IF I were to start my Lindchester Chronicles all over again now, believe me, I’d write with so much more authority about bishops. I’ve learned a great deal in the past year.
I had no idea how many commemorative paperweights bishops are given, for example. Or how many legal documents they have to sign each week. Apparently, I almost received a birthday card signed “+Pete”, through sheer muscle memory. I’m rather fond of adding my own name after his on thank you cards: “+Catherine”. We bishops’ spouses have to get our fun somewhere.
I have not decided what to do with the paperweights yet. It’s not particularly breezy in either of our studies. I could lay out a paperweight prayer-labyrinth in the chapel, I suppose. In a few years, I will need to start planning for retirement. You can’t just pack this type of thing off to the charity shop. I did hear of a retired bishop who used quietly to drop those white-elephant gifts into the river. No doubt there’s a form of words for the Committal of Commemorative Goods to Water, upon Retirement.
Pick ‘n’ mix
BUT this is to get ahead of myself. Why, I’ve scarcely got my feet under the table (which needs to seat 14-16, as per the delicately suggested guidelines for episcopal hospitality — I didn’t know that, either).
I was warned about the challenges of my new position. An obvious one is the question where to worship. It’s a long time since I’ve needed to choose a church: as a child, I went to my parents’ Baptist chapel. There was a window of choice while I was an undergraduate: during that time. I went to any of four different churches, depending on how long a lie-in I wanted. Since hitching my wagon to an ordinand in 1984, I’ve been a good egg, and worshipped at his church.
Bishops have to be peripatetic, but it gets a bit Groundhog Day-ish if you trail around after them every Sunday, locked in a loop of the same three statements: “Yes, I’m married to the Bishop.” “Yes, my hands are lovely and warm.” “Yes, I’m settling in well in Sheffield.” (In case you are wondering, the correct liturgical response to the words “I am married to the Bishop” is to take a step back and say “Oh, I’m sorry!”)
The same song-sheet
THE quest for a church can easily turn into a Goldilocks business of dismissing everywhere as too hard or too soft, too hot or too cold.
If you do find the church that is just right, you would do well to remember Goldilocks. She fell asleep, woke up surrounded by angry bears, and had to exit in haste via an upstairs window. Frankly, Goldilocks is a rubbish role-model. I don’t know why I brought her into it. What a cameo of entitlement! To say nothing of trespass, theft, destruction of property, and fleeing the scene of a crime.
So, how to choose a church? What if — cue Harry Potter theme music — the church chooses the Bishop’s wife? I’ve come to recognise that the Spirit proceeds along curious desire-lines on the long way home. I certainly was not expecting to find myself worshipping at St Maniple’s (anonymised, in GDPR readiness). It’s a quirky option for a former Baptist who still self-identifies as an Evangelical.
And, my word, May is an especially quirky month. I was disconcerted to hear the organ playing The Lincolnshire Poacher as I arrived last Sunday morning. This soon resolved itself into a hymn to the Virgin. An earlier me would have had to fan herself with The Baptist Hymnal. Fortunately, I have a sister who has gone over to Rome; so I consulted her. She laid about my squeamishness briskly. “For goodness’ sake, it’s only what the angel said to Mary. You’d have no problem asking me to pray for you. You believe in the communion of the saints. Get over yourself.”
“But the hymns,” I said weakly.
“Oh,” she conceded, “the hymns are terrible.”
I WONDER what’s going on? I sense that it’s somewhere in the region of my learning how to ask for help. I consciously began that experiment more than a year ago, on Maundy Thursday. I had never before had my feet washed, for a range of cogent theological reasons (i.e. it’s stupid, I don’t want to, and “No way, thank you”). But, staring down the barrel of what lay ahead in the coming year, I realised that I needed to do this.
I emailed my dad afterwards, and said: “I got my feet washed for the first time ever.” He emailed back: “Not quite the first time. I seem to remember washing them for you.”
Lord, have mercy. This is the crux, isn’t it? Becoming like little children. Laying down the burden of perfectionism (aka Project Effortless Brilliance), down by the riverside, and letting myself be helped.
Rite of spring
THOSE of you who are on Twitter will already get a (highly edited) version of life in Purple Towers. I would tweet more, but Twitter is not as much fun as it used to be. It’s clogged up with professional indignators changing the course of history by communicating solely in block capitals and full stops: “TRUMP. STOP. BEING. TRUMP.” If I’d tweeted that, all the pedants of the Twittersphere would gleefully point out that there’s no such word as “indignator”.
Pedants are also making Twitter less fun. Fewer fun. What is a pedant, exactly? You’ll find the definition in your dictionary somewhere between “patronising” and “push off”.
Another tiresome group are the shine-removers, who exist to take the gloss off things. Their tweets go like this: “In all the excitement about [nice lovely thing] let’s not forget [hideous injustice].” I prefer tweets that go “In all the ghastliness of things, here’s a single perfect moment I noticed.” Because nothing is so beautiful as the spring. As Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, “Have, get, before it cloy.”
Mary’s month. All together: “Oh, ’tis my delight on a shining night, in the season of the year.”
Catherine Fox is an author, and a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University; and her husband is the Bishop of Sheffield. The Lindchester Chronicles are published by SPCK/Marylebone House.