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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, April 07, 2005
    John Bell, John Paul and Danny Boy
    Good to sit in a draughty church hall with 350 others tonight, including
    John Bell, who is always, always good company.

    I'm so familiar with his material that I know what's coming next - the stories which illustrate how deep into our psyche music reaches, and how early we adopt theologies and instincts from the very songs we sing; the horrors therefore of songs we know so well which have brutalised us: Rule Britannia, and those old missionary hymns which put 'the rude barbarian', 'the heathen', in their place and make a virtue of attitudes familiar to today's Daily Mail reader:

    If you cannot cross the ocean
    And the heathen lands explore,
    You can find the heathen nearer,
    You can find them at your door

    But familiarity just strengthens and deepens the great and liberating truths he speaks so plainly. And there is always something new. Like the story of the wee old man who a policeman found weeping in Glasgow city centre. The old man tells the policeman that he's 87 years old; that he's there on his honeymoon, that he's married a beautiful 25-year old girl who is waiting for him back in their hotel room. "That all sounds wonderful," says the policeman, "So why are you crying?" "Because I can't remember where we're staying," says the old man.

    Knowing how John's take on liturgy means that it's always going to have both eyes open to what is going on in the world, it's always going to celebrate our common humanity and use music to melt barriers away, it wasn't surprising to find that he had decided that tonight his congregation would prepare ourselves for tomorrow's funeral of the Pope by sharing songs and prayers together for the closing minutes. And I was moved - again - by his take on Pat Bennett's poem, In this Darkness, which he had us singing, by his prayers which embraced the world in our common admiration for the life of that most singular man, and by the closing song, Go, silent friend:

    Go, silent friend,
    your life has found its ending:
    To dust returns your weary mortal frame.
    God, who before birth called you into being,
    Now calls you hence, his accent still the same.

    Go, silent friend,
    your life in Christ is buried;
    For you He lived and died and rose again.
    Close by His side your promised place is waiting
    Where, fully known, you shall with God remain.

    Go, silent friend,
    forgive us if we grieved you;
    Safe now in heaven, kindly say our name.
    Your life has touched us, that is why we mourn you;
    Our lives without you cannot be the same.

    Go, silent friend,
    we do not grudge your glory;
    Sing, sing with joy deep praises to your Lord.
    You, who believed that Christ would come back for you,
    Now celebrate that Jesus keeps his word.

    It's because it's set to The Londonderry Air that it means so much. The Roman Rite tomorrow will no doubt be moving in all its majesty. But there's something even more moving in being able to sing the Pope a solemn farewell to the deeply familiar tune of Danny Boy....