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08 July 2016


I’M writing this on the Tuesday after the Brexit vote. I feel I should have something of great import to say to you on the subject, but I still can’t quite work out how to respond.

Here in Cambridge, a place contrary to the last, more than 70 per cent of us voted Remain, and there has consequently been much weeping and gnashing of teeth among the bien pensant, appalled as we are that the rest of the country isn’t just like us. I mean, really, who’d have thought it?

My preacher on the following Sunday, who delivered what I thought was a calm and measured homily about forgiveness and coming together, was denounced at the church door by one member of the congregation who had been scandalised that he hadn’t advocated manning the barricades and interning all Leave voters.

Perhaps forgiveness and coming together need to wait for a bit.

Ridley rebel
MY CONFUSION about the referendum probably began earlier in the week at a supper party hosted by a parishioner.

It was the commemoration of St Thomas More and St John Fisher, and, as a joke, our host had put on the table a rather macabre statue of the martyrdom of Ridley and Latimer which his deeply Protestant father had once owned. I walked into the party to hear another guest (a tutor at Ridley Hall, the Evangelical theological college in Cambridge) say that he was “rather ambivalent about the Reformation”.

Spluttering into my glass of wine, I began to wonder whether I had missed some great change at Ridley. I had always thought the staff had to sign up to something about how wonderful the Thirty-Nine Articles are, or have Sola Scriptura tattooed on various parts of their anatomy (OK, I admit, that latter idea is ridiculous: they’d never have it in Latin).

“Are you allowed to teach there with such a view?” I asked.

“Eh?” he responded.

“Well, it’s not very Evangelical to be ambivalent about the Reformation, is it?” I persisted.

A short silence ensued.

“No, Robert,” he said patiently, “I said I was ambivalent about the Referendum.”

Staff and students at Wycliffe Hall and Oak Hill can breathe easily again: it turns out that Reformed thought is safe in Cambridge.

Early indicator
MY FELLOW-GUEST’s ambivalence was not about which way to vote but about the wisdom of having a referendum at all. I know that feeling.

Having never really come to terms with the end of Charles I’s personal rule, the most positive thing I’ve taken from the post-vote hysteria is that this is as close as I will ever get to forging a consensus for the Queen to rule directly with the Privy Council.

As a life-long holder of minority opinions (as you can tell), I’m used to having no expectation of success. My deciding to vote Remain, therefore, should have been a warning sign to all: clearly the cause of the EU was doomed.

The IT crowd

CLERGY occasionally have PCC meetings that foster a similar ambivalence about democracy, and I learned the lesson the hard way when I asked our parish IT committee to produce a new website. Two years in, and we’re still producing it.

A priest friend in London has taken to tormenting me with regular text messages asking how it’s coming on. She, wise woman, just created one with an online program in an afternoon, and can’t understand why I have not done the same. Strangely, she is not convinced by my defence that I am a passionate advocate of enabling the laity. She is right, of course: it’s just that, seemingly like all people in charge these days, I’m powerless.

That said, hope springs eternal, even with technology. It’s possible that by the next time you read this column it’ll be up and running.


Strangers on a train
PERHAPS the solution is to turn to drink? Certainly, it seems that most of Sussex has this view. I say this because twice recently I’ve been to Chichester Cathedral — once for an ordination, and once for the installation of a friend as an honorary canon — and on each occasion, travelling back by rail, I’ve been the only sober person on the train.

At almost every station between London Victoria and Chichester, people in varying states of intoxication got on or off, and each time a new person decided to give up a portion of the day to engaging the clergy in friendly banter — by which I mean, engaging me.

Well-travelled readers of the Church Times will know that the clerical collar acts as a powerful beacon to the trolleyed. Not only is it a beacon to them, but, despite being semi-incoherent and unable to walk in a straight line, they can, none the less, espy a small slip of white plastic from 200 yards.

Over 13 years in Orders I’ve had this happen to me on innumerable occasions, and yet I still find I visibly shrink into myself as they approach in the hope that they’ll go away. Very rarely, however, are people aggressive and rude. Most of the time, they are intrigued or incredibly friendly.

On the train back from Chichester, they were an entirely jolly bunch. They wanted to know if I supported a football team (“no I don’t,” I say: “I’m a Nottingham Forest fan”), and if I’ve been to Goodwood (not quite, just an ordination). After this, silence reigns before the genial interrogation begins again.

What is invariably fascinating is how quickly the conversation turns to God (I never initiate this) and to questions about death, forgiveness, and so on. It occurs to me that we priests spend so much of our time desperately trying to be trendy and relevant, and yet Joe public, when loosed of his inhibitions, actually wants to talk about exactly the subjects we try to avoid.

By the end of the (confessedly long-seeming) journey back to the metropolis, I had promised to pray for a number of people and given several blessings. I had also talked about heaven and hell, what happens to followers of other religions, and whether it was possible to be forgiven for a serious crime committed in one’s youth. Oh, and I had also been given two tips for horses at Goodwood. I’d tell you what they were, but the Referendum has made me clean forget.


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

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