27 October 2019

Brexit and Evensong

A thoughtful essay on London then and now.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Glenn Arberry

After the Vanenburg Conference at Oxford earlier this month, my wife and I went to London for a few days—London, the city of the English language itself, like Rome for Latin, a city as vital in its way to the curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College as Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome are in theirs. It’s the city where Chaucer worked, where St. Thomas More died, where Shakespeare staged his plays, where Dr. Samuel Johnson laboriously composed the first great dictionary of English—the city of prime ministers and Parliament, of ritual coronations and rancorous controversies.

On the afternoon we arrived, we took a WCC colleague up on his advice and went to evensong at Westminster Abbey. It was a walk of a mile or so along Westminster Bridge Road and across the Thames near Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. William Wordsworth wrote a sonnet (“Compos’d Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”) on his own crossing very early in the morning 217 years ago, and he ends it by marveling at the calm that has, for once, come upon the busy city:

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

In this rare moment of tranquility, the city and nature seem altogether reconciled, the “sweet will” of the Thames and the “mighty heart” of an empire that covered most of the globe.

Our late-afternoon crossing was not so tranquil. Since the terrorist attack in 2017, when a British convert to Islam drove his car up on the sidewalk and killed four people, injuring more than 50, automobile traffic has been blocked. At rush hour on this day—September 9—the bridge was crowded with pedestrians; so was Parliament Square a block past it. It was the last session before Boris Johnson suspended Parliament for nearly a month, and loud partisans jammed the sidewalks. Dozens of policemen stood by, anticipating possible violence; advocates on both sides of the Brexit issue thrust their signs out, shouting; traffic edged by on the streets.

Preoccupied by the Vanenburg Conference in Oxford all weekend, we had been largely out of touch with events in London, and now we had inadvertently walked into the center of world attention, Boris Johnson’s attempt to manage the British exit from the European Union after Theresa May’s failure. Watching the news later that night, we discovered that the Speaker for the past decade, John Cercow—a man who had become famous on YouTube for trying to bring “Order! Order!” to his contentious chamber—had resigned that very night. Every major issue of the Western world in the 21st century bore upon what was happening in the House of Commons, most importantly the question of national sovereignty in what had once been the center of the world, but also economic stability, the crisis of European identity, overwhelming waves of immigration.[*]

We edged through and crossed the street. Evensong started at 5:00 pm on the site of every coronation (with two or three exceptions) of a king or queen since William the Conqueror in 1066, the site where lords and ladies, poets, scientists, musicians, artists, and statesmen of England, are buried and commemorated. Outside the Abbey, unsure of the nature of the crowd, the guards kept asking everyone whether they knew they would have to be inside the building for an entire hour. We nodded and went in, where we were guided down a side aisle and directed to rows of chairs arranged in the transept. Hundreds of people sat quietly, including a group of robed and hooded Muslims (from Iraq on a peace-making trip, as we learned later). The boys’ choir filed in, the service began, and, in the reminder of angelic harmonies, we forgot for the time being about the intensities of politics nearby.

For the next two days, we walked London. We visited the British Museum and dwelled at length on the friezes from the Parthenon; we toured the third-floor garret of the house off Fleet Street where Dr. Johnson researched and composed his Dictionary; we saw As You Like It in an oddly cast but lively afternoon production at the Globe. Throughout the trip, evensong (which we also attended at Westminster Cathedral) somehow gave us the symbol, high, formal, and beautiful, of the end of the day, both of British greatness and the vitality of Europe. Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square—an old Churchill—looks out over a city so diverse as to be incapable of its own past. Banking and commence thrive, but the spiritual center of what once was Europe is now largely lost.

The spaces remain—as we could also say, until this year, about Notre Dame in Paris. Great works remain to inspire us, masterpieces of art and literature grounded in faith, books of philosophy and history. Each of them in its way turns to the truth that transcends our passing generations. Wyoming Catholic College is a small college in a small town in the American West, far from London, far from Rome, but the call to begin again the work of civilization is urgent upon us.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

* Murray, Douglas. The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2017.

The featured image is “Westminster Hall and Bridge” (1810) by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762-1832), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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