I HAVE just come back from my annual trip to get some winter sunshine in Barbados. I remember the first time I went, getting on for 15 years ago, feeling that I had got there by accidental oversight, and that the Tourist Police would find me and send me back, saying that Anglican vicars were not supposed to go to such places.
This year was, as ever, lovely and restorative, even though quite rainy (it was warm rain, though). Foolishly, I allowed myself to track work emails and messages, (thinking that I didn’t want any surprises hitting me on my return), and, although there were no big traumas, there were one or two ticklish ones that came through: the feeling was like little shards of glass puncturing my serenity — not in major ways, but deflating my sense of relaxation and well-being.
I won’t be doing that again. Next time, the email will be deactivated: if anything disastrous happens, they will have to phone.
ONE thing that I do every year is walk for half a mile or so along the beach in the morning, to a little jetty sticking out in the sea where I can say morning prayer. As I go, I collect pieces of sea glass I see washed up in the surf: bits of broken bottles and jars pounded by the sea until they become smooth, translucent jewels of green, white, and sometimes blue, known also as “Mermaids’ tears”. I hold them as I pray.
I have done three different jobs in my time coming to the Caribbean, each one with different joys and problems, events and crises, which I have lifted up to be smoothed over by God’s providence. For me, the sea glass represents all those happenings in parish life over the nearly 30 years I have been a priest: sharp shards of glass that can wound and leave scars, but, in time, they are smoothed over and become something beautiful.
All parish clergy know this narrative of priestly ministry, which can be painful, which wears you down, but, ultimately, reinforces the reason that each of us is called. Each year, I take the new fragments home, and now have a bowl full of them: an image of ministry which grows into new patterns each time I add more sea glass to the pile.
Is that allowed?
IN TWO of my three parishes, I am blessed (cursed?) with open graveyards. I have never had charge of a graveyard before, and I am well aware that, although they appear gentle resting-places for the slumbering dead, they are real minefields for the living.
I remember one clergy friend of mine whose life was blighted by her graveyard: members of one angry family, not allowed the memorial that they wished, were so abusive that the archdeacon had to arrange a non-molestation order for her safety. With this in mind, my heart sinks when a memorial request comes in.
More than once, armed with a photocopy of Appendix D (Churchyard Regulations) of the Diocesan Chancellor’s General Directions, I have tramped around the graves, looking for, and photographing, precedents for horizontal slabs or “seemly and appropriate . . . badges, crests, or emblems”. So far, I have been able to pass all the applications, but I am still apprehensive.
Glitz and glitter
I HAVE been, though, impressed and heartened by the Appendix’s instructions on inscriptions: “To be encouraged are fulsome inscriptions which give a flavour of the life of the person commemorated rather than blandly recording a name and dates. Epitaphs should honour the dead, comfort the living and inform posterity. They will be read long after the bereaved have themselves passed away.” How true.
It does make me wonder how I would like to be remembered on my own tombstone; and, after some thought, two quotations come to mind.
After a fairly flamboyant Brighton funeral, a couple of mourners were overheard discussing my taking of it: apparently, I was described as “Religious in a glittery sort of way,” which I rather liked. Also, a friend reported that his seven-year-old, after a particularly chaotic assembly, said that he thought that “Fr John is the funniest adult I know.”
I think I would like those on my tombstone: “Fr John Wall, Rector of Uckfield. He was religious in a glittery sort of way, and the funniest grown-up we knew.” York sandstone, please, with, next to it (though I suspect the Appendix would decidedly frown on this), a large, simply carved stone bowl of sea glass.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.