I AM writing these words in shirtsleeves, sitting in a vicarage study that is bathed in hot sunshine. It is lovely. It is also quite different from the weekend last month when we had our annual parish Summer Festival and Gift Day.
My advice to clerical readers of this column — especially any newly ordained — is never to listen to lay people who tell you that the weather is "always good for the fête". They are wicked liars whose lives are given over to lulling unsuspecting and still hopeful priests into a false sense of security.
Also, never believe a word that the weather app on your iPhone tells you. It, too, is wicked, and entirely sold to the evils of anti-clericalism, and will promise you such luxuries as "cloud" and "dullness".
Singing in the rain
WE CERTAINLY had cloud and dullness, but we also had a great deal of rain. Being British, to begin with we did not let this bother us, not least because the rain was lulling us into dangerous levels of optimism by being merely mist-like. Even misty rain, however, is not good for a cake stall — or, more particularly, for the cakes themselves. I fear that some of our offerings brought a whole new aspect to the description "moist".
Still, we battled on manfully and womanfully, and the new vintage stall did surprisingly well in the drizzle, as did the bottle tombola. One of our local drunks managed to buy a ticket before I could get to the tombola to prevent it, but, happily, his luck was out, and I didn’t have to chase him down the church path trying to wrest a bottle of whisky from him. He took his ill-luck very well; I suppose that, in his state, he was accustomed to such experiences, poor chap.
The children of the parish certainly are not accustomed to failure, and their lunchtime concert was a triumph. One young person after another offered alarmingly competent performances on piano, or trumpet, or the human voice. I staggered into lunch feeling a wee bit of a failure. I recalled learning the theme tune to Z-Cars on the recorder when I was at primary school, and wondered if it might be time to reprise that, before realising that that was one of the more tragic ponderings of my life, and I should just cope with not playing a musical instrument.
An unexpected upside to the weather was that plenty of people bought lunch, largely to escape the rain, which by this stage had become somewhat more persistent in its approach. Consequently, lunch took longer than normal, as people eked out their ham salad in the forlorn hope that the sun would emerge before they had to head outside again.
Mary on stage
THE sun did not emerge; and, in fact, by the time the highlight of the afternoon began — the parish play — the rain had become positively torrential. Written by a member of the congregation, it told the story of the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The water bucketing down outside seemed an appropriate accompaniment to the scene of Walsingham’s destruction under Henry VIII, if nothing else.
Despite the weather, the play went very well indeed, and various quiet souls revealed previously hidden gifts of acting. We even had a smoke machine for the appearance of our Lady to Fr Hope Patten; although, in a parish that uses incense as regularly as ours, we might have been accused of taking coals to Newcastle.
I played two roles. The first was one of the Augustinian canons of Walsingham (a silent role, requiring simply the wearing of a cassock alb, and much in the way of hammy facial expressions when Thomas Cromwell’s men arrived to disband us). The second was as the Low Church Bishop of Norwich Bertram Pollock, who tried to stop the revival of the shrine in the 1930s.
Something tells me that marching round church in wellies while shouting at an ill-disciplined vicar is not quite the kind of thing that gets you in the Talent Pool.
Form of apostleship
ACTUALLY, I discover that I have a number of clerical friends who are in the new Talent Pool. I can’t quite work out whether this is something of which to be proud or ashamed.
Naturally, it is delightful to see good people being tipped for pointy hats and gaiters and piped cassocks. This is encouraging. So far as I know, none of them had marched round church in wellington boots, or shouted at vicars, but then this is not what is asked for. Apparently, just like the first apostles, you fill in a psychometric-test form, and then go to a management consultant and discuss your management style, before being interviewed by a panel at Lambeth to explain how you have demonstrated strategic leadership.
By strategic leadership, I assume that they mean taking a parish over from The English Hymnal to The New English Hymnal, or replacing the Ten Commandments with the Summary of the Law at 8 a.m. In my last parish, we persuaded people to go over to real coffee rather than instant, and in my present parish I increased the price of the newsletter from 25p to 50p; frankly, I don’t see how it gets more strategic than that. The Duke of Wellington and Napoleon could have learned a thing or two from me.
OUR parish play ended to thunderous applause (well, applause accompanied by thunder, anyway), and both cast and audience were rewarded with a cream tea. Evensong and Benediction followed, during which the rain lessened. By the end of the fête, of course, the rain had entirely ceased, and the post-festival barbecue was — typical! — conducted in glorious sunshine.
Munching disconsolately on a beefburger, I wondered how much we had raised, and how much we would be down on the previous year. It was at this point that a total stranger popped his head round the door to thank me for the beautiful church and its shelter on a wet day. As he left, he pressed an envelope into my hand. I opened it, and found inside a generous cheque. Perhaps, on reflection, all this rain is not so bad after all.
The Revd Robert Mackley is Vicar of Little St Mary’s, Cambridge.