Jason Goodwin: ‘When someone dies, you can lose a place, as well as a person’

Our Spectator columnist returns to his mother's resting place and takes a leading role in a small Somerset church communion, ensuring that the reading is from the 'Authorised Version' of the bible and rediscovering a lost home along the way.

The idea was that we should all meet in the Somerset churchyard where our mother lies buried, sometime around the anniversary of her birth. I went online and found a Sunday Communion service in June and we arranged to meet and have lunch in a nearby pub.

A year after she died, we buried her partner, Richard, beside her. The house was sold and, with that, our link to the village was broken. Occasionally over the past five years, chancing to be on the Bath road, I’ve stopped by, finding the village silent and the church empty. Once, I even searched blindly for my mother’s grave, in unfriendly rain. When someone dies, you can lose a place, as well as a person.

‘Somehow emboldened by being in a church other than my own, I said: ‘I do hope it’s the Authorised Version?’’

A woman in a lilac polo neck was gazing down the path. ‘Are you the vicar?’ I asked. She laughed. ‘Good Lord, no. I can’t really stand the Church, even if I am on the parish council. Your mother’s grave, is it? Ours are up there,’ she pointed, touching briefly on a tragic loss. ‘Are you staying for Communion?’

We went into the church. Half-a-dozen ladies had settled in the pews. I asked, rather bumptiously: ‘If you need a reader?’

‘Yes, why not? It’s Acts or John.’

Somehow emboldened by being in a church other than my own, I said: ‘I do hope it’s the Authorised Version?’

‘Oh! Thank goodness!’ One of the ladies rose from her pew. ‘That’s exactly what we always want. Is the Bible on the lectern King James?’

I looked. It plainly wasn’t.

‘Don’t worry. Someone can nip home and fetch a proper Bible.’

‘It wasn’t a lost place, after all, as we stood at the grave and offered our Champagne to the shades.’

‘No need,’ said the organist. ‘We’ve got the Book!’

‘The Book! Of course!’ All the ladies were nodding excitedly. ‘The Book!’

‘The Book?’

‘We only found it again last week, in the vestry, hidden under a stool that turned out to be a box. Such a relief. We thought it had been lost forever. It’s signed by all the Princes of Wales, so we’re rather attached to it. Duchy land round here, you see.’

We went to fetch the Book, a big old-fashioned Bible. ‘No room for William’s signature.’ One of the ladies pointed at the flyleaf. ‘He’ll have to go over on the next page.’ In the vestry, the vicar was robing up. ‘Do be careful with the other Bible on the lectern.’

After the reading – ‘Neither pray I for these alone…’ – one of the ladies was so pleased with the sacerdotal language that she blew me a kiss across the aisle. Even the vicar acknowledged its Shakespearean poetry. The passage from John, he added pointedly, was relatively free from mistakes and mistranslations. Then, he talked about the Ascension and how the meaning had changed since he was a boy in the 1950s. ‘All King and Glory then,’ he remembered.

Our prayers were for The Queen, ministers and all the rest: for the ill, the dying and the dead, remembering especially those close to us and buried in this place. Our mother was embraced. A reluctant churchgoer, but fierce, she’d have enjoyed the Battle Hymn of the Republic. ‘I always like to end on something jolly,’ the vicar said.

Then came coffee, with fresh milk, and cake. ‘Blessed St Mary,’ said the farmer’s wife. ‘I never made a cake until I retired. I follow Mary Berry’s recipe to the letter.’

‘It was obviously meant to be,’ said the lady in lilac. ‘You visiting today, to read a lesson just when we’d found our Bible again. Please do sign the visitor’s book.’

So we talked and heard how The Prince of Wales got them to repair the church clock for the millennium and chipped in himself. We kissed, shook hands.

It wasn’t a lost place, after all, as we stood at the grave and offered our Champagne to the shades.


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