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11 October 2013

By Robert Mackley


Unexpected warmth

I'VE just been given a curate. I don't mean that the Bishop arrived in one of those brown UPS vans (where the sliding door is always perilously open) and delivered a newly wrapped deacon to the vicarage; but close enough. He had been sort-of-wrapped by theological college, and was delivered by the DDO - not to the vicarage, but to Ely Cathedral, to be ordained at Michaelmas.

Now, Ely Cathedral is one of those places where I have never been warm in my life. It has lovely old-fashioned heaters, which pour out warmth that then, sadly, floats rapidly roofwards, leaving the earth-bound congregation as nippy as ever.

On this visit, however, I was not cold. In part, I am sure it was due to the warmth of the Holy Spirit, and the heated prayer and singing that accompanied the liturgy; in part, due to my being robed and so carrying several additional layers of insulation; but mainly because even the medieval imperviousness of Ely Cathedral could not withstand the prolonged assault of a long, hot summer. By September, the place was actually warm, and the ordination happened without the experience of realising at some stage in the service that I can no longer feel my feet.

Michaelmas ordinations, it turns out, have their advantages.

And another thing

GENERALLY speaking, I feel about ordination services rather as I feel about the post: excitement in the hope of a lovely surprise parcel in the letterbox, and then disappointment that in fact it's just second-rate circulars and bills.

The main causes of my deflation at such events are the ham-fisted attempts to undermine any suggestion of ordination by making the ordinands wear their stoles and read the Gospel before they are ordained; preachers devoid of theology and ecclesiology who descend in their ordination sermons into well-meaning waffle about curates' "looking after themselves"; and, finally, the wearing of tippets as if they were some sort of puritan equivalent of a stole (one even sees them tied and untied for deacons and priests).

At the risk of making this column collapse into an "And another thing" rant, I will just add the rage-inducing tendency of precentors to have read some ghastly Common Worship companion volume that tells them that they must not have a hymn after the dismissal at the end of mass. This, according to the liturgical purists, is because, if we've been told to go in peace, then we should do that, and not stand and sing a hymn.

Fine; except, of course, the priest still has to process out, and it's not as if people rush from their pew to go and cast fire upon the earth: they stay to have coffee. So, instead, we give more attention to the clergy by making the congregation do nothing while Father leaves, and, because no vicar in the history of humanity has ever cut a hymn, we insert the recessional between the post-communion prayer and the blessing, when nothing is happening and no one is doing anything.

Anyway, while my breathing returns to normal, I should add that none of these offences against truth, beauty, and goodness was perpetrated at our assistant curate's ordination. In fact, it was really lovely and rather moving, and, because it was a Monday night, his priest friends could come who would normally be chained to their parish's altar on a Sunday morning.

Not only was this nice for him, but it improved the volume of the singing immeasurably - although, as those who organised the drinks afterwards noted, it also increased the alcohol consumption immeasurably, too.

Having a new curate is rather like having a bridegroom, however, and, as the Gospel puts it, who can fast in such situations?

Diaconal gift

RECEIVING the gift of a deacon is a funny thing, because it takes you right back to your own ordination. I was made a deacon ten years ago this year, and so a decade would be a reasonable time after which to do a little reflection anyway, without a freshly minted assistant curate to prompt my introspection.

My own ordination was in St Paul's Cathedral, and was distinctly less intimate than the Ely service: I was one of 36 candidates, and there were thousands packed into the national basilica. My main memory, however, was of the lunch beforehand, when the Bishop of London had to discourage his son from showing his snake collection to the assembled ordinands.

Perhaps wisely, our father-in-God thought that we were nervous enough, and that our hands were already anxiously clammy, without the bringing out of any latent ophidiophobia among us by his offspring.

When the time came to take the oaths, I was convinced that my heartbeat was audible throughout the cathedral crypt, and much of the service passed me by in a daze. I regained consciousness towards the end, and vividly recall the organist enjoying himself just a little too much with "I, the Lord of sea and sky" as we processed out.

I can't say for certain, but I didn't get the impression that it was absolutely his favourite hymn.

Learn the lingo

SPEAKING of that, I have been educating the new curate in the linguistic landscape of Anglican hymnody. Like a lot of aspects of the glorious C of E, it is an area where rampant individualism is masked by a veneer of the corporate.

So, for example, the first thing that he needs to learn is that "Everyone knows that hymn" is a phrase used by a priest or organist when introducing a new hymn that he or she knows, but which it is by no means clear that anyone else does.

The second phrase to take on board is "We've never had that hymn before," which is said by a member of the congregation who has never heard that hymn herself. Finally, "Why can't we have good old hymns that everyone knows?" means "Can we sing what I sang at school?"

Once the curate has grasped all that, I'll start him on the answer used to visiting clerics who ask how the Sunday eucharist runs: "Oh, we just do it straight by the book."

I hope he knows what he's let himself in for.

The Revd Robert Mackley is Vicar of Little St Mary's, Cambridge.

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