I HAVE never thought of myself as a sex symbol. This is for a
variety of reasons which, it is fair to say, we do not need to
enter into now. My conviction was questioned the other day,
however, after I made a home visit.
I knocked on the door, and the au pair answered with a look of
surprise on her face. After a brief hello, she asked, with a
knowing look, if "Tom" had sent me. I had never heard of Tom, and,
as far as I knew, the lady I was visiting had asked for me to come
through her daughter. So I said no, and asked if this was a
convenient time to visit, to which she replied with a rather coy
Still standing at the door, and hoping I might gain admittance,
I asked if I could come in, and whether Doris was available. This
seemed to throw her considerably. "Doris?"
"Yes, I'm told she's not well; so I've come to see her."
"Oh! You've come to see Doris who's ill?"
"Yes," I replied, "is that OK?" It was at this moment that she
went bright red.
After a further slight pause, I was ushered into the presence of
the relevant lady, and the au pair hurriedly retreated. The rest of
the visit passed off without incident.
It was only later that everything became clear. The lady's
daughter, in fits of giggles, called that evening to tell me that
the au pair was terribly embarrassed. She had never met a priest
before, or been to church; and so, seeing me at the front door, she
had put two and two together, and made a splendidly saucy five: she
thought that I was a kiss-a-gram sent by her friend Tom.
THANKFULLY, I hadn't a clue that this was why she was behaving
oddly, or I might have become thoroughly awkward and embarrassed
myself. It is difficult to know how to respond to people who are
astonished more or less by your very existence. Sometimes, it's
funny, when a tourist on King's Parade, for instance, walks into a
bollard or another person because they are so fixated on a chap in
a black dress and white collar; at other times you can be lost for
words when people shout out things such as (as happened on one
occasion) "Oi! Undertaker!"
If I had had presence of mind, and the right things in my
pockets,I could have wandered over and started measuring them up
for a coffin; as it was, I just kept walking with a perplexed look
on my face.
Ripe for recruitment
ON OTHER occasions, it is rather endearing, as when I was
showing classes of schoolchildren around the church. "Do you have
any questions?" I asked, to which one child, reading from a
prepared list, asked: "Are you a lady vicar or a man vicar?"
The worst thing about that question was that I was so surprised
by it that for a moment I could not think what to say, and may have
given the impression that I was not altogether sure. Hastily, I
recollected myself, and said that I was pretty confident that I was
a man. This seemed to meet with general approbation, although one
girl's eyes, lighting on my cassock, suggested that she was open to
persuasion to the contrary.
This particular school tour had other highlights. At the font, I
began with my standard question: "What do we use water for?"
Expecting some reference to drinking or cleaning, I was more than a
little surprised when a hand shot up and out came the perfect
answer: "It washes away sin and makes us Christians."
Cue the second silence of the visit, as the Vicar, his careful
intellectual journey from washing and drinking to the mystery of
the laver of regeneration entirely short-circuited, pondered what
to do next. Resisting the temptation to hand her a Gift Aid
envelope, or, for that matter, the diocesan director of ordinands'
phone number, I took the liberty of going back a few stages, which
regression the young lady endured with that look of tedium children
adopt when adults are engaged in something especially stupid.
Nothing but the truth
IF SCHOOL visits produce the unexpected or sophisticated
response, they also produce the rather tangential. Passing from the
font to the altar, I was busily talking about the aumbry and the
reservation of the Sacrament. Having paused, rather pleased with my
elegant explanation, I wondered whether anyone would like anything
"Yes," said one boy. "Why is that Christmas tree there?"
It was at this moment that I felt I had perhaps tarried too
long, for Key Stage 2, on explicating the eucharistic species, and
ought to return to the simplicity of whywe still had Christmas
I was about to begin a theological answer about Epiphanytide,
and the 40 days of Christmas, when I realised that, actually, the
truth was a darn sight easier: "The man who takes it away could
only come after the Wise Men had visited, and we wanted to keep the
tree until Jesus's baptism. So we're stuck with it now until we get
round to chopping it up."
It wasn't the most highfalutin' answer I had given, but the
young chap looked entirely content, and the response produced nods
of amused sympathy from the accompanying teaching staff. I realised
that I ought to remember to try the truth more often.
THE visit was very jolly, and the staff enjoyed it because it
took them in from the rain, and the children enjoyed it because
someone who may or may not have been a man, and needed it
explaining to him why we had water at baptism, and kept getting
himself lumbered with Christmas trees beyond the season, appeared
to be in gainful employment.
In the competitive jobs market of today, the older children may
well have pondered that here was ajob that, it appeared, any idiot
could do. I decided that it was best to wait until they were older
before adding that, if it didn't work out, they could always try
for employment as a kiss-a-gram.
The Revd Robert Mackley is Vicar of Little St Mary's,