Monday, December 6, 2010

Failure south of the Thames, good stuff on the north

Unfortunately, the dean of the cathedral had died, and choir rehearsal was canceled. I tried to stick around and chat just a bit, but this precipitated a few more instances of "unfortunately." When visiting London, England, I had planned to visit the Thursday Singers at Southwark Cathedral. In my visits as the Itinerant Chorister, I try to make sure that I am respectful and welcome. I chose Southwark Cathedral in part because I had performed there on a choral tour in 1999; I looked online and found that their web page describes the Cathedral Choir, a highly selective choir in which the adults are at a professional level and perhaps paid. But it also described the Thursday Singers as being for those who simply enjoy singing, with no audition. Furthermore, "If you are interested in joining the Thursday Singers simply turn up at the Cathedral any Thursday in term time at 1.00pm and ask for the Song School. You will be made most welcome." There was no information on a contact person, but this sounded like it fit well with both the spirit and the modus operandi of the Itinerant Chorister. However, what I was told in person regarding people being welcome to drop in on Thursdays was almost exactly the opposite of what the web site said--this piled on top of the Dean's death meant no choir for me there. With my calling card thrust back in my hands, I departed for Shakespeare's Globe Theatre instead.

Fortunately, I had a better experience earlier that day at St. Paul's Cathedral. These two cathedrals are only about half a mile distant from each other on opposite sides of the Thames River, east of many of the sites associated with government and royalty, but west of the Tower of London. At 11 am on November 25, Thanksgiving Day for Americans, they had a Thanksgiving Day Service for the American Community in London, and my guess is that there were one thousand people in attendance, most of them American expatriates living in the area. The first procedure for attendees was to check in with the police outside and get any bags inspected.

The young people distributing bulletins were boy scouts from the Mayflower District of the Transatlantic Council of the Boy Scouts of America, so they were affiliated with the scouting program in the USA even though located elsewhere. The ushers who were in charge of the building were apparently London locals and wore formal morning coats and large medallions hung around their necks on red ribbons.

The service featured the usual suspects for Thanksgiving music: "Come ye thankful people come," "For the beauty of the earth," and "Now thank we all our God." There was a certain poignancy to this gathering of Americans away from home on a holiday that is distinct to our country. While I was there for just a few days for fun, they were there for longer periods.

One ironic thing in this gathering of Americans was that one of the statues featured in the south transept of St. Paul's is of Lord Cornwallis, who led the redcoats against Washington's army, most notably at the Battle of Yorktown. A related bit of irony came when, in his lead-up to reading President Obama's Thanksgiving Declaration, Ambassador Louis Susman quoted the United States Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." Although it didn't match completely, the way he drew out the syllable "aaall" reminded me of the most famous voice recording of this sentence, when Martin Luther King quoted it during his "I have a dream" speech.

Something that particularly surprised me during this service was that a US Marine Corps color guard marched in carrying the US national flag and the Marine Corps flag. Then the clergy took those flags and laid them directly on the altar of the cathedral for the duration of the service. Somehow the symbolism associated with separation of church and state seems to be subject to different standards in our two countries.

The sermon was delivered by an expatriate minister, Rev. Barry Gaeddert, who started by mentioning memories of Thanksgiving from his childhood in Kansas, and the stories that were passed down about the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, which don't necessarily pass modern standards of political correctness. The centerpiece of the sermon was an anecdote about a minister who admonished his congregation to be thankful for what they had, and then started listing them--food, wealth, health, family, etc. Inevitably, though, some among them didn't actually have the things that he was telling them to be thankful for. They felt left out and eventually walked out of the church. The minister had to do some thinking and then realized his mistake. He had to boil down God's promise to us as a promise to be with us, not that problems will never occur. We are to be thankful for that as one of the blessings that we do possess, rather than forgoing thankfulness because of those things we don't have.

As we sang the final song, "America the Beautiful," I thought of the rendition of that song done by Ray Charles. He was denied many things during his lifetime, but was sufficiently thankful for his country that he put his own stamp on this patriotic song.