Up close and personal
“YOU look much younger when you’re not in the pulpit.” It was with this somewhat double-edged compliment that I was greeted at the church door after mass the other Sunday.
I was not quite sure how to take it, beyond wondering what it was about the pulpit that aged me. Was it all that 18th-century wood (the pulpit dates to 1741)? Perhaps the sounding board on top casts a shadow over the preacher, giving me an ancient appearance?
It could be that, although being six feet above contradiction is six feet away from proper inspection, it is also an unflattering angle, revealing my chin (still only one, happily), and emphasising my high forehead (a polite description for my baldness). I even began to worry that researching 18th-century bishops had affected my preaching style and made me sound like a period piece. Well, more of one than hitherto, anyway.
In response, I made some vague jocular reference to Oil of Olay — product placement is a source of revenue insufficiently explored by the modern C of E — and said that I was at least glad that it was this way round, and I didn’t look like an old hag, up close.
At 37 years old, one of the joys of the priesthood is that I am still positively foetal in comparison with most ordinands, never mind the clergy: I gather the average age of someone training for the ministry today is 44. But being in my late thirties rather than mid-thirties (I feel like the reverse of a child who solemnly tells you that she’s four-and-three-quarters, not four), and with the big four-o on the distant horizon, I am sure I must be on my guard against fogeyism in all its forms.
THE Church of England does not make that easy, however. Every day there seems to be a piece of news that brings out my (not, I confess, deeply suppressed) inner grumpy old man.
Here in Ely, for example, we have adopted a diocesan strategy that does not mention baptism or the eucharist, and has a section on putting churches into “Special Measures”. If you point your ear in the direction of the south Thames, and listen very carefully, you can hear a whizzing sound: it’s Lancelot Andrewes spinning in his grave.
The encouragement to pull up the drawbridge, delete my email account, say mass in Latin, and just wait for Western civilisation finally to collapse is considerable.
One must slap on the ecclesial moisturiser, however, and look young and keen. I have written positively about the strategy People Fully Alive: Ely 2025 (yes, it rhymes) in our parish newsletter, and even volunteered for diocesan synod.
My election to this latter body is not a great indication of popularity among my fellow priests — we presently have more places on the synod than there are clergy in the deanery; so my soaring oratory and profound clerical wisdom were not needed to win over the vote of the wavering parson. This is probably an occasion for gratitude all round.
In the dark
MY CELL-GROUP met recently at Mirfield, in West Yorkshire. This was an occasion for prayer and reigniting of enthusiasm — and for the savouring of the most amazing cuisine near by, the pinnacle of which was to be found in a dissenting conventicle now converted into a vast, serve-yourself buffet-style curry house. I fear I ate a non-ascetic quantity of every dish going. Prawn Dhansak and Philip Doddridge make a winning combination, I discover.
The brethren at the Community of the Resurrection seemed in excellent heart (I am delighted that one of our congregation is shortly to try a vocation there), and the worship in their newly redecorated church was beautiful and full of the Spirit. They even had adverts for other and newer monastic communities, such is their jollity and enthusiasm.
Having been cheered by a day or so of true religion, I decided to be positive and look at one of these adverts more closely. It was at this point that I felt a certain jadedness returning. I had encountered a Fresh Expression Christian contemplative community.
“Nothing wrong with that, you miserable old thing,” I hear you cry. Indeed not. It was when I read the invitation to a “pilgrimage into the parables of isness”, however, that waves of cynicism began to form on the sea of my life.
These waves of cynicism, I should add, were combined with waves of incomprehension, because I haven’t the foggiest idea what a “parable of isness” is. After being informed of the “regional gatherings for stillness and storytelling, for the playful as well as the profound”, I felt those cynical waves start to move towards me; and, on discovering that the form of worship was “chant in the Afro-Celtic idiom”, the waves rapidly gathered pace.
Even after it was revealed that the undergirding theology was the “Celtic knot or trefoil with its movement between Still Waters, a Learning Journey, and Across the Threshold”, I’m afraid the waves crashed right over my head.
Youthful first encounter
IT IS difficult to maintain negativity with the beginning of term, however. All of a sudden, Cambridge disperses its merciless army of tourists, and, instead, thousands of 18-year-olds descend on the city.
One can be amused and horrified in equal measure by watching how they learn to ride a bicycle and how they drink; they are very similar. One can enjoy them living the Harry Potter dream, with their billowing gowns and dining formally in hall, and one can be encouraged by their zeal and delight in discovering the Christian faith for the first time.
Tweets, websites, Facebook pages, and banners on one’s railings, with pictures of youthful congregants, are all deployed to persuade them to dump a lie-in and head to church on Sunday. Sometimes, it even works.
“Goodness, I enjoyed that!” one first-year engineer exclaimed after mass on Sunday, with a certain amount of surprise. I took heart, and put it down to my youth. That said, it might be wise to rub in a little extra moisturiser before I next ascend the pulpit steps.
The Revd Robert Mackley is Vicar of Little St Mary’s, Cambridge.