Diary: Robert Mackley

05 December 2014

ISTOCK

Posh, but sandy

THIS column comes to you from my laptop on a beach in Western Australia. If bits of sand fall out of the newspaper as you read it, and get into your tea and toast, then I'm afraid you'll have to blame me. Waving the sand-flies away sometimes causes me to knock grains into the keypad; so it will be a miracle if this diary is received in one piece. If it's any consolation, the sand is terribly high-quality, and this part of Australia is terribly posh.

I should make it clear that this is no mere holiday, but a brief break in an otherwise demanding preaching tour in the Antipodes, where I am ceaselessly sharing the gospel with the poor and dispossessed of one of the wealthiest suburbs of Perth. I know that I will garner clerical readers' sympathy when I tell you that I've had to preach no fewer than two sermons in ten days, and be nice to a number of parishioners who have forced me to endure onerous hospitality by their swimming pools and in their beach homes.

The phrase "the sacrifice of the priesthood" has taken on a whole new level of vividness.

Feeling the heat

I AM here to deliver a nourishing word to the faithful of Christ Church, Claremont, in the diocese of Perth, for the feast of Christ the King. Preaching on the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King, is not new to me, but this context is certainly providing some novel experiences.

I am wearingmy summer cassock for a start: the outside temperature is 34°. I am sure that I have preached at temperatures of 34° before - but on previous occasions it's been 34° Fahrenheit. The large and jolly congregation, far from having to hang up umbrellas and wear warm coats, are mainly in shorts, and, if they have to hang up anything, are putting their sunglasses somewhere safe.

There is also that exceptionally rare phenomenon in the Church of England: air-conditioning. The parish heating bill here would be the envy of every parish priest I know, but the electricity bill would be rather less so, thanks to the cost of pushing out cold air.

Perturbed in Perth

IN OTHER ways, however, it is all very familiar; and its familiarity makes it even more disconcerting. For evensong on the eve of Christ the King we had Herbert Howells's Collegium Regale setting of the canticles; Bernard Rose's Responses; and Ralph Vaughan Williams's setting of words by that well-known Aussie poet George Herbert.

If that wasn't enough, the office ended with Charles Villiers Stanford's Te Deum. If it hadn't been for the heat and the shorts, I could have been at some English cathedral. Hearing the cantor sing "O Lord, save the Queen" while I mopped my brow and awaited the post-service barbecue was something that I will remember for a long time.

This did not prepare me for evensong at St George's Cathedral the next day, which was the annual Civic Service. The cathedral is without a Dean at the moment; so we had the splendid Canon David Richardson, the Archbishop of Canterbury's former "man in Rome", filling in, which lent a dignified tone to the proceedings.

Such Anglican dignity was only enhanced by the hymnody. To begin with, we had that national classic "Lord, while for all mankind we pray", whose patriotic meaning was effortlessly reapplied to Australia; but whatever inculturation the use of that hymn indicated was trumped by our concluding hymn, "I vow to thee, my country".

Hanging from the bottom of the world in 30° heat, having prayed for the cities, towns, and shires of Western Australia, shouting out Thaxted with the cathedral choir was a special moment.

No less special were the special guests at the service: the monks of New Norcia. They were there because 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of their founder, Dom Rosendo Salvado, and so their superior, Abbot John, gave the homily.

New Norcia is not only a monastery, but a whole monastic town some 90 miles north of Perth (a distance of nothing in a country - nay, continent - of three million square miles). Salvado is famous in Western Australia not just as the founder of Benedictine life there, but also as an early collaborator with, rather than oppressor of, the Aboriginal people.

Encountering ten of the brethren singing Sir Cecil Spring Rice's stirring words at choral evensong lent new meaning to the phrase "cross-cultural". All that said, it turned out that I shouldn't have been surprised by all this, because, apparently, more than ten per cent of the inhabitants of Perth are British.

Subtle process

DESPITE this expat feel, Western Australia has all the things that you would expect from Down Under. I have seen plenty of kangaroos (indeed, one has bounced past only a few feet from our car), and many kookaburras (who look like grumpy old men, and have the most infectious laugh you've ever heard). I haven't seen any possums (which come out at night), or koala bears (these are not native to Western Australia, I am confidently informed).

Sharks are a threat; but it turns out that it's just as well koalas are not prevalent here, as they can be vicious little creatures and scratch your eyes out when provoked.

It is difficult to imagine how anyone in Australia could scratch your eyes out, given the marvellous weather, the beautiful scenery, and the turquoise water of the sea. A little longer out here, and it would be tempting not to come back. I'm even beginning to warm to the accent. 

No place like home

THAT said, the faithful at Little St Mary's need not pop their champagne corks quite yet. Adorable though my new-found Aussie friends are, I am not reconciled to celebrating Christmas in scorching heat, or replacing my roast turkey with a barbie on the beach. "In the bleak midwinter" is one of my favourite carols, and would sound ridiculous sung by people swathed in suntan lotion.

So, on balance, I will begin the long journey home. Given the likely jet lag, I suspect that "Wake, O wake! with tidings thrilling" will be sung with especial imprecatory relevance this coming Sunday.

 

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

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