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02 August 2013

by The Ven. Jonathan Boardman


YOU wait for an invitation to preach at someone's first mass for more than 20 years, and then, lo and behold, like the proverbial buses, two come along together.

After their ordination at All Saints', Rome, on 30 June, by Bishop Edward Holland (acting as commissary for the Archbishop of Canterbury, neither bishop in the diocese in Europe currently ordaining women priests), both Mary Styles and Dana English, serving their NSM titles here, honoured me with the said invitations. And thus I had to think of something different to say at the two services, which would inevitably be attended by some of the same people.

In her deacon year, Mary had gathered a regular group, worshipping at lunchtime on Wednesdays and then studying the Bible over a sandwich - and it was at Light@Lunchtime that Mary chose to preside at the eucharist for the first time, on St Thomas's Day. The subject of twins, "doublets", then did at least offer itself as a sub-theme for the linked occasions.

Dana, on the other hand, had opted to be scheduled at a regular Sunday sung eucharist for her first presidency, and so at least the settings within the same building represented a degree of difference: a midweek, midday, important feast, with the assembly of 30-odd gathered almost in a circle around a movable nave altar; and a reasonably formal, pretty, traditional Sunday Ordinary Time mass, Sixth after Trinity, with deacon, sub-deacon, full complement of servers, and choir.

My knowledge of the two women also differed in type, if not exactly in character.

I HAVE known Mary for many years. I collaborated with her in the early days of a home-based family-worship project, which has developed into the Fresh Expression "Footsteps Rome, North and South". Then I acted as her local supervisor in training as Reader, and subsequently accompanied her on her further vocational discernment and three years' study and formation for orders.

Dana, however, was a relative newcomer to All Saints'. She arrived in Rome in 2009, as she, and her husband and children relocated from Manhattan. Previously or-dained as a Presbyterian minister in the United States, Dana was, at our first meeting, an ordinand of the diocese of New York, after worshipping in a number of Episcopalian parishes.

I would subsequently act as her sponsoring incumbent, and then have some input during her passage through diocesan selection and C of E bishops' panel. Enough to make the sermons different, then? The scriptural readings were, of course, proper to each occasion. But do we preachers ever really preach a different sermon?

I RECALLED that my first contact with Mary had been when she rang me on what I thought of as my private phone line, while I was recovering from a bout of hepatitis A in the hottest days of August 2000.

My first words to her were: "How did you get this number?", delivered in a manner redolent with hostility. To this she replied with a simple directness which I have come to associate her with: "Well, it's the number in the telephone book, actually."

If Mary had her doubts from the outset about the likelihood of her being able to work with me, I would not have blamed her. But it is a mark of her faithfulness to God that she overcame my bad temper, the apparent differences in our styles of worship and theological perspectives, and her own reticence and insecurities, to persist in working within a "traditional" parish while never losing her identity.

Apropos preaching at her first mass, I have been delighted at the openness apparent in her spiritual development, which makes her a very regular communicant (up to three or four times a week).

HOW I love the story of the leper, Naaman, in 2 Kings 5 and following. This was one of the readings for Dana's celebration, and its complex narrative structure - captured slave girl says seek the prophet in Israel to be cured; King sends letter; brother king laments at the impossibility of curing the leprosy; Elisha intervenes; Naaman refuses to do as asked; servants prevail upon him; he is cured - and that is far from the end of it.

It is the biblical equivalent of Henry James, or Proust, authors not only dear to me but among Dana's preferred list. I've always thought The Rivers of Damascus, or indeed just Abana and Pharpar, would make a splendid title for a biographical memoir. I cannot seem to make it fit with anything I might write, however.

And then there is the extraordinary interfaith permission that Naaman receives from the prophet, that even though he will be worshipping the Lord God of Israel on the soil he carries home with him, he might continue to enter the temple of Rimmon with the King of Aram leaning on his arm. I always knew Elisha was a bit more flexible than Elijah.

A former Dean of Chapel at St John's College, Cambridge, Andrew Macintosh, used to tax me with attendance at Trinity or King's for evensong with a cheery: "Been bowing the knee in the temple of Rimmon again?"

A FORMER parishioner happened to be at All Saints' on the day of the ordination, and stayed (with 100 others) for lunch. She took a couple of photos of me, shared via email, one entitled "A lovely photo of you"; the other "I think this is your exasperated, please-go-away face."

I replied, simply: "Good twin; evil twin."

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.

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