One could write an entire Betjemanesque volume on the inseparable bonds that tie together church and pub in the popular imagination, but I have but a few hundred words to sound out that most ancient of unities. Wine, bread, smoke and sound — those glorious markers of both a good morning in one and a good evening in the other.
The final, ill-advised glug of a heavy red from a smudged and besmirched glass of a Saturday night is the cousin of the tentative sip from Georgian silver of a just-too-cold fortified wine of a Sunday morning. Both hit, sharper than expected at first but then, as the gullet warms at the swallow, a sense of calm — chemical, in part, but no less satisfying for it.
The breaking of bread remains our byword for the conviviality of consuming together. The satisfying crack of crust of a loaf — ripped by hand into unstintingly generous hunks as only real bread shared by real friends can be — to accompany that ancient predecessor of much gastro mush, the ploughman’s, is evocative of a sharing across tables and centuries, thus providing a humble similitude of the snap of the wafer at communion, that bread which seeks to be shared across the table of eternity.
smoke makes visible our unseen bonds. The conspiratorial humour shared by the smokers huddled at a pub doorway against the December drizzle is made more pertinent by the will-o’-the-wisps that seem to dancingly bind one to the other. So too in church it is no coincidence that congregations at both ends of the Anglican spectrum deploy smoke to illustrate those invisible ties to the community of Heaven.
That said, far from solely endorsing the big impact smoke of evangelical showmanship or Anglo-Catholic campery, I would suggest that the visible vapours of breath carrying centuries-old words from a near-century-old mouth at an 8am communion in a country church are as efficacious, if not more so, for the raising of prayers heavenward as any thurible or smoke machine.
Sound is a reminder we are not alone. Humming whilst wandering along a dark lane might not actually invoke the physical presence of another, but it does reassure the spirit. So it is in church and pub; the comfort of stepping into a cacophony of humanity is the same, be it in a pew lustily singing or simply laughing in a booth. Of course, many of those sounds are shared.
For instance, the ringing of bells, whether it be to summon the faithful few who remain committed to last orders or to prayer, is a reminder of the joy of ancient ritual in an age of relentless efficiency.
The noise of silence too, is different there — not the tetchy silence of the office and train, or the awkward quiet post-dinner-party faux pas — but a silence of reflection, of adoration, punctuated by a rustle of a newspaper at a far table or the whistle of the wind through a chink in the stained glass.
Wine, bread, smoke and sound.
It is this quartet that make a visit to a pub or a church, especially at this time when both early morning and early evening are swallowed by inky murk, lights in the darkness of existence.
But this is not the place for such wondering wanderings; the reality in an age that is more fixated with a Kardashian bum than Miss Joan Hunter Dunn is that both ancient institutions of the micro-communities that make up the English nation often rely, like that famed occupant of the North Pole, on the magic of Christmas to survive.
In rural areas especially, December is the fat season before months of leanness in the pews and at the bar. Winter, the lead-up to Christmas in particular, is, I would venture, the one time when to be seen in pub or church is normal — not a mark of eccentric rejection of the era of humanism and Huel, but part of a communal tapping into the last vestige of the ancient patterns of feast and fast that once shaped how we came together as communities, on familial, local and national levels.
In the heady days of the early twenty-first century, when we were promised that the summer of modernity was eternal, we eschewed public places of private nourishment; pubs closed even quicker than churches in the age of Blair. That age is fading before our very eyes and with it the assumptions about the positive aspects of man loudly, impotently, insisting he is an island after all.
So it is that now, as the long winter of our current age sets in, the ancient oaken doors of both institutions creak open again and from within comes the scent of memories of wine, bread, smoke and sound. If we are bold enough to step within we will, of course, encounter one another but, in this season of God with us, therein might hope to encounter the Divine as well.
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