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03 May 2013


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 same.

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 to Easter).

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 the street.

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 told).

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, Cambridge.

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