ON THE day before my confirmation in Presteigne, in Wales, the town was buzzing with anticipation. Well, perhaps not buzzing: demonstrating mild interest. Elda and Pandora, in the café, raised quizzical eyebrows when I reminded them of my big day, while my friend Lisa — the sports and telly expert on our pub quiz team — announced over coffee that she was definitely coming. Lisa is a lapsed Pentecostalist, and was expecting Bishop Curry-esque fireworks.
My wife was making her legendary chocolate cake for the Bishop of Hereford — a cake that I was not allowed to so much as nibble, as I have been making a few “lifestyle changes”, which is apparently what being on a diet is called these days. My prayer that my trousers should get through all the bending and kneeling without making a spectacle of themselves was, I feel, answered, thus: “Spend less time in the café with your pals, then.”
LISA did turn up, and so did Bishop Richard. My wife sang in the choir, and read the Gospel: John 3.1-8. The Bishop admitted that he had chosen this passage himself rather than sticking to the appointed reading.
My elder stepdaughter, wise in the ways of church, said to me afterwards that this was clever, because priests don’t always fancy preaching on Trinity Sunday. Steve, the Vicar, had managed to pass it forward to the Bishop, who then neatly skyed the ball into the stands. It’s a shame that Liverpool hadn’t pulled off such neat moves in Kiev the night before.
Bishop Richard’s sermon had enough fireworks for me. He said that, although we are to some extent a “Christian country”, this does not make its people automatically Christian. Becoming a Christian is an individual choice. It does not happen by default, simply because we live in a “Christian country”. What’s more, it never did.
This, more than anything, is what made me want to affirm my faith at this time. I feel that I have access to a Christian identity not because I was born in Guildford nine months after the 1957 Whitsun Bank Holiday, but because now I could kneel before the Bishop of Hereford and say “I turn to Christ.”
Through a glass darkly
THE day after my confirmation, I drove with my wife, two stepdaughters, one stepson-in-law, and one stepdaughter’s boon companion, pretty much as far south-east as we could, to spend a few days at the village of St Margaret’s at Cliffe, just around the corner from Dover. On arrival, we walked down to the beach: the nearest place on the British mainland to France. If a writer, who has just been confirmed and is now standing within a pebble’s throw of Dover Beach, can’t get a paragraph or two out of that, perhaps he or she shouldn’t be writing for the Church Times at all.
And so I listened for the long, withdrawing roar, and was on the alert for ignorant armies, hoping more than anything for a telling Sea of Faithy aphorism to visit itself upon me.
Nothing. Tumbleweed blew along the prom. I had a cup of tea.
I was expecting too much. I had forgotten to read the poem on its own terms.
Yet, the next afternoon, walking through Broadstairs in search of Morelli’s Ice Cream Parlour, we passed the Dickens House Museum, with its plaque claiming that this was where the original model for David Copperfield’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood, had lived. Faced with this, how could you not think of Miss Trotwood shouting “Janet! Donkeys!”, or Mr Dick pulling faces at David from his bedroom window?
I think my aphorism is coming, a day too late: if fiction wasn’t true, we wouldn’t read it.
Under starter’s orders
ON THE last day of our trip to Kent, we visited Canterbury Cathedral. Last time I was there, it was 1975, and I was on a school trip, because I was studying Murder in the Cathedral for A-level English. My hair was long, my flares were wide, and my face was livid with acne. I remember nothing but the fact that I bought the album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Elton John in W. H. Smith’s — a purchase I soon came to regret.
This time, the school trippers seemed to be largely well-behaved French children, dressed as pilgrims. Most wore mini monkish robes, or embroidered heraldic tabards, but there were also a boy bishop and a girl dressed as a solemn queen in a wilting crown. Wherever we went in the cathedral, the group of pilgrims appeared, in the charge of their teacher, who was translating into French the enthusiastic (English) guide’s peroration: “And it was just here, children, that Richard Brito sliced off the top of St Thomas’s skull.”
This is much meatier stuff than an indifferent, early-mid-period Elton John album; I wish I had paid more attention in 1975. Now, a few days after my confirmation, at the heart of the Anglican Church, I am trying, at last, to pay attention.
I even had a go at genuflecting in front of the reserved sacrament, as my Catholic stepson-in-law showed me. I’m not sure it went well, and I tried to pass off the attempt as one of the stretches I do for my policeman’s heel. But it still makes me smile. I’m the new kid on the block, keen to make friends and to make himself useful.
Ian Marchant is the author of A Hero for High Times: A younger reader’s guide to the Beats, Hippies, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New-Age Travellers and Dog-on-a-rope Brew Crew Crusties of the British Isles, 1956-1994.