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Diary

30 May 2014

ISTOCK

Two to the rescue

WHY are Moulsecoomb clergy like buses? You wait for one for two years, and then two come along at once.

We are all terribly excited in our parish. Having lost our last two stipendiary priests within a week of each other in Eastertide 2012 (no Lady Bracknell comments, please), we are getting two new ones: a Team Vicar and a Curate. Having held the fort as Team Rector with a team (apart from our splendid NSM) of just me, I feel that reinforcements are on their way. And both will be rocking up within four days of each other in Petertide.

Our new Team Vicar, Betsy, will be coming from her curacy just up the road in Brighton: our Curate, Alice, will be descending on us from my old theological college, St Stephen's House, Oxford. The cavalry is coming!


Past and present

A LITTLE while ago, I went to see Alice on what, in my time, before the ordination of women, was known as "Father's Day", when training incumbents for the new batch of deacons-to-be were summoned to Oxford and given the once over by the college principal.

I have been back to "Staggers" (as St Stephen's House has been popularly known since, I believe, the 1920s) once or twice, but this was the first time in training-incumbent mode. It was an experience surprisingly full of ghosts.

Built originally as a great big monastery for the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE), otherwise known as the Cowley Fathers, the buildings are sleeker and more salubrious than in my day. The permanent cabbage-smell has gone, and the institutional beige-and-watery-green decor is now a celebration of Farrow & Ball Heritage shades (mind you, so is my rectory, so who am I to cast aspersions?).

It was surreal to sit in the Principal's office and gossip with the present Principal, Canon Robin Ward, who had been my contemporary in the 1980s: I kept feeling that the grown-ups would come along and throw us out ("Ward, Wall: out in the corridor and wait for your turn; come in when the signal light by the door turns green").

And, indeed, it is the past Principals, whose black-and-white photos hang in the entrance corridor, who begin to haunt you as you arrive, eyeing you as you pass, like the portraits of former heads of Hogwarts in Professor Dumbledore's study.


All mod cons

ST JOHN'S CHURCH, attached to the college, is also fully refurbished, with underfloor heating and chairs that are actually comfortable to sit in; previously austere and cold, it is now a well-used concert venue, earning its keep.

The big monastic cloisters are updated and fully utilised, too, and have lavatories, glazing, and weatherproofing. I remember once using the chilly echoey space to practise "Fair moon, to thee I sing" from HMS Pinafore, which I was performing later in Oxford at the Holywell Music Room. I had not realised that the cloisters acted as a megaphone; so I broadcast to the whole college. Not all the ghosts are scary.

The regime, too, is more benign. Some rooms are equipped with en-suite bathrooms, there is a barin the Common Room, occasional long weekends off are allowed, and a lie-in and late brunch are factored-in on Saturdays. In all, the place is civilised, whereas previously it could feel like a 1950s prep school where the ordinands were treated as obstreperous schoolchildren. Now, they are treated as adults, and are all the better for it. The House is clearly going well, and I applaud.


Blithe spirits

BUT, for me, the place the ghosts crowded most densely was the chapel. The Blessed Sacrament is now reserved on the main altar, and a little shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is set up in the side chapel, but otherwise it has hardly changed, in decor or layout.

The only additions are the memorial names of Cowley Fathers who have died since my time, some dozen or so of them engraved on the oak panelling above the choir stalls. Among them is the wonderful Fr Bean, who moved with his surviving brethren to a semi in the Cowley Road, reputedly taking the church's altarpiece with him and sawing it down to size for their chapel in the garage.

I remember seeing him purposefully marching down the road clutching carrier bags, his oldblack habit flapping under a raincoat so short that it showed a goodsix inches of trouser leg as he passed.

But ghosts need to be exorcised. This Petertide, it will be 25 years since our year-group was ordained, and three of us are planning a reunion - partly out of a ghoulish interest in seeing how age has wearied us and the years condemned. We will be trying to contact all our contemporaries; so we'll see what happens. New ghosts for old, perhaps?

The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.

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Fri 20 May @ 03:09
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