Old Story – New Look

It’s that time of the year. Memory buds clicking on and off, some bright, others just a flicker but strong enough to re-kindle flames of decades old memories. Every year since I was old enough to appreciate the regrets of lost opportunity, December has been a month to dream of what might have been – or what would have been if I had turned down a challenge to go “scrumping” in the orchard adjoining the residence of the Vicar of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in England’s industrial Midlands.
“Scrumping” involved scrambling over a six foot wall anytime between late September and November, finding a tree with unpicked apples or a recent crop of windfalls and loading every available pocket before hoisting yourself back to safety to share the harvest with friends. Friends awaiting my return from a Vicar’s orchard forage in the autumn of 1934 were fellow choristers, the boy soprano section of St. Mary’s choir. Early for choir practice, the devil had found work for idle hands to do – and it was my turn to go over the wall.
At least that’s the way Reg Snape, organist and choir master, saw things about an hour later when he found me unable to respond to his cry “Hume sing solo” my mouth being full of apple. Practice that evening was one of many “specials” designed to prepare the choir for a Christmas festival in Coventry Cathedral. On discovering that his entire soprano section had been eating stolen goods supplied by one “scrumper” he dismissed me from the choir – permanently.
“Scrumping” may have been regarded a youthful autumn sport throughout England – but not by Mr.Snape. To him it was outright stealing from the vicar and to be punished harshly. Fortunately banishment to the Colonies was no longer available, but expulsion of one from the choir to discourage other potential defaulters from pre-Cathedral evil was an option. He took it. I was expelled.
In the spring of 2002 I stood with my son Andrew in the shell of my old Coventry Cathedral, built in 1373, destroyed by German bombers on November 14, 1940. I told him how I almost got to sing there in 1934 as the organ (once played by Handel) lifted my less than angelic voice to the heavens. I was able to tell him how the last time I had stood where we were then standing was on the morning of Nov. 15, 1940, with still smouldering timbers wired as a cross standing in the ruin where the altar once stood. A simple message at its foot, placed there within hours of the air raid ending, read “Father forgive.”
The original charred-cross timbers are still preserved, but a replica replaces it above the Altar of Reconciliation. The original scrawled message, now carved on the altar wall remains unchanged. It is worth noting it remains “Father forgive… “us all, not “Father forgive them”.
At noon every Friday since November 1940 the old Coventry Cathedral has conducted a brief ceremony to remember the day of destruction. The congregation is asked to participate with the two word response: “Father Forgive” as the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation is recited as a statement of faith:
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
“Father forgive.”
“The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own …
“The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth …
“Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others …
”Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee…
“The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children …
“The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
“Father forgive.”
”Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Non-Christians can find their own final words – but I think the rest of the Coventry Cathedral message is one most people can endorse.
And I can still dream about the day I almost got to sing there but was done in by an apple.

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