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Diary

06 December 2013

ISTOCK

THERE was a magazine that my parents used to get when I was little. On the letters page was the warning: "Correspondence will not be entered into." It was years before I realised what those words meant, and it is only when you are vaguely in the public eye, as vicars are, that you see its deep wisdom.

A former Cambridge dean of my acquaintance used to keep a cardboard box into which he placed letters that he had received in green ink, to which he had no intention of responding; eventually, he put in letters that were in what you might call spiritually green ink as a means both of preserving evidence of people's insanity and isolating it from the main run of correspondence that did need entering into.

A version of that today, perhaps, is the thing that I see with increasing frequency from Cambridge academics, which is an automated email response along the lines of: "I receive too many emails possibly to respond, so please be patient" - a line whose content I agree with, but whose tone, I always feel, has a measure of frustration about it, not to mention almost a desire for you to be in awe of how busy the recipient of your epistle is.

 

THE kind of correspondence that I have no desire to enter into is either with people trying to march me into their camp on some political issue, or, alternatively, with those who seem wilfully to mishear what I say, or misread what I write.

It was not so long ago that an email came to the vicarage computer, accusing me of precisely the reverse of what I had said. If it was not for the fact that I know I speak too quickly at times, I could have been forgiven for a degree of parsonical paranoia.

Happily, sometimes, the opposite is true, and a sermon of stunning mediocrity that you have preached turns out to have helped someone, usually by their hearing something you did not intend - or, indeed, categorically did not say. It is, of course, the Holy Spirit's way of taking clerical inanity and making it of some vague use for the Kingdom.

As a jolly postscript, I should add that, after the comment in my last diary column on attitudes to hymnody, I broke my rule by entering into correspondence with a priest who had made contact. I am glad that I did, as he produced this gem from a former parishioner of his: "I don't know why you keep choosing that hymn, Father - we keep telling you we don't know it."

 

THE local boiler-repair firm are probably wishing that they had a similar policy on entering into correspondence, given the times that they have now heard from me or my churchwardens about our boiler. It was, of course, inevitable that it would break the moment the weather got cold. It broke in spectacular fashion.

During one choir practice, it was noticed that the church was a little nippy, and someone checked that the heating was on. It was, but nothing was happening. The smell of gas and the foot of water in the boiler room, which were discovered shortly afterwards, indicated why.

These were, as the scriptures remind us, but the birth pangs; for by the weekend we discovered filthy water below the boiler in a pit, and then six inches of pigeon poo covering a blocked drain in a side passage.

 

HAVING been on a variety of courses for new incumbents (oh, the joys of common tenure!), I found that none of these fine pedagogical sessions covered the emptying of overflow pits, or the shovelling of droppings.

I had been warned that aspects of a vicar's life were like shovelling the proverbial, but it was none the less a surprise to find that to be literally true within 18 months of my induction. There is, however, something both cathartic and satisfying about physical labour, especially when, as a priest, you spend so long doing things whose progress cannot be measured.

Getting people to come to an Advent course is like drawing blood; but a working party to do something practical is, of course, music to an Anglican's ears. So a cheerful band of brothers and sisters set about the work with vigour and tea. Aided by broken flower-vases and plastic dustpans, we scooped out the water, and cleaned up the boiler room, while shovels and buckets and a well-judged jiggling of a garden hoe made swift work of the pigeon detritus, reopening the drain and solving the damp problem in the crypt - even if it turned out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the boiler.

 

THEREAFTER, we waited with bated breath for news of whether the boiler was salvageable, or we would need to buy a new one. Clerical readers and experienced lay members of PCCs will share our agony; for you will know already, fellow-sufferers in Christ, that a new boiler is a fantastically expensive piece of ecclesiastical kit.

At the time of writing this, we are still not sure, although the lovely man from the boiler-repair firm is optimistic about parts. Never before has someone's optimism about parts meant so much to me. The phrase has taken root in my heart. I suspect the engineer thought me a little odd in my hanging on his every word, and my desire that he would repeat the more upbeat elements of his pronouncement.

The psalm at weekday mass over the past week or so has been about praising and magnifying the Lord, but I have had to resist the temptation to announce to the faithful that the response to the psalm is: "We must be optimistic about parts."

I type this, still optimistic about parts, but still waiting. As Advent descends, I shall be mightily annoyed if the part finally arrives, only to find that the Second Coming has, too. You know you have arrived as a priest in the C of E if you regard the parousia as a dangerous diversion from the work of boiler maintenance.

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

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