Easter: Extract

At 10.30 a.m. on Palm Sunday, the Vicar and congregation of St Mary-in-the-Vale gather for the Blessing and Procession of Palms and High Mass.

The Curate straightens his alb, kisses his stole and strides out to meet the donkey.

‘Break a leg,’ shouts Terry, the organist, who doubles as director of the Hampstead Amateur Light Operatic Society.

Blair winces and smiles. He is as sensitive to a theatrical reference as a right-wing pundit to a mention of his radical past.

He hurries down the churchyard path to greet the director of the City Farm who is waiting at the gate. He turns his attention to the donkey, whose demeanour as it leaves the van displays little awareness of the symbolic burden it is to bear.

‘You won’t try to ride him, will you? Only he has a weak back. We had some trouble with the Methodists last year.’

‘Don’t worry. I’m not Christ.’

‘He likes you.’

The donkey’s tongue tickles the hairs on Blair’s wrist. He pulls a carrot from his cassock.

‘May I?’

‘Sure. But whatever you do, no sugar-lumps. He’s diabetic.’

The Vicar prays with the servers and choir.

Huxley Grieve stares across the sacristy and searches for God. Eleven bowed heads mock him with the ease of their reverence. He reminds himself that it is the start of the most important week in the Church year. He dissects himself for an emotion to fit the occasion, but all he finds are words… second-hand words which he has spoken for twenty-eight years running.

The fault doesn’t lie in the words. He has kept his love for the poetry of Cranmer’s prayer-book even when the mysteries behind it have seemed false. He sometimes fears that its resonant phrases have become not only the shape but the substance of his faith, as they roll like soft-centred chocolates on his tongue.

The problem lies rather in the practicalities. He has to approach the services more like a choreographer than a priest, ensuring that the servers have rehearsed the unfamiliar routines and that the Pascal Candle is ordered, trying to second-guess the number of worshippers so as not to over-consecrate. He has heard it said of art that God exists in the details; the opposite is true of church. He is as tied to a checklist as a mother of the bride.

Is this the true sacrifice of priesthood: that his mission to bring the love of Christ to his congregation, particularly in this Holy Week celebration of His Passion and Resurrection, is precisely what prevents him from sharing it? Administration alienates him from the very sacraments that sustain his faith.

If that were so, it would at least give him some hope, like Beethoven writing music he could never hear. But he fears that the truth is less benign. He is obsessed by a dream that he had on Friday night. He was preaching from the top board at a swimming baths. As he spoke, people plunged in all around him. His words inspired them to ever more dangerous dives. But there was no water in the pool and they fell flat onto their bloody, broken faces. They lay on the bottom in supermarket piles, until the only ones left listening to him were children too young to dive.

The Curate returns to the sacristy.

‘I’m sorry I took so long,’ Blair explains; ‘I had to see a man about a donkey.’

The people gather by Whitestone pond. The sidesman hands out orders of service.

Hugh Snape gazes at his fellow-worshippers blinking in the sunlight. Away from the pillars and pews, they seem to lack conviction, like conscripts to the Salvation Army. Theirs is a world of private prayer not of standing up and being counted on street corners. Their only other outdoor service is on Remembrance Sunday, and that is almost secular, more Queen and Country than God.

He watches the steady stream of cars flowing north, some to token family lunches, others to beat the queues at B and Q. The indifference of the motorists threatens him. One van does stop and a long-haired youth shouts a question. Rosemary Trott rushes up to explain. ‘I’m the sidesman,’ she declares with her tweed-skirted diction. He wonders whether, were the word the more neutral ‘usher’, she would be so insistent about its use.

An irritating giggle alerts him to the group of young men gathered by the boarded-up hamburger stall. They would do better in a Roman Catholic church with regular confession. He shudders to think of their backlog of sins.

The sidesman hands out palm crosses.

‘I’ve brought my own,’ says Eleanor Blaikie, waving Rosemary aside with a large frond cut from her conservatory. Stevenson, the parrot perched on her shoulder, squawks at the sudden swing. ‘I see no reason I should make do with a miniature simply because I’m not in the choir.’

The procession approaches, led by the Crucifer. The Acolytes follow, then the choir, the Curate with the donkey, the Thurifer and the Vicar. A policeman brings up the rear.

