Saturday, 13 August 2016

A Tradition Honoured

Yesterday - before heading for Silver-Spotted Skipperland - I attended a curious ceremony in a corner of the churchyard of St Nicholas, Sutton (a 'not attractive' church, says Pevsner/Nairn harshly). The Gibson Mausoleum ('pyramid roof, rusticated quoins and a rusticated door surround') has stood in said churchyard corner since 1777, and is the subject of an unusual provision in the will of a spinster daughter of the London merchant, William Gibson, whose name is on the mausoleum. This daughter left a sum of money to provide for an annual inspection of the tomb, with the preaching of a sermon and the distribution of various monies and of stockings and shoes to the poor of the parish (without which they would be unable to find employment).
 The requirement 'to survey and examine the family vault and monument of the Gibsons' on the 12th of August every year (and make good any damage) has been fulfilled almost every year since. I say 'almost' because in 1985 the then Rector put an end to what he regarded as 'an undignified side-show', and the next Rector refused to conduct the examination on (dubious) health and safety grounds. However, the forces of reaction rallied and prevailed, and in 2015 the tradition was again embraced and the inspection performed with due ceremony.
 I missed it last year, so was determined to attend this year's ceremony - and I'm very glad I did. Happily the whole thing is taken seriously, treated not a folkloric curiosity but as the occasion for a genuinely thoughtful and moving outdoor service. It began with a procession from the church to the mausoleum, ceremonially carrying the key and the Bible, and some introductory remarks, followed by a reading of the will and the unlocking of the tomb. This revealed only darkness, into which the Rector and churchwarden descended for a brief inspection, emerging satisfied that nothing was amiss. The mausoleum was relocked to the comfortable words 'Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them'.
 Then Psalm 16 was read, and a nicely judged short sermon preached on it by the Archdeacon of Croydon. A string of prayers followed - all well chosen and all in proper prayer-book language - and we were dismissed with the traditional blessings. There were perhaps two dozen of us, standing in the dappled shade of the churchyard, and I for one left with the feeling that I'd been part of something rather special, that a tradition had been observed with respect and insight and due reverence. It was truly a 'lovely service'.
 I could have gone back into the church for refreshments, but I left straight away. I had an appointment with the butterflies of Denbies hillside.

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