Check out the words
If you always do
what you’ve always done,
you’ll always get
what you’ve always got.
WE WERE taking the youth group round Tesco — not shopping, but having a tour behind the scenes. The kids had had fun looking at the country of origin of different products; explored the chilly fridges and the Arctic freezers; and were now happily sculpting vegetables and sampling different types of citrus fruit.
We were in a meeting-room high above the shop floor, and, looking up, I saw the quote above written in calligraphic script on the wall. I was quite taken with the thought, and have reflected on it since.
Googling it (where would we be without Google?) I found that it has been attributed to, among others, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain. In church terms, it’s a pretty ambivalent statement.
In the liturgical cycles of Advent, Christmastide, Lent, and Easter, each year, we present and re-present the eternal truths of incarnation and redemption. I’m about to embark on my 28th clerical Ash Wednesday and penitential season, which is rather sobering. As we get older (or, at least, as I do), there is increased comfort in the familiar, in the old words and stories. “Getting what we always got” is congenial and affirming, because what we get is actually quite good.
I remember in about 2003 going on a servant-leadership training course that the diocese of Oxford zealously put on for its clergy. In a session teaching us about squashing hierarchy, someone asked the then Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, an “Institutions are the spawn of the Devil, aren’t they?” sort of question.
I remember his answer: “An institution is that which safeguards and communicates truth through time.”
It does make the Church sound rather like the Doctor’s tardis, but it is an image that works for me.
THE challenge towards which the above quote gently prods us is to repackage/re-present these truths for a new generation, especially one that is partial to alternative facts and “post-truth”. Exploring the new is part of the fun: endeavouring to see the faith with and through new eyes; for without growth and change, we are dying things.
In a new parish, which has expectations of a fresh approach and of growth, I am reflecting on the part that I play as parish priest in a bustling market town. It is very different from my previous inner-city experience. We will see how my 28th Lent goes.
Reaching a pinnacle
I HAVE, after all these years (see above), finally taken up residence in a rector’s stall of my own. In Holy Cross, we are blessed (cursed?) with an elaborate Victorian oak rood screen that has seven gothic arches and a dozen trefoiled roundels. At the south end of this screen nestles the Rector’s stall.
Big enough to seat a rector twice my girth (and that’s saying something), it has intricately carved foliate panels, crocketed pinnacles on either side, and a substantial prayer-desk served by a suitably uncomfortable kneeler. I have never had my own stall before, and am rather taken with it.
It does seem, though, to accrete layers of stuff. In addition to psalters and prayer books (including the book that, for me, has been the most useful in my ministry: Frank Colquhoun’s Parish Prayers — does anyone else still use it?), there are old notice sheets, pencils, sermon notes, and, for some reason, a roll of quilted lavatory paper.
It is a comfort to hold on to the bulbous carvings, stroking them absent-mindedly as if they were a liturgical pet. Eric James, in his book The Voice of this Calling, quotes a definition of priesthood which has resonated with me for many years (the language is poetic, if rather gendered): “[A priest is] one who stands on the manward side of God and the Godward side of man.”
Sitting in my stall, which I do most days for morning and evening prayer, it feels a physical expression of this: in the place where at least ten rectors have faithfully prayed for their people, and where I hope my successors will do the same, I feel in a continuum of something that matters, something eternal among the arches and trefoils, the paper clips and pencils, the prayer books and the lavatory rolls.
The Revd John Wall is Priest-in-Charge of the Uckfield Plurality.