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24 May 2007

David Wilbourne

Shut all hours
“THIS church is usually open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. every Sunday,” the notice informed me — not much consolation when you’re reading it at 12 noon on a Thursday. The place was Goodmanham, “not far east of York, beyond the river Derwent” (according to the Venerable Bede’s gazetteer), where the high priest Coifi, egged on by Archbishop Paulinus and King Edwin, had desecrated his own pagan shrine, overturned its altars, and burnt it to the ground. Ever since this colossal act of vandalism, the locals understandably have been a touch jumpy about visitors.

Yet my overactive imagination re-ran an episode from a certain Thursday 1380 years ago. Edwin, Paulinus, and Coifi make the sorriest return to their ancient palace in Elmet, their stallions sultry. “My goodness, boys,” Queen Ethelberga greets them, “that was quick. Desecrating the shrine must have been a pushover!”

“No, it were shut!” Edwin complains, in his native broad Yorkshire.

Deadly sins
I SYMPATHISE with churches that agonise over whether to be locked or unlocked. The price of keeping our church open is an occasional act of vandalism: we suffered a particularly vicious attack on the Wednesday of Holy Week, and had to clean up our own lesser Calvary by night in order to restore the place by dawn on Maundy Thursday.

Often, visitors feel moved to leave notes on my stall, with cheery messages such as “Resign!” or “Be born again!”, or tracts lecturing me on the perils of Roman Catholicism. Most recently, I was left this rather sweet poem:

  Once, when in passion of guilt and unbelief

  I turned my thoughts to God on high and sought from him relief:

  “My heart is black, my sins are foul, of sinners I’m the chief.”

  But my guardian angel, stooping low, whispered from behind,

  “Beware the sin of pride, my son.You’re nothing of the kind.”

  It reminded me of a story of a teenage girl making her confession. “Father, I keep staring into the mirror and saying, ‘Jane, you are beautiful.’ Is that the sin of pride, or of vanity?”

“Neither, my dear, just a mistake,” the priest replied, looking lovingly on the rather plain young woman.

Any dream will do
FORTUNATELY, I hadn’t journeyed 50 miles just to inspect Goodmanham church. I was to address a branch of the Yorkshire Countrywomen’s Association (YCA) at Market Weighton nearby, and, like Bede’s trio, felt the heavy hand of history on my shoulder.

The event was organised by the wife of the head teacher of the primary school I had attended in the 1960s. Both she and her husband were in the audience, keen to bridge the four decades since our last meeting.

The event was organised by the wife of the head teacher of the primary school I had attended in the 1960s. Both she and her husband were in the audience, keen to bridge the four decades since our last meeting.

We recalled a marvellous nativity play the school had staged in church in 1966 — it was traditional and epic. In order to involve every child in the 90-strong school, the script began with Isaiah and followed through eight centuries to Christmas.

As the school’s head boy, I had been tipped to be the play’s narrator, but my unfortunate boyhood habit of failing to roll my r’s prevented me. The vicar’s son proclaiming “The angel Gabwiel entered her woom and said. . .” would have been too novel a take on the incarnation, even for the radical 1960s. So instead I was cast as Joseph, which suited me just fine, since the pretty head girl was cast as Mary. Christmas came early for me that year.

A photo was shown around the packed YCA meeting of a very hot me, decked in my father’s dressing gown, with a false beard and moustache gingerly held on by spirit-gum. Tied around my head was a towel, whose gaudiness was undiminished even by the black-and-white photo: I was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Tea Towel a year before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph took the world by storm. Beside me was Mary, looking beautiful and Semitic, with a gaze into the distance that was positively beatific.

She went on to be a top style and fashion expert, and editor of the magazine Marie Claire; so perhaps she was looking into her happy future.

My head teacher recalled how a door had opened and let the future in for me, too. Under the hot spotlights at the play’s dress rehearsal, he was getting really wound up and was shouting at the cast because of their poor diction. Suddenly I, a Joseph definitely out-of-role, tapped him on his shoulder and pleaded, “Smile, sir, you’re on Candid Camera.”

I’ve been trying to disarm tricky situations by doing that sort of thing ever since.

The Revd David Wilbourne is Vicar of Helmsley in the diocese of York.

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