I HOPE that the glow of the resurrection is still pervading your
inner being, as we wend our way toward the Ascension and Pentecost.
Here, in Cambridge, Ascension is almost a bigger thing than Easter,
because, while Easter is invariably celebrated out of term,
Ascension falls slap-bang in the middle of it.
It is a wonderful occasion for college choirs to have fun: St
John's and Jesus, for example, clamber up their towers and sing
hymns or matins, or some such improving liturgical rite, to remind
the students (most of whom are probably still asleep in bed) and
bemused passing citizenry that our Lord went up, not down.
Several other colleges with no tower to speak of still find some
high place or other - dangerously ignoring the Prophets'
denunciation of "high places", of course - from which to sing or
pray loudly. Having attended quite a number of such events over my
time in Cambridge, my abiding memories are of a growing ache in my
neck from looking upwards, and a realisation that I could not hear
what was being said. The first apostles may well have felt the
I remember that, when I was at Emmanuel College, the Dean
clambered on to the bursary roof to declaim that reading from Acts
about Jesus's coming the way you saw him go. The Dean solved the
sound problem by using a loudhailer.
You could not help reflecting that if the second coming happened
through a college bursary roof the Lord would be lucky to get away
without being invoiced for the damage to the ceiling, and a firm
letter asking why he was not wearing his gown.
BEING a parish priest in the university means that you, unlike
your chaplain colleagues, do not escape the full rigours of Easter,
and this was my first in the parish. My training vicar used to
observe, wearily, at various stages in Holy Week, that it was all
much easier if you were an Evangelical, and that perhaps we should
become that next year, and have the time catching up on sleep
instead (or whatever it is that low- church people do in the run-up
Now that I am an incumbent, I see what he means. Holy Week also
reinforces our belief in the devil, because it is when you are
under most pressure that demons start infecting your parish
machinery. If the Fall of Man happened today, Eve would not have
taken an apple: she would have persuaded Adam to sign a lengthy
lease agreement on a dodgy photocopier.
Ours (signed up to before my time, I hasten to add) operates at
a speed designed to suck hope out of even the most optimistic of
clerics. Over the Triduum, it also made an alarming grinding sound,
prompting reflections on the low grinding that Ecclesiasticus warns
us of in dark times, and started putting lines down pages and
turning perfectly clear pictures into grainy artists' impressions:
the resurrected Jesus on one of them looked like one of those
victim's reconstructions of the masked man who robbed him or her in
On reflection, there might be a sermon in that, but I can't
write it because the photocopier has not finished yet.
BEELZEBUB-infected Gestetners aside, we had a lovely Easter.
Some things you don't plan for, or expect, such as processing
through a blizzard on Palm Sunday, but at least none of the things
that my servers told me happened to my predecessors occurred: a
priest's being seized with a bad back during the washing of the
feet on Maundy Thursday; a server's trousers falling down in
procession; or attempting to strip the candles off the altar while
they were still chained down (the resulting clanking gave a rather
gothic feel to the beginning of the watch of the Passion, I am
By comparison, realising as you stand by the paschal fire that
you do not have the paschal candle with you, or being so obsessed
with finishing the foot-washing before the Ubi Caritas
ends that you accidentally miss out two people, seem minor errors
to me. That, at least, is the story I'm sticking to.
POOR college chaplains may not have to deal with the rigours of
Holy Week, but they do have the even more demanding task of finding
about 20 visiting preachers every year. Given that about 20
colleges have guest speakers at Sunday evensong, that means that
400 clerics need to be found over the course of three terms.
It is not easy finding people - lay or ordained - who are
willing and able to come on a Sunday evening and speak to
undergraduates and Fellows about some aspect of the Christian
faith. Worse still, often, when you do get someone, he or she is a
woefully bad preacher. Bishops, with a few noble exceptions, are
some of the worst.
This is not, I assume, because being unable to preach well is
intrinsic to the episcopal office, but rather because bishops are
so overworked that they never have time to sit down properly and
prepare a decent homily.
After bishops, the next worst offenders are clerics who feel
that they need to educate the toffee-nosed ivory-tower-clad
students with some urban home-truths. I will never forget a sermon
about the burdens of oral sex from one earnest benighted cleric, or
another angrily explaining how many women you could buy with a used
car in Wisbech (happily, I can't remember the number).
Finally, there are the priests who feel that, because they are
in a Cambridge college, they need to be "academic". This is
invariably a mistake, not least because, when it comes to the
Christian faith, most students know nothing. Instead of a learned
disquisition on Wittgenstein, you would be better off telling them
that there are four Gospels, or that Jesus was a real person, or
that not every scientist is an atheist.
On the rare occasions when a desperate chaplain invites me to
preach, I take comfort from the fact that not only am I not a
bishop, but I know no urban truths, and am as thick as three short
planks. And I have never been to Wisbech.
The Revd Robert Mackley is Vicar of Little St Mary's,