Guys and clocks
WHEN you are starting in a new parish, one of the fun bits is learning, and becoming immersed in, weird local customs. Here, in Uckfield, one of the weirdest but one of the most entertaining is the phenomenon of the Bonfire Society.
In East Sussex, bonfires are big. The biggest is Lewes, on 5 November, where thousands join in procession with blazing torches before setting fire to a topical giant effigy: last year it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Donald Trump.
Now, despite having lived in Brighton on and off for the past 20 years, I had missed all this bonfire stuff. In Brighton, we had instead (being Brighton) the Burning of the Clocks on Brighton beach, where willow and paper creations were burned as a sort of Winter Solsticey/New Yeary thing. I never joined in with that, either.
Carnival is not over
BUT, in Uckfield, the Rector is expected to be hands-on. The season kicked off in September, before I was actually put in, but ended in December with the Bonfire Societies’ carol service in Holy Cross, Uckfield.
Hundreds came from societies all over East Sussex, parading through the streets to Holy Cross. Some were in gypsy costumes; some were in Venetian carnival array. Others were pirates (including one uncannily accurate Captain Jack Sparrow look-alike), but I think my favourite was a drag queen (who turned out to be local councillor) in full fig as Elizabeth I.
I took the service dressed in a traditional Anglican surplice, scarf, and hood, declaring that normally I was the one in the most bizarre costume at any event, but that here I had never felt so underdressed in my life. I remedied the situation by donning an elaborate crown I had come across in the sacristy, as you do.
Little and large
THE part they liked best was when, after “O little town of Bethlehem” my splendid assistant curate, Mitch, and I appeared dressed as Laurel and Hardy. The script went along the lines of:
“Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into, Curate. You told me Uckfield was a classy joint, but here we are in a choich filled with weird people in weird costumes” (eyeing each other’s bowler hats and ties). “If you get me into any more messes like this, I’ll send you to a really dodgy place, like” (dramatic pause, and then with real venom) “Heathfield”.
That got a laugh: our greatly loved curate is starting as incumbent of Heathfield in the autumn.
I then spoke of the mess the world is in (again quoting the words “President Trump” to show just how messy it can get), and that the Christ-child came to join us in our human mess in order to get us out of it on the cross. I was rather proud of this little segue from the profane to the sacred, and it seemed to go down well.
As we changed back into Anglican choir dress (and crown), I told my curate that, if he learnt anything at all from me during these last months of his curacy, it was the importance of maintaining clerical dignity at all times.
I think next time I’m doing Star Wars.
The right tackle
ANOTHER new position, rather out of my comfort zone, is chaplain to Uckfield Rugby Club. Now, I can do “Hail fellow, well met”, but I have never before really done hearty. It was hugely kind of them to invite me, and I am actually really enjoying it. Mind you, the first time I went to watch a game, they proceeded, having convincingly won the past six matches, to lose 12-41. I stayed to the end, but exited quickly in case I was seen as a bad omen.
The next match I went to was at Brighton, and it was nice, although a bit strange that some of the Brighton supporters recognised me from the Bevy (the pub in my last parish), and warmly welcomed me in. It felt odd being at a Brighton event, but rooting for the opposition.
Transitions are strange things. At least that time Uckfield scored some 60 points and won. But I think I really came into my own, and started feeling at home, at the rugby Christmas lunch. Asked to say a grace, I used the “Superman grace”, taught to me by a previous Team Vicar in the Moulsecoomb Team, Rachel Gouldthorpe.
The words are: “Thank you God for giving us food, thank you God for giving us lots of food; we’re very grateful for every plateful, thank you God for giving us food,” sung to the Superman theme, with everyone standing on one leg with one arm saluting in the air, doing the Superman stance. It certainly broke the ice.
It is all part of the same thing, really: you learn to adapt, to change your persona, to become the person each community wants and needs you to be: all for the sake of the gospel.
And what fun it is.
The Revd John Wall is Priest-in-Charge of the Uckfield Plurality.