The choir sings the Introit in the ante-chapel. It is Locus iste by Bruckner, but I know this only because it’s written on the order of service for this choral evensong. The music does what Jesus exhorts his disciples to do: to be in the world, but not of it. Winchester College Chapel is as old as the school itself and, despite its diminutive size originally designed to seat a scholarly congregation of just over 100 its fanvaulted ceiling lifts the spirit in 2008 just as it has been doing for more than 600 years.
Friends and family have made the journey to Hampshire to celebrate Martin and Petronella’s 40th wedding anniversary, and the celebration begins with Even-song. The world outside the chapel is a shaky place: economies round the world are crumbling, a momentous presidential race is reaching its final days, and papers are in riotous mood with a feud between shadow chancellors and old friends. Meanwhile, inside this chapel, we have gathered to celebrate the bonds that hold us together in difficult times: family,
friendship, faith and married love. Leaving the world behind, being in it but not of it, isn’t easy. Familiar faces trigger memories.
I’m part of the ‘Oxford’ circle my husband was at Magdalen with Martin, and we are here with close friends from the Oxford years: Nick and Susanna, whose own 40th anniversary was celebrated at Christ Church last summer, against a backdrop of rollercoaster miracles in Nick’s battles with cancer; Simon, whose wife, Annabel, died three years ago from one of those cancers that moves quietly and quickly; John and Ginny, looking youthful and happy, her cancer in remission. Each warm embrace is followed by a searching look how are you? how are you really? and a silent prayer of gratitude. As the choir sings the Magnificat, I think about these friendships that’re older than the marriage we are here to celebrate, and I think about the importance of friendships in married lives, the shared histories, the overlap of godchildren, the archives of memory.
A significant anniversary is not only a celebration of love and longevity, it’s a recognition of the friendships that bolster a marriage, providing the outside support, distraction and comfort that all marriages need from time to time. My eyes focus on the Wykehamist
motto printed on the front of the service sheet: ‘Manners Makyth Man.’ Manners now seems an antique word, but it was the moral code drilled into me from childhood: ‘Manners are more important than brains.’ All week long, I’ve been trying to make sense of the story of another set of Oxford friends, a story that includes messy letters to The Times, crude gossip, yachts in Corfu. At the heart of this drama is shameless
disloyalty. An outsider observing the uniquely privileged men involved is bewildered by the bad manners and moral carelessness. I’d like to think that Wykehamists would see that life without manners is a small, warm, selfish life, the choice of a fool.
The familiar beauty of the Nunc dimittis lifts me out of my secular distraction. The virtue of music at Evensong is that of spiritual awareness, which used to be called ‘recollection’. I remember why I’m here: I married into this tapestry of friendships. Even now, halfway towards a Ruby anniversary, I can’t believe my good luck Perhaps I should produce a little nugget of truth about married love and friendships, but instead, I’ll close as the evening ended. Go to Google and type in ‘The Oxford Clerks’, and you’ll find a six man close harmony a capella group, all choral scholars at New College and Magdalen. Click on ‘Music’ and listen to A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Here’s the truth: close harmony in friendship, marriage and song is worth celebrating.