4 May 2018
Chris Dodd went to St Paul’s Cathedral on 2 May. He writes:
As I walked up Ludgate Hill towards Christopher Wren’s monumental edifice, I couldn’t help the mischievous wish that I was going to confession instead of evensong to celebrate Leander Club’s 200 years as a temple of rowing. The Pink Palace must have chalked up a few, if not a multitude, of sins since a crew first took to the water from Searle’s boathouse – now the site of St Thomas’s Hospital, in 1818. Imagine being on the receiving end of hippo confidences!
I banished all such thoughts as I entered the cavernous St Paul’s and found a seat under the dome among Leander’s faithful. The cathedral is certainly awe-inspiring in both sight and sound – the pre-service organ recital appropriately gave us wasserfluesse by Bach and water music by Handel. When the choir and ministers processed to their stalls, I did a double take when I spied a scarlet robe and skullcap. How did a Doggett’s winner mix among the priesthood? But he turned out to be our preacher, the Emeritus Bishop of Menevia. More of him later.
The bidding was delivered by the Rev Canon Michael Hampel, who prayed that good oarsmanship, good fellowship and sporting excellence contribute to the enlargement of our capacity to make a difference to the world in which we live. His prayer was heard several times as it echoed round the lofty heights. President ‘Rass’ Randall read the first lesson from Isaiah. The prophet had me thoroughly confused. He seemed to be saying that the glory of Lebanon shall be given to the wilderness, dry land and desert. I thought it had been, metaphorically speaking, during my lifetime. Then came ‘Carmel and Sharon shall see the glory of the Lord’. Was this a hint of what’s to come in the East Enders soap saga?
Worse was to come. ‘Waters shall break forth in the wilderness,’ boomed Isaiah in the voice of Rass, ‘the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.’ Sounds like the recent fate of the meadows along Henley Reach when thunder and brimstone strikes over Basingstoke to bring out red flags on the river and isolate Leander in a flooded slough of despond.
After prayers led by Canon Hampel and two distinguished Pinkos, the double Olympic medallist Debbie Flood and four-times winning Oxford Blue Anastasia Chitty, it fell to Lieutenant Pete Reed RN to read the sobering second lesson from, appropriately, St Paul. ‘Do you know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?’ queried the saint. Mostly, Pete gets the prize, as his record of three Olympic golds shows. The rowing scribe and 1948 Olympic champion Richard Burnell used to remind me that rowing was invented to show that life was unfair. Certainly, Leander with its justified reputation of being the most prestigious and successful rowing club in the world, with 124 Olympic and three Paralympic medals won by members between 1908 and 2016, errs on the side of the winners more than the taking part.
The Emeritus Bishop of Menevia (a Roman Catholic diocese in Swansea, Wales, since you ask), the Right Reverend Mark Jabalé OSB, took to the pulpit and pointed out to the congregation of tourists and Pinkos that he was wearing the badge of a Henley Steward alongside his crucifix. He explained this by saying that when he was in Peru building a monastery in 1985 ‘as monks occasionally are wont to do’, he received a letter from the chairman of Henley Regatta informing him that he had been elected a Steward – a post that is held for life.
The coveted badge remains the property of the regatta, and so when a Steward dies his or her badge is returned and passed on. When Father Mark was elected there were no badges available, so he was given a new one. When his friend Richard Burnell died, he told us, he traded his badge in for Richard’s, which in turn had been passed down from Don Burnell, Richard’s Dad, who had won Olympic gold under the Leander flag in 1908.
In 1986, the new Steward became the first Roman Catholic to preach in St Mary’s, Henley, at the regatta service. ‘Dear Brothers in Christ,’ he began, ‘I shall never cease to be amazed at the ingenuity produced by the chairman of our regatta. Look at the hymn you have just sung. Words by John Bunyan, and the tune is Monk’s Gate!’ He went on to preach his penchant for liberation theology.
Father Mark came into rowing by accident. When teaching and coaching rugby at Belmont Abbey, his colleague the rowing coach took a sabbatical and asked him to keep an eye on the rowers for a season. The rowing man never returned, and the erstwhile Abbot of Belmont took junior and senior crews from Hereford to the top. His lightweight four won gold at the 1979 World Championships in Bled. As a reporter present, I took him to task for genuflecting before the TV set in the press box during the final, hinting that he may have successfully solicited an unfair advantage.
But I digress. The bishop picked up the theme in St Paul’s: ‘we acknowledge the immense debt of gratitude we owe to the officials, the coaches and all who are involved in any way helping the club to continue to grow and be a leader and an example of true sportsmanship. And we pray that our club will continue to be blessed by God. Amen.’
Thanksgiving was then led by Caroline Mulcahy, the assistant manager, and Paul Mainds, the chairman of the club’s bicentenary committee. Toccata from Percy Whitlock’s Plymouth Suite played the congregation out, and many members and guests repaired to the cavernous crypt, passing the formidable marble sarcophagus of that one-armed wetbob, Horatio Nelson, for an excellent fork supper consisting of citrus crusted cured salmon and/or port poached pear with Stilton mousse, with a cerise-coloured trifle to follow. And, of course, wine.
As I walked down Ludgate Hill, I reflected that even if evensong was largely bereft of confessions, it celebrated a life worth celebrating. And confession would not have involved crusted salmon or poached pear.