Pew Sermon for Sunday 18th September

Hello again. I wonder how you are feeling today? 

We face the death of a much-loved Monarch, the end of an era, and perhaps we long for past beauties and glories when times were more elegant and refined and the world was a good deal more innocent. Or, at least, so we like to imagine. 

Important memories and resonances in music, memory and history will be unique to each of us. For me, refinements in the composition of the string quartet and quintet marked the end of the classical and the beginning of the romantic period of English history, like nothing else. Classic FM followers and other will certainly have the “celebrated” minuet from Boccherini’s String Quintet in E major, written in 1775, firmly on their top 100 playlists, for example, long before Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven took the medium to new and dizzying heights of refinement. 

Often, such a particular piece will be associated forever with a personal memory, particularly if the memory is sad or marked by trauma, loss or death. 

Alexander Mackendrick’s film “The Ladykillers” (1955) also marked the end of an era, in more ways than one. The last of the Ealing comedies, the studio was subsequently sold. If you have seen the original film you will remember that the redoubtable Mrs Wilberforce (played by Katie Johnson) is being ‘played’ in more ways than one by Alec Guinness and his gang of robbers, posing improbably as gentrified members of a string quintet, practicing the Boccherini minuet upstairs (courtesy of a portable gramophone) whilst she makes the tea downstairs, lost in thought and memory: 

 “You know, I was so surprised when I heard what you were playing. It brought back something that, really, I’d completely forgotten all about: my 21st birthday party. You see, my father had engaged a string quintet to come in and play in the evening; and while they were playing Boccherini, someone came in and said the old queen had passed away. And everyone went home. And that was the end of my party, all that time ago, in Pangbourne.” 

Lines delivered with such perfect, matter of fact timing and pathos, that even the hard-bitten, shameless gang of imposters is stunned into a respectful silence. You could hear a pin drop. 

The end of a national era does that. Alas, not for everyone. After she leaves, the would-be double bass player ‘One-Round’ remarks: 

“Who’s she talkin’ about? Old queen who?” 

Who indeed. 

Elderly ladies are rather too easy to underestimate, which pretty much sums up the entire plot of the film. Curiously echoing real life: The producers originally cast a younger woman in the role of Mrs Wilberforce, fearing that Katie Johnson was too frail for the project. The younger actress died before filming started, and Mrs Wilberforce lived on, long past the final credits, and walked into cinema history. 

Where do we go from here? I respectfully suggest, like Mrs Wilberforce, we remember the past with sadness, yes, but also with great affection. We celebrate the good, regret its loss, and then we move on – past all the bank robbers and con artists and condescension that life sometimes throws at us.  

We move on in faith, trusting in a God, in whom nothing good is ever truly lost. 

One day, God will make all things new, and wipe away all tears. Until then, we walk on, past the final credits and closing titles of this era, and, with faith, into the new.