and was well done and the mood was prayerful. Perhaps the one criticism that could be levelled at the proceedings was the fact that because a solemn eucharist is a relative rarity in this chapel it had to be well rehearsed and it was this that showed up the artificiality of the occasion. Like a well-acted play, it was so well done that just for a moment one might be fooled into thinking it was the real thing. But it wasn’t. But in spite of that, I’m glad I was there.