During the early 1970s my cousin David Anderson was the R.E. teacher and Chaplain at Wymondham College. For those unfamiliar with Norfolk this is a state-run co-educational boarding school. David was asked to do a series of Talks on the BBC – THOUGHT FOR THE DAY. This was before Radio Norfolk went on air, but there was a local element on Radio Four. In the morning in particular there was quite a lot of East Anglian content, broadcast from the BBC studios at St Catherine’s House in Norwich. This is the script of one of David’s talks.
“I think that’s very nice.”
Mabel was standing by the font in Booton church. We were on an ecumenical Victorian church crawl across central Norfolk to look at the architectural remains of the Methodist Revival and the Oxford Movement.
“Yes, I think that’s very nice,” repeated Mabel; she wasn’t referring to the font, but to card propped up nearby.
“Whoever though art” it began, and went on to urge us to pray for ourselves and the members of the local church before we moved on.
“The quietness makes you want to pray, and cards like that help you” she explained, as we braved the danger of falling masonry on our way back to the minibus.
Our route inevitably took us to Walsingham, to pay homage to the nineteenth century martyr of ritualism, Arthur Tooth. We took it in turns to sit in the chair bearing his name, in the chapel of the Guild he formed, in the grounds of the Anglican shrine. But what the pupils most wanted to see was the Garden Tomb. The last time I had visited this corner of the shrine with a school party the effect of the tomb had been quite harrowing on one or two of them, so I thought it diplomatic to warn them of the realism they would find inside. But this time the audience was different.
“Looks like a tool shed” said one the girls as we filed into the darkness.
“Anyone got a light?” I asked without thinking. An embarrassed pause followed my stupid question; everyone knows fourth year pupils don’t smoke. Mumbling some excuse I scrambled out of the tomb and abandoned them to their own initiative. A few minutes later they filed out with sheepish grins, having solved their illumination problem.
“It’s a swizz!” exclaimed Mick. “The coffin has nothing in it. No shroud, no wax figure, nothing; just an empty bath.”
“We are of course many weeks after Easter,” I countered in the tone of a conjurer who had lost his white rabbit.
“I’d like to have another look inside the chapel where all the candles are burning” announced Mabel, unintentionally coming to my rescue.
“We’ll meet at the minibus in fifteen minute” I replied. Before we reassembled, I undertook a final sweep of the area of the shrine to see what further acts of sacrilege we were promoting. Some were tasting the holy water and complaining it was stale. Mabel was standing in the central chapel, staring at the candles. She sensed I was there, and half turned.
“I want to buy a candle” she whispered. “Can you change 10p?” She unwound a purse from her pocket and emptied some of her money into my hands, and some onto the floor. A woman kneeling at the rail surfaced from her devotions, and contemplated us with clear indication that we were not on the list of those being prayed for. I frowned at Mabel as significantly as I could.
“What size shall I buy?” she demanded.
“Five pence would buy a candle that would go on burning throughout the night, while you are asleep.”
The money went into the box, and I found a taper. Carefully the candle was lit and Mabel glowed. Gingerly she placed it in a rack and stood back. The ritual was not quite complete, and Mabel sensed it.
“What shall I do now?” she asked.
“What about saying that prayer you saw in Booton church?” I suggested.
“Ah yes, of course.” And she turned at once to face her candle.
I stood back for a moment to make sure I was needed no longer. For the second time that day it was brought home to me that pupils often do so much better when they are left to themselves.
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