“FATHER John?” The lips purse slightly, and an eyebrow goes up. “I didn’t think we had ‘Fathers’ in the Church of England.” This was at a recent baptism visit, but this conversation, or a variant, has cropped up many times over the years — rather like people asking “More tea, Vicar?” and then rolling around merrily as if the joke is newly minted. You sigh inwardly and embark on, “Well, it’s a verbal part of the uniform really: a priest is what I am, a Vicar is the job I do, and ‘Father’ is what we’re generally called in our tradition of doing church.”
I do, though, fully understand where they are coming from, since “Father” was certainly not part of the church ethos in the village where I grew up. The parish priest was universally addressed as “Mister”, or “Vicar”. Any attempt at “Father” would probably have been met with a stern invocation of Matthew 23.9 — “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father: the one in heaven” — which has always been a bit of a talking point.
But, if ever I have been tempted to dispense with “Father” and just be “John”, I remember an episode when I was newly priested. Getting used to being called “Father” when I was in my twenties was quite hard — rather like getting used to wearing the clerical collar. One evening, early on in my ministry, I found myself making a funeral visit for a woman who had died in her early forties, and I was trying to put her husband of about the same age at his ease. He kept calling me “Father”. When, after a while, I said “No, it’s fine, just call me John,” he looked at me, pointed his finger, and said “No, you’re ‘Father’”
He was 20 years older than me — easily old enough to be my father — but this was the part he needed me to play: that was who he needed me to be. It was an important lesson, and “Father John” is what and who I have been ever since.
HERE, in deepest, darkest East Sussex, we are now deeply into Bonfire Season.
It’s all still a bit of a novelty, to me, this bonfire business. In Brighton, we never “bonfired”, preferring to do more anti-establishment/pagan-round-the-edges things such as the “Burning of the Clocks” for Winter Solstice; and the whole bonfire thing rather passed me by.
The big event of the Sussex bonfire calendar is the Lewes bonfire, where huge numbers gather on 5 November, in what has been called “The bonfire capital of the world”. But the season begins and ends with us in Uckfield, opening with thousands lining the street for the torchlight parade in the first week of September, and closing with the bonfire carol service at my church, Holy Cross, in December.
Eccentricity in dress on the part of the clergy is expected. For the carols in my first year, I dressed as Oliver Hardy, and my curate played Stan Laurel; last December (my second), I had great fun as Darth Vader, with black cloak, scary mask, and light sabre. I especially enjoyed the “Dum, dum, dum, dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum” entrance music, complete with dry ice. They don’t train you for things like that at theological college — or, at least, they didn’t in my time.
THIS year, however, I feel fully integrated into my bonfire community, having been given a hat of my very own, made by Jackie Love. Chair of the Bonfire Society, town councillor, and currently Deputy Mayor of Uckfield, she is a dab hand at such things, and I am hugely taken with it.
Like something the voodoo character Baron Samedi would wear, it has powerful symbolic meaning. Essentially a tall black top hat, it has peacock feathers representing fireworks on one side, and angel wings surmounted by a halo on the other (cast somewhat against type, I dress up as the Archangel Gabriel for the Crib Service — but that’s another story).
On the front, there are miniature torches, a figure of my little black Labrador, Sophie (who comes to most places with me), and a Star Wars storm trooper (a nod to Darth Vader: see above); on the back is a “Messy Church” logo, and surmounting the whole thing is a clerical collar embellished in black lace. All in all, it’s fabulous, and I’m hugely pleased. It goes so well with cassock, surplice, and preaching scarf.
I might be ambivalent about using the title “Father”, but this splendid titfer I will wear with inordinate pride on whatever occasion I can get away with it.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.