An affectionate portrait

02 November 2006

“OH VICAR, do not go so fast, We like it very slow . . .” “When it’s our turn to decorate the Rector . . .” Older Church Times readers may recall lines of ecclesiastical verse such as these, written by the Revd S. J. Forrest. Published during the middle of the 20th century, his humorous verses appealed to a broad spectrum of Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike.

Stanley Forrest was born on 18 February 1904 in Manchester. (He died in 1977.) The seeds of his Anglo-Catholic faith were sown during his youth at St Gabriel’s, Hulme, where his father was sacristan for many years. After studying at Leeds University and Mirfield, Stanley Forrest was ordained, and worked for 31 years in parishes in the dioceses of Manchester, Peterborough, and St Albans, before becoming chaplain to the Sisters of Bethany in Bournemouth.

His first volume of verse to reach a widespread readership, What’s the Use?, was published by Mowbrays in 1955, with an enthusiastic foreword by John Betjeman. This book ran to a sixth impression, and was later followed by eight more collections. The poems were illustrated with black-and-white line-drawings by Stanley’s brother Ted, later also ordained.

However, Stanley Forrest had in fact published poems ten years earlier, while he was Vicar of Leighton Buzzard. Those with very long memories may remember Church in Reconstruction, Parish Fashions and Anglican Noah’s Ark, all published as pamphlets by the Coelian Press.

The poems display Stanley Forrest’s playful sense of humour, something that dated back to his childhood. As a schoolboy, inspired by a Blackpool beach ventriloquist, Stanley created his own dummy with a papier-mâché head, and christened him “Sammy Scragg”. He used Sammy Scragg for entertainment at shows and parties in the parish right up until the early 1950s. As a young man, he involved himself in dramatic activities ranging from slapstick and farce to solemn portrayals of Christ’s nativity and passion, writing some of the plays himself.

But his faith did not mean that Stanley Forrest saw his verse-writing s an opportunity to proselytise. He once said that his first publisher, the Revd Hamilton Maughan, always wanted him to present himself as a crusader in shining armour fighting for the truth.

“I am afraid that this was certainly not the dominant urge in my mind,” he said. “It was the simple amusement at droll situations or absurd remarks. Certainly I would stand for the truth, but my lines for the most part are not deliberate propaganda.”
Dr Martin Forrest is working on a biography of his father.

The Flower of the Flock (1945)

Visitors to a church in Chelsea on Easter Day were diverted by the spectacle of
the two clergymen who officiated having bunches of primroses fastened to their scarves. The ladies who do the flowers have a new opening for their fancy. Journeyman, Church Times

We love on greater festivals to decorate our church,
You’ll find no better flowers in whatever place you search;
But reredos and pulpit we abandon in the lurch,
When it’s our turn to decorate the Rector.

Of old, our decorators were pathetically few,
But now they are so numerous, we don’t know what to do,
And we find a monthly rota is far better than a queue,
When it’s our turn to decorate the Rector.

In Lent, of course, we leave him plain, as normal custom goes,
But on Refreshment Sunday, from his temples to his toes,
We smother him with violets (of the Western shade of rose),
When it’s our turn to decorate the Rector.

Arrayed in Easter lilies, he’s particularly jolly;
But gets a little restive and accuses us of folly,
If we deck him out at Christmastide with mistletoe and holly,
When it’s our turn to decorate the Rector.

And when the weather’s fine and warm upon the Straits of Dover,
The time of major festivals is practically over;
So, finally at Trinity he finds himself in clover,
When it’s our turn to decorate the Rector.

His raiment cornucopious at Harvest is divine;
A wheatsheaf as a vestment is particularly fine
(Though not among the Ornaments of 1549),
When it’s our turn to decorate the Rector.

Sister Woolly-Ball (1959)

Authority and power
May frequently be found
In various disguises
Throughout the world around;
But I have found a convent
Which shelters in its walls,
A very special Sister
In charge of Woolly Balls.

I often like to picture
The Sister all serene,
Surrounded by her charges,
A cosy little scene!
I see her, like St Francis,
Who preached to little birds,
Addressing all her woollies
With sweet endearing words.

This lucky little Sister
In charge of Woolly Balls,
Is totally unworried
By frost or icy squalls;
The fascinating creatures
Affectionately swarm,
To nestle round her ankles,
And keep her tootsies warm.

They follow her to Chapel,
They come to meals as well,
And during Greater Silence
Not one will ring its bell.
So, when I pass the Convent,
Whatever else befalls,
I want to meet the Sister
In charge of Woolly Balls.

Presbyter or Priest (1955)

I long to be a Presbyter,
A Presbyter or Priest,
And grow an elder’s whiskers,
Like the Esbyter or East,
A yard in length at lesbyter,
I mean, of course, at least.
I’m sure that they would operate Like yesbyter or yeast,
And flocks would be incresbyter, Tremendously increased,
At every major festival,
Each fesbyter or feast.
And though I’d look a besbyter,
I’d be a kindly besbyter,
A gentle and adorable
Apocalyptic Beast.

Unconfirmed marvel (1955)

Oh, Vicar, thank you terribly for asking after Joey;
His progress all the term has been phenomenally showy.
The school report was wonderful, and even on vacation,
He’s feverishly busy with unending occupation:
He’s working on the radio to make it pre-selective,
And reading criminology, to be a great detective;
And while his scholarship exam is pending a decision,
He’s mastering the principles of modern television.
He understands the mysteries of synchrony and scanning,
And here’s a little sketch of apparatus that he’s planning.
He made a lovely aeroplane with accurate dihedral,
And built a perfect replica of Exeter Cathedral;
He’s classified a thousand trains, observed on railway stations,
And catalogued the foreign stamps of ninety-seven nations!

He’d join your confirmation class,
but Dad and I have banned it;
You see, we feel he’s just a bit too
young to understand it.

The Church Clairvoyant (1955)

They grumbled at the anthems and the chants they couldn’t sing,
They moaned about the settings that the festivals would bring,
But they left the poor old organist to find out everything,
By instinct, or possibly, by radar.

They groused about the particles of dust upon the pew,
They shivered in the icy draughts which from the windows blew,
But they never told the verger, or perhaps they thought he knew,
By instinct, or possibly, by radar.

They fetched the doctor fast enough when father had the gout,
They called the district nurse when tonsillitis was about,
But they never told the Vicar, for they thought he’d know without,
By instinct, or possibly, by radar.

The moral of these verses isn’t difficult to show:
That if you think a man is wrong, politely tell him so,
Don’t leave the chap to ascertain the things he doesn’t know
By instinct, or possibly, by radar.

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