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Diary

28 March 2014

ISTOCK

Neighbour and friend

OUR Archdeacon is retiring. I don't mean he has a shy disposition (although he does have a pleasingly English manner), but that he is ceasing paid work. In many ways he has earned it; for, surely, being an archdeacon is a thankless task? Unless you have a devotion to administration and faculty applications, it is presumably a position where a great deal of your time is spent doing things you find irksome, or at least tedious.

That said, there are days in a parish priest's life which would answer to that description; so I should tread carefully. I say "in many ways" he has earned it, because, before he was my archdeacon, many moons ago, he was my diocesan director of ordinands, and so has a lot to answer for.

Fifteen years on, I do not remember much about the process other than a number of thoroughly pleasant and interesting chats about faith, vocation, and theology with a charming and intelligent priest who was kindly taking an interest in a rather gauche 21-year-old.

Now I'm a vocations adviser, and seeing all these criteria, complicated forms, and many demanding interviews, I am convinced that if I entered the process today I would never get through.

Not only is he my Archdeacon and former DDO, but he is also my next-door neighbour, my vicarage having been built in his garden - with his permission, I hasten to add - a few years ago. I have benefited from his vocational guidance, his archidiaconal wisdom, and, no less usefully, eggs from the archidiaconal chickens in the archidiaconal coop.


Ready for action

I COULD hardly miss, therefore, the opportunity to say thank you and farewell which the diocese afforded me with his leaving service at the cathedral a few weeks ago.

All was looking promising: this was not some awful fabricated liturgy with affirmations of this, that, and the other, and children bringing up symbols of his ministry; this was evensong, with plenty of lovely music by Gibbons, the Rose responses, and a hymn written by the Archdeacon (which, unfashionably, did not have the word "I" in it, or talk about "us", but praised God).

My churchwardens, being canny souls concerned about traffic, had set off early; so we arrived at the cathedral 45 minutes before the service was due to commence.

I asked the nice verger where the clergy were to robe, and I was directed to the Old Library. It was at this point that I should have smelled a rat, but didn't; for the Old Library was by no means a large room. Anyway, I put on my choir habit, sorted out the folds of my hood correctly, arranged my tippet tidily on top, and awaited my fellow-presbyters.


Right time, wrong place

IT WAS not long before a group of older, distinguished-if-slightly-battered priests arrived and togged up (it turned out that they were the honorary canons). We exchanged pleasantries, and then three Lutheran ministers popped their heads round the door, representing the German inter-Church link that the Archdeacon had looked after. They duly donned their ruffs and gowns, and we smiled ecumenically at one another.

It was at this stage that I began to wonder where the rest of the diocesan clergy were. Just then, more clergy arrived, and I looked up, hoping to see a colleague or two whom I recognised, only to find it was a group of former and neighbouring archdeacons.

They assumed their copes of many colours, and exchanged a few witticisms about visitations and troublesome rural deans. It was then that I decided, somewhat nervously, that the time had come to advance towards the door to find asteward, and ask where the lesser clergy were assembling, because it seemed quite clear to me that it wasn't here.

I was, however, beaten to it by a verger who now opened the door in front of me - not with the look of one in search of stray junior clergy, but one with wand in hand and ready for the off.

"What do I do?" I asked rather feebly. "I think I'm in the wrong room. I'm not an archdeacon or an honorary canon."

"Don't worry," she replied cheerfully, "just slot in between them."

So I did. The door opened wide, the organ had struck up, and off we went, me thinking that if time and a discreet moment behind a pillar allowed, I would find the other clergy procession and leap over and slot myself in.


Light dawns

IT WAS at this moment, however, that, looking about the cathedral, I realised that there was only one other procession: the Dean and Chapter, together with the retiring Archdeacon and the Bishop. I realised with dawning horror that diocesan clergy were obviously not supposed to robe at all, and I had misremembered the invitation.

It was, however, too late to do anything else but carry on. The hymn had begun, we were moving, and all eyes were on us as we slipped in behind the cross, lights, and choir, and began our stately progress up the nave. As we passed the chapter and episcopal processions waiting to add themselves on behind us, I could not help but sense - maybe I imagined it - the Bishop's Chaplain looking at me with a quizzically raised eyebrow.

We took our seats, one or two unrobed clergy smiled in a "Why are you dressed up?" sort of way, and evensong was offered with that plaintive elegiac beauty that has sustained the Church of England through many a long period of vicissitude and brouhaha.

Afterwards, the archdeacons chatted away to me, assuming that I was an honorary canon, and the honorary canons chatted away to me, assuming I was someone who should be there, and being far too polite to ask who on earth I was.

The Archdeacon and the Bishop's Chaplain were mightily amused, and I felt a complete buffoon; but 99 per cent of everyone else neither noticed nor cared. It struck methat joining in random cathedral processions could be a means of whiling away my time when retirement eventually comes (I'll look much more like an honorary canon then), and, given that no one noticed me this time, when I stuck out like a sore thumb, in the future it should be a sight easier.

When the next Archdeacon retires - they're interviewing for a replacement as I type - I'll be sure to pop along again. In the mean time, if you see an out-of-place cleric in a procession near you, there's a chance it could be me getting some practice in.

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

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