PEOPLE sometimes ask, with their head earnestly on one side, why I went into the Church. If I am in a mischievous mood, I answer with a straight face, “Because I liked the clothes.”
At my theological college, St Stephen’s House, back in the unreformed 1980s, vestments and clerical dress were hot topics, with many an impassioned debate over the use of maniples, the amount and signification of lace on one’s cotta, and the place and propriety of buckled shoes.
I always imagined that, once let loose in a post-ordained world, I’d become a right “tat merchant”, but — somewhat to my surprise — I never did. I have two cassocks (one light and one heavyweight), a modestly lacy cotta and my ordination surplice, a handful of stoles, and five chasubles (one each in green, red, and white, and two in purple), and that’s it. One of the purple chasubles is reversible damask with a supposedly gold lining that in actual fact is a canary yellow: I have used it a couple of times, and, to be quite honest, it feels as if you are celebrating in a big, shimmering bowl of custard.
I must admit to feeling that I’m letting the side down a bit, when I encounter fellow clergy in vestments of such opulence as to make a resplendent Christmas tree feel dowdy, but there you are.
Ringing the changes
I DO, however, have rings in liturgical colours that I wear on my signet finger. I was quite conscientious in changing them until I mislaid a rather nice emerald, and then somewhat lost interest; this year, I was three weeks into Eastertide before I remembered to replace my Lenten amethyst with my sliver of diamond.
Mind you, I might perk up a bit now I have joined the ancient Hospitaller Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem — which entitles me to a green pompom on my biretta.
THERE is, however, someone in the household who seems to enjoy vesture in liturgical colours, and that is Sophie, my little black Labrador. I have in my congregation a resourceful band known as “the crafty ladies”, who turn their skilful hands to a variety of projects. Need a plain chasuble for children to decorate for Holiday Club? One appears, immaculately edged and lined. Want little fabric bags for Messy Church? A dozen appear, in a variety of colours and materials.
They kindly produced for Sophie bandanas in liturgical colours, for her to wear in church, and she loves them. Whenever I produce one, there is great excitement, because she knows it’s the prelude to a visit somewhere where there will be people to talk to and biscuits to eat. Maybe I’ll get as excited over my green pompom — maybe, but, I suspect, not quite.
Locals who lunch
I AM about to embark on my latest community venture in Uckfield: the relaunch of Fr John’s lunches.
In Moulsecoomb, in Brighton, for some 11 years, I held my lunches for local community leaders; over the time, armed with my apron (I’m a good cook), I must have produced more than 1000 covers. City councillors, doctors, head teachers, youth workers, community-development workers, domestic-violence counsellors, library-service providers, police, community-centre managers, and children’s-centre workers — anywhere between 15 and 40 people, from a database of about 70, used to come to my monthly gathering in the rectory, listen to a presentation, have lunch together, and network.
The house was lovely: an Arts and Crafts purpose-built rectory from the 1920s, it had gracious rooms, open fires in the winter, and an ample garden in the summer, and people liked to come (especially when welcomed in by an enthusiastic Labrador). The July meeting, in a marquee on the lawn with lobster and Pimms, was the biggest draw; sitting in the shade of the old Bramley apple trees, I found it hard to believe that we were at the heart of an urban priority area in the top five per cent of deprivation in the country.
I think the key thing was that it was someone’s home: nobody “hobby-horsed”, and — in these straitened times — it gave people a chance to relax, feel appreciated, and hear what others were doing. A fair number of initiatives and projects originated in those convivial sessions, and they are among the things that I was most proud of in my time there.
It’s what the Church can still do, I feel: bring people together, make them feel valued, and then make things happen.
Spice up the bland
I HAD the Town Council round for a meal a few weeks ago; on the back of that, I’m going to have a go at seeing if Fr John’s lunches will work here, in a very different setting. The town’s beautiful, early-Victorian rectory was sold off some four years ago: dilapidated, and ruinously expensive both to maintain and to run, it was still, to my mind, hugely usable and a real asset lost.
Where I am now is an agreeable modern house on a new estate, like the others around it. I have a modest garden, an enormous en suite, and a walk-in closet; and it is a pleasant and easily maintainable place — for an individual rather than a parish priest — in which to live. It is also very dull. Will people want to come to lunches here as they did before? I don’t know. We’ll have a go. Wish me luck.
Ministry of welcome
MAYBE this is why I haven’t really got into priestly vestments as I thought I would: maybe the diaconal apron is what I am called to wear. From the hospitality of the altar to the hospitality of the table is a short journey to make.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.