Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter worship

I don’t get homesick for my life in England: I’d pretty much reached the end of my tether there, but I do miss the comforts of familiar rituals. When I called home this morning everyone was in the middle of a huge Easter lunch at my parents’ country farmhouse, and I could hear the laughing & joking as chairs scraped across the flagstones, Champagne corks popped and the whippets, Jack Russell & dachshund leapt around looking for snacks.

We always go to church at Easter, walking up the hill to the tiny village church with sheep grazing in the graveyard and my mother’s glorious vases of lilies in the chancel and in the choir. My faith is an undecided thing, but I take great comfort in the familiarity of the liturgy, and enjoy feeling part of a community, even if I only go twice a year now.

Moving country necessarily involves building new rituals. I looked up churches on the net, and fixed on St Thomas’s at 53rd & Fifth Avenue, as it’s reputed to have the best choral music in America. It’s Episcopalian, part of the Anglican Community, and joined with the Church of England, so the liturgy is the same.

I’ve never worshipped in an urban church, and certainly not in a society one, before and it was an extraordinary experience. Fifth Avenue was closed for the Easter bonnet parade, with onlookers watching as we queued to get in, so popular was the service, and I was seated by the skin of my teeth in the chantry.

I was all dressed up in a black fitted coat, black fur wrap and heels but looked positively restrained compared to the elderly women in cartwheel hats & full length furs, and the ushers in full morning suits, with floral buttonholes. There was a sprinkling of denim clad tourists in pac-a-macs, several immaculate, Prada-clad African American families from infants to grandparents, and a lot of preppy couples in the congregation.

To move from the commercial bustle of Midtown to the calm of a grey stone, cantilevered interior, with carved altarpiece, tall Paschal candles burning through out the nave & chantry and lilies everywhere was like changing centuries. The choir had a full orchestral accompaniment and sang Taverner, and then various motets during communion which set me off crying again.

In fact I had started crying the moment I sat in my pew. I cried throughout the service. I thought of my grandparent's funerals in quiet country churches, of daily chapel services at my boarding school, of constructing a Garden of Gethsemene at primary school, of country house Easter weekends at the R-B's and of point-to-point racing in the mud on Easter Saturdays, of reading the lesson and taking the collection plate around when I was a child, of my sister & parents & I sitting like ducks in a row in our family pew at church, of all the things I’ve left behind in England.