THE READER’s situation can still be a comparatively solitary one. Should he or she be a native of the parish — which the Reader often is — he or she will have served a number of incumbents, but may have had not much more than a fleeting glimpse of other Readers in the deanery, let alone those in the diocese at large. As for Readers in neighbouring dioceses — well, who were they?
The truth is, I suppose, that each of us can be overly parish-contained, and that without such assistance as John Wood’s annual conference at Selwyn College, it would be difficult for us to look over the hill.
So here we are again, for the 16th time. Dear young and old familiar faces, plus some new ones, take their seats. The talks, as always, are relevant and fine, but intriguing, too, as I glance around. What is the response to them by this lay collective? Also, I have to confess to heretical thinking, such as what a relief it is not to be ecumenical for a few hours, or multifaithed. Just C of E.
There is an excellent lecture on fresh approaches to evangelism. Young Readers take it in. Aged Readers applaud them, but, having done battle in their time, ask God for permission just to “be”. They tell him what a lot can be gained by just being.
We live in extraordinary spiritual times, when it is common to see a large part of society leading exemplary lives without religion of any persuasion. They come to church to look at architecture or hear music. And sometimes to take part in delightful old rites, or sad ones, but with no real belief, and with the Church giving them, in its love, the benefit of the doubt.
It has happened before. The Revd Charles Wesley had officiated for years when, one Sunday morning, about to set off to take the service, he felt for the first time, almost physically as well as spiritually, the warmth of Christ. He remembered a verse in Leviticus, “The fire shall ever be burning on the altar; it shall never go out.” And he wrote:
O thou who camest from above
The fire celestial to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart,
believing that he had not been a Christian until that moment.
Looking around at religious gatherings, one sees fiery, sparky, and mostly youthful intentions, and the by-no-means-to-be-despised glowing elderly embers.
Outside, it was a cold-as-Cambridge spring day. The Chaplain explained that we would find a white frontal in chapel, plus some white flowers, although tomorrow was Passion Sunday. For no sooner had we said our prayers than a marriage was to be solemnised.
When the tall bride arrived, unveiled, smiling, beating her way through the gusty court, we stopped conferencing to stare through the windows like the girls in Mrs Goddard’s school when the handsome rector went by in Jane Austen’s Emma. Shameless we were.
There had been lunch in Hall alongside childlike undergraduates. When it was all over, we would have walked along the Backs to see the brilliant green strings of the weeping willows and the daffodils, but the wind blew us straight into the snug seats of the car. And so we came home.
The next day I preached on the Lord walking to his death.