Things big and little
“GREAT scarf,” the tattooed girl in the local bakery said when I was buying some gluten-free bread for a friend, “but that goes without saying.” She was referring to my Harry Potter Hogwarts Gryffindor scarf, bought for me by a parishioner and which I wear with pride.
The day before, at a clergy study morning, it had been received with less enthusiasm.
The morning was part of the Chichester diocese’s “Year of the Bible” series of clergy lectures, and this first one was on “The Bible and science”. I’m afraid I am of an old-fashioned cast of mind, where the sciences are an alien land to me: I have been arts-based since my schooldays.
I remember when, through a quirk of timetabling, I had the option of taking a maths A level, and turned up in a sixth-form maths class at the beginning of term. The teacher looked at me. “I’m very pleased but very surprised to see you here, John,” she said. I lasted a week, and have not flirted with the sciences in the 40 years since.
So it was with a degree of trepidation that I went to this session, led by the astro-physicist and theologian Professor David Wilkinson, of Durham University. I realised that I was in safe hands, however, when he commenced with “Let me quote the prophet Julie Andrews: ‘Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start,’ and look at Genesis.”
We then had a romp through Creation (I had not realised that God used the first three days to shape a shapeless universe, and then used the second three days to fill an empty universe, which is giving me food for thought). We then embarked on a trek through quantum theory (Big Things) and the general theory of relativity (Little Things), which was rather fun (a sentence I never thought I’d write). We then carried on by linking the chaos theory with the general messiness of the New Testament.
All in all, it was an illuminating time that opened doors for me into places where I had never thought to venture.
But back to the scarf. My diocesan bishop noted it and just looked pityingly at me, as did my area bishop. One of the archdeacons, though, was more taken with it. “A pity they don’t do Slytherin scarves. . . I can’t help feeling there’s a natural affinity between archdeacons and Slytherins.”
I said that I couldn’t possibly comment. Mind you, I have subsequently looked online, and you can get them.
Anxiety on the hour
I REALISED, when the clocks went forward this year, that all the devices I use for timekeeping and alarms these days (iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch) adjust to the time-change automatically, leaving me without any sense of control.
I have always been paranoid about oversleeping for the early Sunday service when the clocks change, and so put the alarm on an hour early, just to make sure. I am haunted by the memory of a family in one of my previous churches who frequently arrived a few minutes late every Sunday, halfway through during the first hymn.
One year, having clearly been oblivious of the time change, they came in an hour late, during the last hymn. Their expression of bewildered wonderment when, instead of “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” they heard “And the blessing of God almighty”, is one that I will for ever treasure as a salutary warning.
MY OLD friend Brenda Wilkins has died. She has been there all 28 years of my ministry, and will leave a huge gap, both for me and for a whole succession of curates.
While I was serving my title at St Margaret of Antioch, Ifield, in Crawley, in the late 1980s, she was training as a Reader, and was a rock, a sounding board, a friend, and — more than once — literally a shoulder to cry on. She was a graduate of the Sorbonne, teacher, hospice volunteer co-ordinator, Labour county councillor, AIDS-charity chairwoman: the word that came up repeatedly at her funeral was “indomitable”.
A story I am fond of was when she was the youngest female secondary-school head teacher in the country. The works department asked her what colour she wanted her private bathroom tiles to be. “Pink,” she answered. “But”, they said, “what if the next head is a man?”
”I don’t care,” she replied. “When things are tough after a difficult day, I want to be able to go into my bathroom and be suffused with a rosy glow.”
She got her pink tiles. She could be irascible, and the phrase “Didn’t suffer fools gladly” could well have been coined for her. I remember once, in a fit of curatical bravado, I shaved my hair off, much to the delight of the youth club. Brenda strongly disapproved.
“It looks dreadful,” she said.
“It’s my hair,” I responded. “I can do what I like with it.”
“Yes,” she said, “but you don’t have to look at it.”
She had a point. But why am I recounting all this? Well, in the 19 years I have been writing pieces for the Church Times, I have always first read them to Brenda, in person or over the phone, before filing them. This will be the first one I won’t have run past her. It feels very strange.
The Revd John Wall is Priest-in-Charge of the Uckfield Plurality.