THE FRONT bench at the church I know is reserved not for mourners or sinners (specifically) but for members of the women's altar guild, and I will now tell how their ancient territory was challenged on Christmas Eve.
The women, insofar as I have ever been able to find out, see to it the altar brass is polished, and that the ceremonial vessels and wine are in good order and (this is a pillar of their front-bench prerogative) that any fainting or heaving choirboys are prompty fetched out of the chancel before they die or get stepped on.
Now the Battle of Christmas Eve was on this wise:
The women arrived 90 minutes before midnight and flung their furs on their front pew, to mark the territory, and disappeared into some mysterious recess where they squirt brass polish, complain that Maude has singed the fair linen with a too-hot iron, and where they from time to time operate creaky cabinets and drawers containing frontals, albs and other curious objects, and all the while they maintain a subdued holy hubbub appropriate to the place.
The ushers, on the other hand, are males.
They took it into their hands (much as Lyndon once took Vietnam into his head) to remove the Guild women from their ancient seat and convert it into an "aisle" for the midnight service, since a batch of violins, violas, cellos, trumpets and drums would occupy the usual aisle.
NOW YOUR reporter, as it happened, was sitting quietly in the second pew waiting for the trumpets to gargle, when an usher said would I kindly ask anybody who started to sit in the front pew not to do so.
Well sir, I said, I think that's for the altar-guild women. Yes, he said, but I'd rather have it for an aisle.
At the time I thought, "Brother, that's your project and good luck," but said nothing.
After a few minutes the guild women, who had had ample time to criticize the way the flowers were done and the seating arrangements for the trumpets, emerged into the church and sat down in their front pew. An usher came up and asked them to vacate it.
He might as well have asked the bishop to please hold a basket full of cats. The women gazed at him in disbelief. Could the fool not see the sign that said "Reserved for Altar Guild on Duty?"
Now all these women, and their sistern throughout the world, are descended from those who served at Delphi, Ephesus, Cumae and elsewhere. The average Hun or Tartar or Visigoth (over the centuries) has usually had sense enough not to agitate the local altar-guild ladies, even though it is all right to slaughter everybody else.
BUt this usher probably had no sense of history.
Anyway, the women rose in a sort of stately controlled fury and marched out of their pew.Some (who knew nothing of how these things work out in the history of mankind) thought the guild had been routed.
I suspected the guild women at that very moment had seized the ushers and snapped all their heads off in the crypt, and was grateful the rest of us did not have to see it.
Sure enough, in a few minutes the women marched back in and sat down in the pew God gave them.
There was no mistaking their triumph. The citadel had been defended.
No sooner were they ensconced again than the trumpets spoke, the cellos lifted their burden, the drums began to roar along with the full organ and the great processional began, complete with torches and crosses and banners.
At first the choirboys came, and as they passed the women surveyed them like a hen missing a few chicks. Each boy was judged on the likelihood of his making a spectacle of himself (the youngsters sometimes get sick at midnight services, way past their bedtimes, for the young cannot take too much glory) but they all looked pretty sturdy and the guild women seemed pleased with the prospects.
As the boys were followed by the men, the volume rose to a tumult and the trumpeters were getting red and the fiddlers sawed for life and the drummer was in heaven for only rarely are the drums allowed to go wild, legally.
In such a setting, who could doubt that God was in firm and certain control of destiny? Strings and winds proclaimed the fitness of order."Joyful and triumphant" bellowed the tenors and baritones in unison, for a change, and the choir broke into a descant racing around the main melody like a hound in a woods full of possums.
And then suddenly the perfidy of the ushers was seen.
The procession moved like a tide - one of those things no power can speed up or slow down. Surging. Towards the end of the procession came some banners that are not allowed up in the chancel (only the national standard and the flag of the church go up there, it turned out) but of course they had to go somewhere.
They were supposed to turn off from the main procession at the chancel steps, and (according to the ushers) they should use the first pew as an aisle.
But when they got down there, they, of course, saw the altar-guild women occupying that territory and they correctly sensed it would take cannons, not banners, to march through them. So they decided to march through the musicians.
That was wise. The musicians were seated, and therefore relatively defenseless (the guild women were standing) and, besides, the musicians had no ancient, vested rights to be sitting in the aisle, and did not seem ready to do battle, as the altar guild certainly did.
I shut my eyes as the banners sailed through the violins like a mackerel through a can of sardines. When I opened them the musicians seemed still alive, though there is some question why one of them did not have spectacles any more and some of the music racks did not seem quite the same and of course it had been a great shock to the orchestra to have 4-foot-wide banners on poles borne right through them.
The guild women, seeing what confusion and havoc had resulted from not giving their pew for use as an aisle, rose in stately unison and marched out. Relative calm settled on the church and the musicians got on with their Bach and Mozart without further confusion.
And then the time came when the musicians got up and left, and the service entered a new phase which did not require trumpets anymore.
The instant the musicians rose to leave, the women of the altar guild marched back to their pew, as if they were part of the liturgy. I frankly was surprised they had not picked up a few torchbearers to accompany their return, but their demeanor clearly showed that they had been driven from their Jordan, yes, and driven again and again, yes, but here they were, back home and Alleluia.
The ushers were folding up and removing the musicians' chairs, under the full and steady glare of the altar guild. Being men, they were not allowed to glare back.
When the time came for the congregation to head for the altar to receive the Sacrament, the guild women were, as usual, the first to ascent the holy steps.
(The ushers, needless to say, were the last.)
For the first time I really understood that otherwise baffling hymn that says ten thousand times ten thousand stream up the steeps of light."
Of course. A perfect picture of the altar guild victorious over the ushers.
The ushers, having chased the women out twice, probably thought they had traffic under control and may even have thought they were doing things reasonably and right. Thinking you are reasonable and right is a common scenario for disaster, as everyone knows.
It does not make any difference whether you are reasonably and right. It makes all kinds of difference whether what you are attempting is possible. It makes tremendous difference if others are alerted in good time to your project, and it is just as well to spell it out about six times.
Furthermore, if a new route must be carved in the landscape (any landscape) it is just as well to avoid routing the banners through the worst terrain of the entire continent.
Over the roof, possibly, or across the rod beam, or under the choir stalls or through the pulpit - any number of routes are freely availably, and always are.
But through the Altar Guild in ther immemorial sanctuary on the front pew? Dear Lord, almost nobody is that dumb. And if you try such a thing (in art, in politics, in any other vineyard) you will fail.
You will never budge them, though you may succeed in creating endless confusion for the rest of the world. The daughters of music are the ones who are laid low. The altar guild is right back there where it always was.