Master Robin Griffith-Jones worked with Mother Theresa’s Sisters in India and with the homeless in London, before returning to university to study theology. After a Curacy in Liverpool, a Chaplaincy at one Oxford College a Lectureship in another, he was appointed Master of the Temple in 1999. He is an Honorary Bencher of both Middle and Inner Temple.
I am writing this at the end of April, in deepest lockdown. The Temple Church is locked and barred. All our services have been cancelled. The Temple is so empty, you could imagine the tumbleweed rolling through Church Court; it is eerie. The Temple Residents’ Association WhatsApp has become a lifeline: bags of scones (complete of course with cream and jam) are furtively carried from building to building and left on the railings to be collected. All of us at the Church can only share the whole nation’s hope that by the time you can read this year’s edition of the Middle Templar the restrictions will have been lifted and life will be beginning its long and painful path back to normality.
Meanwhile, we have had Holy Week and the sun is shining. We have more than enough to do; even if we have to make most of it up as we go along. We are (rapidly) mastering Zoom, Skype, StarLeaf and Microsoft Teams; the Church now has its own YouTube channel (wonders are not ready to cease quite yet!) and Soundcloud account.
Our musicians saw a vertiginous summer ahead, if the choristers were left unattended and untrained until – well, the autumn term, perhaps. Each chorister is receiving weekly on-line lessons in singing and musicianship. Roger Sayer and his musical team have been creating rehearsal videos for the children. Do not be surprised, when our live services return, if you hear the choristers sing Chilcott’s Be Simple Little Children. (Not such a bad motto for the choristers, in these unsettling weeks.) They will surely remember it for years, as the first anthem they have ever learnt online.
We are meanwhile posting virtual services on our website www.templechurch.com and our YouTube channel: from Mothering Sunday through Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Easter and now past St George’s Day and onwards towards the Ascension. Everything is being recorded remotely, of course. Next stop, our annual Easter Carol service. The great Easter stories are easily recorded. Vaughan Williams’ wonderful Five Mystical Songs are altogether more complicated: Roger has recorded the organ part, to be overlaid with the choir, the result to be overlaid again with the soloist – and all with the words relayed in sign-language as well for the deaf.
Thank heavens meanwhile for the recent recordings of the choir, and of Roger and his colleagues on the organ. We are ransacking their tracks for seasonal music; and very lovely and fitting it is too. Every year several wedding-couples have a recording made of their service; recent such couples are kindly sending us the files, from which we are extracting all the music we can use. Luckily we have left Lent behind, and we can happily scatter I Was Glad, Zadok and Jerusalem like confetti onto our virtual services. If the lockdown goes on too long, we might run out of repertoire; then we will get Roger Sayer playing the soundtrack to Interstellar. A far cry from Bach, but powerful stuff, nonetheless.
It has been strangely moving, to record these services on Skype: a handful of the individual voices of our colleagues and friends, all from home and all quietly, domestically spoken. It is calm, conversational and without any pretense of grandeur. It is also deeply reflective and prayerful. To hear the story of Christ’s Passion and of Easter in such intimacy is a rare privilege for us; we hope it will have been a gentle blessing to all those who listened.
There is a tradition, not normally observed here, of presenting the tumultuous events of Holy Week in dramatic form, with different speakers taking the different parts. We took up this style of presentation in our Holy Week services. An even further cry from Bach; but incomparably immediate. Unsuspected talents are being revealed. Master Hatcher, Reader of the Temple, became thoroughly (disconcertingly?) convincing in the role of Jesus; Matt the verger, our producer, is surely going to be headhunted by Radio 4.
Master Mark Hatcher and I look forward to the Michaelmas Term, and to the opportunity, we hope, to welcome everyone, from new students to senior Benchers, into the Church. The time for celebration, when the pandemic is over, will undoubtedly come. But our hearts go out meanwhile to all those practitioners, and indeed whole sets, that have found their work and livelihood evaporate. What a dreadful summer it has been for far too many of our colleagues and friends. Master Hatcher and I are already sketching out the event or events we can offer to raise funds for the relief on offer from the Inns and the Barristers’ Benevolent Association (BBA) to practitioners in need. Various Benchers and Members have been in touch to ask for our prayers, for themselves and loved ones. Do please be in touch, if you would like us to remember you and them each day; or if you would simply like to talk about these last few months and the months to come.
We were once due to leave the EU at the end of March 2019. It seems an age ago: those relentless arguments, those hardening attitudes, that deepening intolerance. Nobody would have wished this year’s pandemic on anyone; but it has, so far, brought the nation together in a shared life and purpose that seemed irrecoverable a year ago. A fortnight before that first Brexit deadline, Master Igor Judge gave an unforgettable address in the Church. He was of courses speaking of a political and not medical crisis, but many of us who heard him speak will have looked back, this year, on his words. We will have wondered what societal progress, profoundly beneficial, might yet emerge from the pandemic. And I for one hope that when you read this, preparations will be well in hand for a virtual, or even perhaps an actual, Last Night of the Proms, at which millions of us, united by Zoom, can applaud the NHS, give thanks for a nation reunited, and sing out, swaying from side to side, Land of Hope and Glory.
I am grateful to Master Judge for his permission to quote these extracts from his address:
In this ancient church we have for centuries addressed the eternal verities. But Brexit is not one of them. Brexit is not an eternal verity. And next September, as we did last September, whatever the outcome, we will mark the end of summer on the last night of the Proms by singing with enormous enthusiasm and fervor, Land of Hope and Glory. At the risk of an allegation of heresy, I have to express my personal opinion that five or ten years from now we shall be engaged with problems at least as pressing as Brexit.
Could we also remember that this ancient church has witnessed the consequences of much worse disasters? 100 years ago, the bells celebrated the end of the war in which millions, literally millions, of lives were brought painful, hideous, untimely ends, and millions more around the world were about to be eradicated by pandemic flu. Both were cataclysmic national disasters. And remember too that contemporaneously with those catastrophes something positive happened. That was the year our constitution at last acknowledged that at least some of the half of the human race called women were entitled to participate in the electoral processes. Although we have only slowly appreciated the enormous value to society of the whole of that advance in 1919, it represented a remarkable and wonderful societal convulsion from which we continue to reap the benefits.
I return to hope. Hope tends to sound a little bland. Rather dull. Faith attracts passion. People die horrible deaths for their faiths. Charity, love, also involves passion. Properly understood, hope is no less positive and should be embraced with an equal passion.
Come with me to a little church in the heart of Leicestershire. The King, the head of the Church of England, has just been executed. Oliver Cromwell had dispensed with Parliament. A Civil War had ended with massive casualties. Anglicanism was in retreat.
Yet in 1653 an Anglican church was founded at Staunton Harold, and this is what you read on the stone inside the church:
“In the year 1653 when all things sacred were throughout the nation either demolished or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, founded this church; whose singular praise it is to have done the best of things in the worst of times and hoped in the most calamitous.”
Hope is indeed an eternal verity. This inscription is a message for the ages, and for us today.