Wisdom of Solomon
JUDGING competitions at fetes and bazaars can be a perilous clerical activity. You can never predict the pastoral fallout. A Beautiful Baby competition must be the worst — although one of the greatest tests of my episcopal courage was judging the Magnificent Hats worn by about 30 women at the Royal Norfolk Show.
But I’ve loved choosing the Bishop’s “Car of the Day” at our Norfolk Churches Classic Car Rally, which has now been running for more than a decade. This year, I chose a 1938 Fiat Topolino: the forerunner of the Fiat 500. It was in immaculate condition, clearly the result of many hours of meticulous restoration.
On an August Saturday morning, about 120 classic cars left the Cathedral Close to travel on a 70-mile route around the Norfolk Broads, calling at various rural churches before reaching Martham, where a glorious 15th-century parish church rises above the flat, broadland marshes. Classic cars and classic churches go well together, and the discovery of relatively unknown ecclesiastical gems in the deepest countryside delights car enthusiasts and parishioners alike. The only problem is the parking.
AT MARTHAM, we held what we call a Pit Stop Service. My annual challenge has been to find some connection between the scriptures and classic cars.
I’ve long since drawn every morsel of meaning from Jehu driving his chariot furiously (though there’s not much chance of that in Norfolk lanes). This year, I indulged in a little peroration about what the scriptures say about patience. I think it was quoting an old rhyme which gained most attention:
Patience is a virtue,
Possess it if you can,
Seldom found in woman,
Never found in man.
Despite this, many men find the painstaking restoration of a classic car is a school of patience. It may even nurture some qualities of forbearance in the rest of life. The wife of a priest who spent years restoring a car observed that “it’s just as well he believes in eternal life, given the time it’s taking.”
Making haste slowly
OURS is an age in which speed seems to be regarded as a yardstick of virtue. Rapid Response Units are everywhere.
Slow Response Units might serve us better, since good remedies frequently need time and thought. Slowing down is essential on rural Norfolk roads. Travelling slowly while visiting churches that have stood patiently for centuries is clearly a spiritual refreshment for these classic-car enthusiasts, many of whom are not regular worshippers.
The higher self
THE day after our car rally, I was at the small village of Felmingham to dedicate a war memorial in the churchyard, commemorating the local men who died in both the First and Second World Wars. We don’t rush into such things in Norfolk.
There were memorial boards in the church, but the 12 who made the supreme sacrifice (six in each war) are now much more fittingly honoured. To see a crowd of village people gathering to remember those whom none of them knew personally was touching.
Three of the dead from the Great War all shared the same surname: Self. The impact on that family a century ago must have been devastating. Self, or selfless?
LATER that Sunday, I travelled on a Norfolk wherry from Ranworth Broad to St Benet’s Abbey for the annual outdoor service on the site of the old monastery, beside the River Bure.
Wherries are large vessels, originally built to transport goods on the Broads network. They possess huge sails, and have a majestic presence on the water — they embody the Broads. Only eight survive, each of them restored as lovingly as any classic car.
The history of St Benet’s is curious. Early in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII commanded that the abbey should be maintained with 12 singing monks. He confiscated most of the abbey’s lands and revenues, however, and transferred the abbot to the bishopric of Norwich — where the abbot was seduced by city life. It was an early, if partial, dissolution. Perhaps even the King’s Commissioners could not find sufficient fault to abolish it entirely.
The abbey had died out by the 1550s. But the Bishop of Norwich remains the Abbot of St Benet’s: a delightful Norfolk eccentricity. Several hundred people come to this deserted site each year for the service, mostly by water. They do so slowly. The speed limit on the river is 4mph. This year, the wind was against us. As we came on our wherry, Hathor, from Ranworth, there was no chance of breaking the speed limit. We were drifting backwards. Hathor has no motor, and it looked as if we’d be very late. Then a gleaming motorboat came to our aid. Tied alongside, we used its motor — and got to the abbey on time.
Here and hereafter
IT EMERGED that the couple who own the boat live near Lambeth Palace. Their extravagant kindness had a gospel quality. I gave them an abbatial blessing before I set off for the service, assuring them that — if justification by works had any validity — they would be in line for eternal life. This was possibly even beyond my own pay grade to offer.
Since I was dressed in cope and mitre on the prow of the wherry, they took some photographs. I expect their unexpected encounter with a slow-moving abbot will provide a talking point at dinner parties for a long time to come. God bless them.
The Rt Revd Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich.