Diary

23 May 2014

ISTOCK

Bring on the substitute

I DO not know whether you can sense it, emerging from the page as you read this diary column, but I'm a bit stressed. It is not the usual things - late marriage-returns, the EU email mountain, or contemplating the diocesan Mission Statement - no, it's because of a sermon.

Normally, I don't find preaching especially stressful, and actually thrive on the slight pressure of a deadline (as do many clergy, it would appear from the homiletic comments on Facebook on Saturday nights), but now is different.

You see, tonight (as I write) we have our May devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I am preaching at it. It's not that I have nothing to say about the Mother of God, or find preaching at "dos" where we all go outside and wander round with a statue, singing hymns in front of bemused passers-by, especially hard. It's that I was not supposed to be preaching at it.

A certain Welshman with a beard, who has spent the past year or so looking mightily relieved, was supposed to be preaching at it. Lord Williams of Oystermouth - or the Master of Magdalene College, as he is known in Cambridge - had to pull out at the last minute (through no fault of his own, I hasten to add). So the faithful are stuck with yours truly.

What is one to do? In my immediate panic, I think I recall allowing the idea to pass through my head for a fleeting moment that if I got a beard from somewhere, no one would actually notice. My second-rate theology does not quite match up to one of the world's greatest living exponents of the Queen of Sciences, however, and, more to the point, I am almost 30 years his junior, and don't even begin to sound Welsh. Or anything like it.

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At which point you ponder whether you should preach one of his sermons instead, in a sort of Oscars-like event, where the star sadly cannot be with you but has prepared something to be read out. I have a few of his Marian homilies in books and articles, which are very splendid, but I fear that I might lapse into doing an unconscious half-impression of him as I read, which would be not only rude but embarrassing.
 

Short and sweet

IT DAWNS on me, of course, that given that the Great Man is not going to be there, then there is no point putting a lot of effort into the sermon at all, because the only virtue of Lord Williams's absence is that the whole event is made briefer, and one gets to the wine and nibbles quicker - or at least Benediction, which I always think is like a spiritual equivalent of a light snack anyway.

Whatever I say won't make up for the learned prelate's silence, and so one must make a virtue of it, and prepare just a few encouraging words about processions, Mary, and loving Jesus, before clambering down from the pulpit and getting on with things.

It's at this point that I realise that the printer is out of ink. It has been on the way out for a while, but, of course, I've been putting off doing anything about it until after the May devotion (the order form is in the same to-do pile as the marriage returns). Consequently, it will need to be printed off in church, where the printer is playing up after printing a large number of Baroque-looking booklets for tonight's simple Bible service.
 

Journey's end

THIS second half of the diary I write after the said event - for which a goodly number of people still showed up. Actually, the goodly number showed up because they did not know that the retired Archbishop was indisposed.

At one level, I am sure it will teach them a noble lesson not to put their trust in princes, as the psalmist saith, and simply allow the liturgy to do its work, but I can't deny that I felt a bit embarrassed. I felt rather more so after one lovely couple, who had arrived nice and early and full of expectation, explained that they had come from Monmouth to hear Lord Williams. Monmouth, for the benefit of readers in London, is not very near Cambridge.

That they stayed, despite having to listen to me, is a testimony either to their piety, or the fact that, at the time they were informed of their former diocesan's absence, it was tipping it down with rain outside.

Another group had come from Nottingham. Again, for metropolitan readers, this is a little nearer than Wales, but a suburb of Cambridge it isn't. When my reverend colleague announced at the beginning of the service that our guest preacher was not coming, one could see a physical sort of sinking, and hear a slight groaning among the faithful - a sinking and groaning that I am not entirely convinced was reversed when they heard that the Vicar had kindly stepped into the breach.

People might come from around the parish to hear the Vicar preach, but they don't come from Monmouth - or Nottingham for that matter. Happily, despite all this, things went well. The choir sounded lovely, the printer worked, and my sermon was delivered. It stopped raining just in time for the procession; the Sea Cadets arrived in time to carry the bier; several new people were admitted as members of the Society of Mary; a jolly bunfight was had by all, afterwards; and the vicar did not stick ona beard, lapse into a cod Welsh accent, or try to read out one of the former Primate's sermons.

Stress levels in the vicarage are now returning to normal.
 

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

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