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29 August 2014


I am writing this diary fresh from a fortnight's annual leave in France. A week with friends in the Loire valley, followed by a week in Carcassonne, was just what the doctor ordered, although I suspect that the same medic might have blanched at the number of units of alcohol consumed.

Spending 14 days in the middle of two great wine regions, in houses owned by people who also own a vineyard and kindly donated a bottle or two of their plonk, does not make for a teetotal experience. I was even less inclined to abstinence when I saw the price of bottles of wine in France. For €4, you can get a really very potable red or white; if you paid that kind of money in the UK, you would expect to use it to strip paint, clean the lavatory, or encourage recalcitrant parishioners to leave at the end of a long drinks party.


At one level, though, I think I should stake a claim for the moral high ground (or at least gaze up the incline) when it comes to booze. For a start, I always feel it an affront to the ancient liberties of an Englishman to be asked by a doctor how many units one drinks.

As with the five or eight or 37 portions of vegetables we are told to eat in order to avoid certain and instant death, it is not clear to me how they go about calculating their figure. I do not deny that one should not spend one's life in an alcoholic haze (I could barely afford it anyway on a vicar's stipend), but why 17 or 20, or however many units of drink is the appropriate number, I am not sure.

If confronted with cleverer or healthier people, I always (like a good Anglican) turn to the scriptures for support. Not only does the psalmist remind us that God gave us wine to cheer our hearts (never mind our Lord's first miracle that he wrought), but all this numbering seems very inimical to the lesson that we learn from King David.

Look what happened to him in 2 Samuel 24, when he tried to count his people. The Lord is not amused by all this calculation. It is certainly in situations such as this that I begin to see the appeal of biblical fundamentalism, although I fear that few fundamentalists use their literalism to justify being half-cut.


BESIDES having our hearts cheered by wine on holiday, we also had them cheered by holy places. Not only did we venerate St Martin in Tours, but in Poitiers we managed two further saints: Hilary and Radegund.

We honoured the latter in memory of our friend the Revd Dr John Hughes, the Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge (Diary and Obituary, 11 July). He was devoted to St Radegund, to whom the convent, on whose site Jesus College was built, was dedicated.

The formal title of Jesus College is the College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St John the Evangelist and the Glorious Virgin St Radegund. This fulsomeness might explain the popular preference for its shorthand designation.

All three saints had lovely shrines, and we lit candles, prayed, commended John to their intercession, and gave thanks for the gift of holiness. The only down side was a pervasive spirit-of-Vatican-II fundamentalism, which saw each church and cathedral disfigured by some wallpaper-pasting- or coffee-table placed a matter of feet from the high altar for the celebration of the eucharist.

Most egregious was at the church that contained the mortal remains of St Hilary, where his entire shrine was obscured by a table resting on a misshapen tree-trunk upon which some poor cleric was now consigned to celebrate the Holy Mysteries. The much wiser builders of the church had placed the altar above the shrine, to which one's eyes were naturally drawn after contemplating the resting place of the fourth-century doctor.

I can feel a rant coming on, and so I will confine myself to observing simply that putting a barrier (in the form of the altar) between the celebrant and congregation seems an odd way to emphasise the unity of priest and people, and, judging from attendance at mass in France since the 1960s, it has not exactly done a huge amount for piety.


IN MY parish, on the other hand, piety has possibly gone mad, and perhaps I ought to introduce a nave altar in order to restrain it. I am referring to our recent break-in. This is not a typical example of religiosity, but bear with me.

While I was away on holiday (sin always breaks out when the clergy and their mighty orisons are absent), a chap broke down the door to the sacristy and organ, and then smashed in the Director of Music's office door.

It does not indicate on the door that it is the gateway to the Director of Music's lair; so presumably our burglar hoped for rich pickings of silverware or unbanked Sunday collections. The alternative - that he knew what lay beyond the door, and had some strange obsession with sheet music for communion anthems, or the notation for plainsong propers - is too bizarre to contemplate.

I am happy to report that, apart from the damage to the doors, he got away with nothing. It is not, however, his empty hands that indicate his piety. When we looked at the CCTV footage, it showed our burglar enter the church, walk up the nave, and then, as he came to the high altar and turned towards the door under the organ, make the sign of the cross and genuflect towards the aumbry.

This is extraordinary. In a dyed-in-the-wool Anglo-Catholic parish, it turns out that even the criminals are High Church. It should also be observed, however, that they are not very bright. He was not wearing a mask, the police recognised him instantly, and the fellow - known to the authorities and on temporary release from prison - was quickly readmitted to doing time at our Supreme Governor's pleasure.

I am not sure whether his pious actions make him more endearing, or simply create frustration at the dissonance between his attempted theft and alleged devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Either way, clearly the answer is a nave altar. Not only will it discourage all this dangerous piety, but, given the intelligence of these burglars, we can safely say that they would not be able to work out how to get round it.

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

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