Diary

by
02 November 2006

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Fasting failures

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” response.

“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 on to.

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.

Italianate job

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 church décor.

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 far.

Know thyself

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

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