Through the kindness of James O’Donnell and his Westminster Abbey colleagues, we attended Sung Eucharist there on Christmas morning. We sat in the Nave, amongst a smallish and widely spaced congregation, while the majority of the service took place further up in the Quire. The main (West) Door was left open for healthy ventilation’s sake. On a day which was let’s say fresh and breezy, I got a definite vibe of wintertime evenings in Ely Cathedral circa 1974.
It’s incredible what this hardworking Abbey Choir get through – in the hours previous to this full service (containing all sorts of interesting and testing music, Mozart, Scheidt, Victoria) they had already sung a Nine Lessons carol service and Midnight Mass. James had sanguinely informed us ‘we’re only five singers short’! (Several of these were boys who live outside of tier 4 and weren’t able to travel in). But the temporary new mix, as heard from a distance, sounded gentle and lovely.
I’m most used to being in the Abbey on royal or national occasions, when it is generally stuffed to the rafters with clergymen, the royal household, the government and hangers on to all these parties. It was therefore an unexpected consolation simply to sit in the mostly empty building, together with around fifty fellow worshippers. For the first time I felt able to take it in as an actual church. Usually, from the moment you enter, you see it plastered with commemorative tablets, gravestones and monuments; the effect is of a huge crowd of pushy (though dead) people. Here the simplicity of the building was foregrounded, and who could have expected this sweet Christmas crib in front of the altar (pictured). Finally we left to the loudest and most generous organ postlude ever; ‘Dieu parmi nous’, a musical Christmas cake bursting over with extra fruit and nuts. Just as well, because this was our last hearing of live music for quite a while, I fear.