TO SAY that fasting is not my forte is rather like suggesting that pastoral
sensitivity is not the best remembered attribute of Attila the Hun. Every Lent,
I try “to deny myself and take up my cross” in some little way, and, almost
every year, I come a cropper.
The most hopeless attempt was, I think, the year I foolishly gave up
alcohol. Duly ashed at 10 a.m. on Ash Wednesday, by 4 p.m. I’d shamefully
fallen from grace with a large glass of brandy. Why? Well, it was at a wake
after a funeral and there were three excellent excuses — sorry, I mean reasons.
First, it was the celebration of a life, and it would have been churlish and
pastorally insensitive (Attila, take note) not to raise a glass to the memory
of the deceased.
Second, I hate the image of the parsimonious parson (mourner: “Brandy,
vicar?” Vicar (in best Mr Collins voice): “No, no — I couldn’t possibly. Lady
Catherine wouldn’t approve.”)
But, to be honest, the real reason was the third: it was a cold, grey,
horrid day; the graveyard had been freezing, and I needed a brandy.
I could pretend that the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. But the
truth is that the spirit was dragging its feet, and the flesh had not just
admitted defeat, but was on its back with its legs in the air wanting its tummy
tickled. Oh, well.
Learning to live
JOINING IN last year with the Good Friday walk of witness through the centre
of Newbury, I chatted happily, as you do, with people I hadn’t seen for a while
(in some instances, since last Good Friday), and generally caught up on gossip.
Around us, the world shopped cheerfully on, some people warily accepting our
little chocolate eggs and ecumenical Easter cards. Finally, as we were clumped
around the graveyard at our destination, and before the compulsory spirited
communal rendering of “When I survey the wondrous Cross”, I asked a minister
from another denomination how he was, expecting the usual “tired but chirpy”
“OK,” he said, smiling wanly. “Learning to live with failure.”
It stopped me in my tracks. He was trying effectively to do three full-time
jobs: in Anglican terms, Director of Ordinands, Continuing Ministerial
Education Adviser, and busy parish priest. He was painfully aware of the gap
between expectations and achievement.
I found his honest humility chastening. In an ecclesiastical world where
electoral-roll numbers, SMART targets, and strategic management planning at all
levels are becoming increasingly importunate, the old maxim that we are not
called to be successful but to be faithful, becomes increasingly hard to hold
As a friend put it in a recent Lenten address at a clergy quiet day, “We are
much happier inviting God to stroll with us down the avenues of our successes
than to open up the dingy and unweeded side-alleys of fear and failure.”
My ecumenical colleague’s remark resonated for me throughout Good Friday,
Holy Saturday, and on into Easter, and will again this year.
He’s still there, plugging away.
ST GEORGE’s, where I am parish priest, is an unlikely church. Built in the
1930s in the style of a Northern Italian Renaissance basilica, it is an
improbable place to find in leafy West Berkshire: cool and white, with a great
barrel roof, multiple side chapels, columns, and vaulted arcades of arches. I
first encountered it in a spring twilight, with just votive lights flickering
in the gloom. I was enchanted.
The stark emptiness of Passiontide suits the church best. For Holy Week each
year, we bring out a marvellous set of Stations of the Cross, painted by an
artist in the congregation. They focus just on the torsos of the figures, in
tones of blue and terracotta, which perfectly complement the palate of the
They are published on our website (
www.stgeorge.easynet.co.uk — click on “History and Information”, then
“Stations of the Cross”), and we have had many requests to use them, from Dubai
to New Zealand. Mind you, I was taken aback when I noted one website where the
credit ran: “Images by Ken Cooke courtesy of
the Italianate Church of St George the Martyr, Copyright Ken Cooke.”
Then the penny dropped: our website homepage begins: “The Italianate Church
of St George the Martyr serves the growing and busy community of Wash Common to
the south of Newbury. . .” The users had thought “Italianate Church” was our
denomination — which has a certain charm. I’ve heard reactionary references to
the Roman Catholic Church as “the Italian Mission”, but this is going a little
ONE LAST thought on fasting, and on a problem that racks clerics to their
marrow during the Triduum — or it does me, anyway. I speak, of course, of the
little sugar-coated eggs we have purchased to give out on Easter Day.
Every year, being afraid they’ll run out, I buy about 20 packets a couple of
weeks early, and hide them from myself in a cupboard. But they call to me, and,
as sure as eggs is eggs (sorry), at some low point I raid at least a quarter of
them, which leads to frantic, shamefaced shopping in Holy Week.
Last year, however, I hit on the obvious solution. As soon as they were
bought, I handed them over to our Reader, Elizabeth, a woman of stern,
self-denying rectitude. I know my limitations.
The Revd John Wall is Vicar of St George the Martyr, Newbury