The donkey is greeted with enthusiasm by the children and wariness by the adults.

‘Drawing attention to himself,’ Eleanor says to her companion Edith; ‘we’ll be having cattle at the carol service next.’

‘It would never have happened in Father Heathcote’s day,’ Edith agrees.

‘Why can’t that boy hold the cross up straight?’ Jeffrey Finch-Buller asks his wife Thea; ‘it’s quivering like a juggler’s pole.’

‘Well of course; it’s a circus,’ Thea replies. ‘Even the Vicar’s in red.’

‘It’s all too high for me,’ Myrna Timson says to her daughter Petula, while pulling her grey felt hat over her ears.

‘I wonder what it cost,’ Hugh says to his wife Petula; ‘I hope it hasn’t come out of church funds.’

‘Sh-sh,’ Petula says to both of them; ‘the choir can hardly make themselves heard.’

The choir sings:
Hosanna to the Son of David,
the King of Israel.
Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Thea inspects the women of the congregation, neatly dividing the lambswool from the angora. She envelops herself in her fur coat with the defiance of one who still serves British beef. If anyone had told her that she would spend Sunday morning on a traffic island by Hampstead Heath, she would have laughed. She is sorely tempted to hail one of the cabs cruising past, until she remembers her grandson. Lloyd is to be christened in St Mary’s on Saturday and she has a duty to ensure that the church is sound. So far the signs are not good. The Vicar can’t be blamed for the limp crosses, car-horn accompaniment or even the Thurifer’s losing battle with exhaust fumes, but he should have anticipated the donkey.

Couldn’t they have found one who would be less susceptible to the children’s stroking? Its reactions would cause a riot on Brighton beach. Perhaps they thought that the sacredness of the occasion would tame its animal nature. If her own is anything to go by, there is little chance.

She weighs up the danger of the donkey attacking a toddler. The little black girl with the glass beads is uncomfortably close. She cannot believe that she, alone, is alert to its arousal. If they all want to play the innocent, so be it. Besides whom would she tell? The fearsome-looking woman with the dead fox around her neck and live parrot on her shoulder? The woman who handed out service-sheets as if she were giving them prep? Hugh? Petula? And let them attempt to make intimacy out of innuendo? Worst of all would be Jeffrey who might interpret it as a request.

The Vicar delivers his homily.

‘I wonder if, before I start, I might ask you all to move in a little closer. I know that you like to keep your distance, to “preserve your own space”, as it were.’ Huxley fears that his tone, designed to ingratiate, simply grates. ‘But it would hardly do for me to lose my voice at the beginning of Holy Week, would it?’

The only reply comes from the rattle of drills as workmen, their white chests attesting to their recent release from winter vests, take advantage of the Sunday lull to dig up the road.

‘Come on now. No one’s going to bite you.’ He watches the compromise shuffle of a congregation which prefers to love its neighbour by proxy. Only Myrna Timson seems grateful for his licence and clasps her daughter’s hand. She looks set to do the same to her son-in-law but ends up brushing the back of his anorak with her sleeve. The rest put up barriers as solid as pews. He is filled with despair. They have reduced the body of Christ to a pile of uncoordinated limbs. Gone is all sense of community. Noli Me Tangere might be the crux of the creed.

He is seized by an urge to tear up his notes and to preach on the text ‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another’, but he resists. Instead, he clears his throat, more of frustration than phlegm, and begins.

‘Once again I stand before you at the start of Holy Week, the week that is for Christians – and, indeed, for the whole world, did it but know – the most important of the year. In the events of this week lie the clearest answer any of us will ever find to the mystery of life. This is the week in which God enters into human suffering. Our task is to offer an adequate response.’

The response of the drills is relentless, like drums accompanying a tumbril, drowning the victim’s last words.

‘We now go to take part in the Passion story ourselves. As we make our way back down the hill – and, indeed, in all our services this week – let us remember that the liturgy is not a commemoration but a re-enactment. Christ’s crucifixion and redemption are taking place every day. It’s an eternal cycle which Holy Week enables us to experience as a single moment. We may be living many centuries after 33AD but we all play roles in the story. Which one are you? Judas? Peter? Veronica? Pilate? The informer? The liar? The comforter? The washer of hands? Let us reflect on it as we walk to the church, singing the processional hymn.’