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01 April 2016


Subject to change

IN THE old days, Cambridge made the news for advances in scholarship. There is still a bit of that going on (although it is all a sort of semi-business in the science park now, which Luddites like me are not entirely convinced by), but the main reason why we get in the media today is the cost of housing and the quality of living. This means therefore that, other than students, the only people who live around me are the spectacularly wealthy, or those so old they bought a house here when Cambridge was affordable.

I have no complaints about this mix, but I think it sometimes affects people’s dealings with me. In the local stores the other day, I was doing a little shopping (organic quinoa, almond milk: the sort of thing any humble parson in the middle of a bourgeois idyll would buy). I arrived at the till, and did that thing that gives me excessive joy — but the joy is, I suspect, just a sign of my madness: I managed to find exactly the right change.

There is little to compare to the sense of triumph when the coppers and silvers all work out to exactly the sum required. I think I gave a little shout of delight, and it was in response to this that the woman behind the counter said (meaning to be chatty and jolly, of course): “Oh, yes, another one of my old ladies likes giving the right change, too.”


Exit stage left

I AM not sure what unnerved me most: being thought of as elderly, or being thought of as a woman. In your late thirties (and, surely, at 37, I cannot claim to be in my mid-thirties any more, can I?) you do begin to worry about your age, and I certainly don’t have much hair.

One also has to fight against the tendency towards the clerical stoop, which particular appearance of piety one finds oneself adopting as an easier alternative to actual piety. Perhaps it all makes me look old. How it makes me look like a woman, however, I cannot so easily say. Bald women are few and far between, and ones that speak with a pleasing baritone are even more scarce — at least in this part of East Anglia.

I smiled quizzically — if in doubt, smile at the faithful — and made my escape, marching briskly from the shop lest I give any appearance of infirmity. Actually, now I come to think of it, I think it’s all to do with wearing a clerical collar, which does odd things to people.

It did odd things to me when I first wore one (I walked into a bollard in my first week, because I was so self-conscious of my appearance that I stopped looking where I was going). It does even odder things to other people, however.


Altered perception

THIS thesis was proved right (by a sort of reverse example) only a week later, when I entered the local butcher’s on my day off and thus clad in jeans and T-shirt. The butcher looked up and said “What can I get you, mate?”

Before I had a chance to answer, he did a marvellous double take (worthy of any acting school), and said: “Oh, I’m so sorry, sir, I didn’t recognise you without your bits in.”

In jeans, one merits “mate”, but in clericals — with the bits in — one merits “sir”. Having one’s bits in all of a sudden changes how people relate to you.

Writing this has brought back the memory of my first parish, when I boarded the Underground in my cassock on the way back from some High Church do one evening. Two drunken lads got on and stared at me, before loudly announcing that the undertaker had arrived, and then asking if I was a virgin.

“I don’t often manage to make people think of death and sex all at once, but if it helps you, then great,” I retorted in one of those rare moments (almost as pleasing as finding the correct change) of coming up with a retort while still in the situation. They looked sufficiently embarrassed, and shut up, and I was rewarded with a smile from other Tube passengers. So, yet again, clerical dress produced curious reactions.


Good for the soul

I AM writing this in Holy Week; so it is a good time for confession. I confess that, on occasion, I have swiftly covered up my collar, or removed it (if my “bits” have been plastic) when boarding a train or a bus and seen someone who looks like the sort of person who is anxious to share his or her every waking thought with a clergyman.

Sometimes, “wearing a sign and mark of my holy calling and ministry” (as Canon C27 puts it) is a particular penance, and especially when these encounters come at the end of a long and frazzled day.


Order of merit

YOU will be reading this at Easter, however, and so I should end on a cheery note — and, happily, this is not hard to do; for nine times out of ten the wearing of a collar, and even more a cassock, is met with at least interest, and frequently affirmation and delight.

I recall only a short time after arriving in my present parish I was sitting in a restaurant in Cambridge with a fellow cleric, and, having had lunch, we asked for the bill. After a delay, the manager came over and presented us with it. It was all tallied at zero. When we asked why, he turned it over, and written on the reverse side was a note from a man who had been on a neighbouring table: “A priest did my aunt’s funeral the other day, and did it wonderfully. I never had chance to thank him properly; so I thought I’d thank you instead.”

Rarely has there been a more directly rewarding example of reaping where someone else has sown. It would be nice to think that one day my ministry will be of similar benefit to someone else. Happy Easter.


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

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