21 February 2007

by John Wall

Deepest sympathy
THERE WAS a ring at the door. I opened it, and standing there was a man in his early thirties, dishevelled and close to tears. “I’m James,” he said. “My Mum’s just died, and I don’t know what to do.” He told me he was the cousin of our verger, who had encouraged him to come and talk to me.

James’s mother, Margaret, had been staying in Liverpool with her elderly mum. She suffered a massive heart attack, and had just dropped dead. James’s grandmother was too distressed and fragile to do what was necessary, and James had to go to formally identify the body. “What will it be like?” he asked, fearfully. “I’ve never seen a dead body before.”

I made him a sandwich and gave him some tea. I told him that there was nothing to be frightened of, that she would just look as if she was asleep, but that if he touched her, he would have to be prepared for her to be ice-cold. We talked of the shock of it, and the pain of not being able to say goodbye.

He had been in touch with the Co-operative Funeral Service, but I said we didn’t need to sort out the funeral yet, as he had enough to deal with: there’d be time later on when the body came back to Brighton. I gave him some money for the fare to Liverpool, and some biscuits and crisps for the journey. He started to cry as I gave him a lift to the friends who would look after him until the bus left.

The sting
IT WAS, as the worldly-wise among you will have guessed already, a con from first to last. I phoned our verger, who had no cousin called James. I phoned the Co-op, who had no record of a death in Liverpool.

Then, at the back of my mind, I remembered a summer round robin from the Area Dean warning us of a con-man called James, who was claiming that his mother, Margaret, was dead or awaiting burial in locations as diverse as Birmingham and Glasgow.

On one level, I was livid — you feel such a fool, taken in by the clergy’s eternal weak spot of wanting to give help and care to someone in crisis. I felt abused. But, on a deeper level, I just felt sad for “James”.

I wonder how all this started for him. Did a member of the clergy help him out in exactly this situation, and he twigged it was a money-spinner? Or maybe it was the opposite: someone refused to help, and he’s going to make the rest of us pay for it. The fact that he always uses the same names might suggest that there’s some basis in fact, that he’s effectively going over and over the same scenario.

The challenge, however, is not to get cynical, not to let the wells of compassion dry up.

Our Reader was kind when I grizzled to her about it: “Jesus would have given him the money,” she said. I’m not sure that he would, but I appreciated the thought.

Don’t I know you?
I HAVE, I think, penetrated to the heart of a clerical mystery: why do so many clergy wander round with an expression of benign vagueness on their (too often) cherubic features? Beloved of comedy writers, is it a sign of increasing holiness? Is it a blissful “at-peace-ness” with the world? Does it come from living in your own personal cloud of the odour of sanctity?

Not a bit of it. It is a professional, all-purpose, neutral mask that is ready to remould itself into an ex-pression of joy, sympathy, wonder, or chortling good humour, depending on what unknown person pounces on you without warning.

The problem is that so many people feel they know you, and you haven’t got a clue who they are.

Over and above your regular congregation, you have those who come once in a blue moon — they sit at the back, and run away as soon as they can. But at least you’ve got a sporting chance of recognising them.

Then you’ve got the Easter/ Christmas once-a-year folk, who might leave a floating memory. But mainly you have those you encounter through the occasional offices. Of course you remember many of them: but so far in my time I calculate that I’ve taken something like 300 weddings, 600 baptisms, and 1000 funerals. That means between 4000 and 6000 brides/grooms/ parents/relatives to start with, and, at a conservative estimate of 25 at each service, that means I’ve glad-handed getting on for 50,000 people at the church door.

So, when someone jumps on you, shakes you warmly by the hand, and says, “Really lovely to see you, Vicar,” your all-purpose benign expression clicks into place.

“Oh, hello! How is everyone?” is an opening gambit that normally elicits the information you need. “Fine, thanks: Gran’s doing great since the funeral. She’s gone back to weekly bingo,” means you remould to sympathy, tinged with indulgent relief. “Fine, thanks: Baby Kylie took her first steps the day after the christening” means avuncular beaming.

When I was a curate, in jeans, trainers, and blond highlights, I felt I could happily subvert the trad clergy image. Now, I could glide benignly into any sitcom as the vicar from Central Casting, and no one would bat an eyelid. Oh well.

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