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A View from St Giles’

Katharine Rumens writes an open letter to a 16th Century incumbent who also has given his name to one of the Barbican Estate’s residential buildings and compares and contrasts the current with the old

Katharine Rumens Rector, St Giles’ Cripplegate

Dear Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, How did you get it all done when, in the year of the Armada, they made you vicar of St Giles? For starters you probably gave up your Spanish evening class that July as a patriotic gesture; they can be touchy about these things in the City. Did you then find yourself stuck for the odd bon mot when confined to your remaining 17 foreign languages, not forgetting the Hebrew and Greek? Dear Bishop, you are a hard act to follow especially around 25 September when the entire Anglican Communion commemorates your holy learning and eloquent preaching.

I’ve just had my day off. I flexed my linguistic muscles buying a paper and posting a parcel at the post office. Both these transactions I successfully completed in my mother tongue. My newspaper of choice, being neither El Figaro nor La Stampa, again reinforced my craven reliance upon English.

Our names sit side by side under the tower – yours among those cast in bronze with the exotic Aylward, Vitalis and Hervey (original spellers the lot of them.) Mine is set in stone among those whose preferred name of choice is William or Edward. For reasons best known to herself, the monarch has not asked me to translate chunks of the bible or even oversee a necessary committee. I have not yet given posterity timeless phrases like ‘east of Eden’, ‘the root of the matter’, ‘how the mighty are fallen’, ‘get thee behind me’, or ‘a thorn in the flesh’.

No, I cannot claim to have enriched the English language by one jot or tittle today, but things have not been easy since the laundry maid ran off with the knife grinder and the cook took up Morris dancing. Dear Bp Andrewes, did you manage to have a harmonious domestic life embracing a tidy fridge and clean shirts as well as fitting in favours for the king, and contributing more to the Authorised Version of the Bible than any other single person?

30 I

t’s another birthday year: in 2008 John Milton turned 400. This year we celebrate Lancelot who-loved-to-sing- and-dance-a- lot Andrewes and the other linguists who, in 1611, completed the translation of the Bible which quickly became the standard for English-speaking Protestants, and has had such a profound influence on our language.

As a student, Andrewes would choose to walk to Cambridge from London. I don’t think that sort of thing goes on now; they squander their loans on coach fares. We do not know the route he took: did he look in on Hoddesdon and Harlow before stopping for a sit down at Saffron Walden? Did he pound the road, or deliberately waste time dawdling the pretty way from duck pond to open pub door in the hope of missing his first supervision? And what was the state of his feet without fancy socks with cushioned soles and flexible footwear? No doubt he was oblivious to such worldly concerns as he fixed his eyes on the horizon and learnt another language.

The wealth of history contained in St Giles’ means it gets busy in church after dark when we’ve all gone home to the telly and a nice mug of Ovaltine. Out they pop from their gravestones and fancy memorials: all the poets, preachers and pamphleteers; the explorers and chancers, the jolly posh and the shapers of civilisation. They promenade, skip and leap, converse and argue. Sometimes I have to go in and ask them to pipe down a bit for fear of waking the neighbours.

I know that here on the estate my chum Bp Andrewes is easily and frequently confused with Saint Andrew, who was one of the early-type fisher folk. This man latterly made it big in Scotland when a trader in religious relics got shipwrecked off the coast and landed with a saintly tooth, an arm bone, a kneecap and some fingers. To this day, Bp Andrews lies with all his bits intact in Southwark Cathedral.

Having been vicar of St Giles’, he was simultaneously made bishop of several dioceses ending up at Winchester. No, you don’t get that calibre of parish clergy these days: I put it down to the distractions of stacking chairs and having to do our own typing. In all this, Andrewes fitted in time to be headmaster to another highly- accomplished and holy Anglican Divine, George Herbert. Walking to Cambridge is just showing off so I thought I would opt to follow in the pupil’s divine footsteps. Twice a week he modestly walked across the water meadows at Salisbury to evensong at the cathedral. Today access to the meadows is limited, but you can turn up to watch the drowning – changing the water levels in the ditches. Unlike me, Herbert did not wear wellies which may account for his poor health and early death. It’s damp out there. Nor would have Herbert been surrounded by those with epaulettes of the weighty variety; the drowning is done by volunteers of calibre. I too would make each one responsible for a specific meadow. ‘Spread your brigadier generals (retd) thinly’ is always sound advice. Off we march while the women stay behind to heat the soup. It’s not the 40 miles Andrewes would have recognised as a worthwhile walk, but I find it quite sufficient in which to coin a few phrases as my lasting contribution to the English language.

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