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22 May 2015

By Robert Mackley


Going out on a Low

I HAVE just got back from holiday. It was my post-Easter holiday, in fact, but rather delayed. My training incumbent always said to me that one should never take Easter Week off, because everyone thinks you're on holiday after Easter anyway; so they don't bother you, and you can have a quiet week. Then take a week off after that, he said.

Being a model training incumbent, I defer, of course, to my assistant curate - who took Low Week off. I am not sure that we're allowed to call it Low Week any more, given that Rome seems to call the Sunday "Divine Mercy Sunday" (for pious reasons connected with an entirely tasteless picture of our Lord with rainbow colours coming out of his heart, I seem to recall), and, in the C of E, Low Week sounds a bit unmissional.

Perhaps there will be a strategy to encourage us to reconnect with the youth by calling it Really Super-Duper Exciting Week. Perhaps, on the other hand, I'm just being eaten up by cynicism.


Apostolic blessing

AFTER Super-Duper Week, we then had to prepare for a confirmation; so my holiday was delayed a little longer. I have had a gift in recent years for arranging a confirmation to coincide with atrocious weather, so that everyone gets soaked on the procession from the vestry to the west door. This year was a pleasing exception, and we were able to walk into church unmolested by rain.

I have decided this was entirely due to Pope Francis. Before you put this newspaper down in disgust at such craven submission to every manner of detestable enormity, I should say that there is method in my madness.

Our confirming bishop was the Assistant Bishop in Peterborough, the Rt Revd John Flack. He is a man who has a great deal to answer for, given that he both confirmed me and recommended me for ordination. Possibly as a punishment for that recommendation, he was shortly afterwards exiled to Italy as Our Man in Rome.

I suspect that, once in Rome, one makes permanent friends; for, only a few days before our confirmation, Bishop John, now retired, was in the Eternal City once more, and meeting the present Pope. The Holy Father asked him what he was up to, and he informed him that he would be confirming at Santa Maria Minore in Cambridge next week. Delighted, Pope Francis told him to give us his blessing. This Bishop John duly did - and the weather turned out wonderful.

I know he is not supposed to have any jurisdiction in this realm of England, but I will happily give the Supreme Pontiff control of the skies if he can pull off that kind of result. I think we can state that ecumenism has taken a small but very British step forward in the CB2 postal district. If Archbishop David Moxon (the present Apocrisarius to the Holy See) could have a word before next year's confirmation, I'd be immensely grateful.


The way we were

THE confirmation over, I finally escaped and decided to visit clergy friends around the country. Midway through my progress, I visited a friend who, besides being a parish priest, teaches ordinands. Fascinated to see the high-quality theological formation offered by the modern Church, I joined him one evening for a class.

Quite rightly, the ordinands in all the various classes gathered together first for prayer. When I was at theological college, we did outdated things like kneeling, and using restrictive and uncreative forms of devotion such as Common Worship and the Book of Common Prayer. All terribly undemanding. Only if we were really lucky would we be allowed to sit cross-legged in an ordinand's small bedsit, singing a Taizé chant around a tea-light.


Showing receptivity

NOTHING restrictive or lily-livered now, however. The keen ordinand in charge of the prayers, after some dangerously old-fashioned reading from the Bible, got us all to stand and lift our arms up in the air in a V-shape in order to "show receptivity". We then had to keep them there while he read a meditation.

Clearly, candidates for Holy Orders today are made of strong stuff; for this was not a few sentences but a very lengthy meditation indeed, and was obviously part of the training process to weed out the physically weak whose arms would not be able to maintain a talent-pool breaststroke. Clever work, I thought.

There was then an examination of gravitas. A priest, as you know, needs to be able to remain solemn and serious amid all provocation, and so the trainee cleric leading us naturally decided to use some phrases that would test us (remember, our arms are up in the air, full of receptivity, during this). We were urged to ask the Holy Spirit to come over the "frigid tundra" of our lives and make us like "frolicking brown bears".

Only those of tough metal, who were destined for the deep end of the talent pool, could hear this unflinching. This was a wise strategy; for already a priest next to me had begun to shake. It could have been an anticipatory frolic, I admit, but it is probable that he was a weak and unworthy man who had got through the ordination process in the bad old days before these insightful new tests were introduced.

After this, we were invited to bend over and let our arms point towards the floor and feel the pull of God's love on us; finally, we were told to sit and hug ourselves as a further reminder of what a poppet the Lord is. Physical as well as spiritual suppleness is the order of the day in the Welby era, it seems.

Strangely, my neighbour (who had been shaking) was now making strange noises, as if trying to suppress something. I imagine it was a cry of shame that he was not worthy of the Olympian feats of contortion demanded of the ordinands of 2015. Suffice it to say that I completed my holiday in awe of those preparing for ministry in the contemporary Church. I also found myself in need of a good chiropractor.


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

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