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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.