A FEW weeks ago, I was on holiday in Norfolk. Although I have been on pilgrimage to Walsingham many times, this was the first time I’d been on holiday in the area — with old university friends, in a lovely farmhouse near Wells-next-the-Sea. And a very good time we had, too.
I did, though, go to Walsingham Parish Church for the Sunday-morning mass, which was as well presented as ever. I rather liked a reference in the sermon to my old theological college, St Stephen’s House, as being a “finishing school for Catholics” (in my time, it was often referred to as “St Chad’s Finishing School”, owing to the number of trainee priests who originated from St Chad’s College, Durham). Certainly, the gratifyingly crisp processing of the Walsingham parochial servers reminded me of the lessons in how to walk liturgically which we ordinands were given, all those years ago.
There was at one time (and, in some lofty rectories, I’m sure still is) a style of walking, “the Staggers Glide” (“Staggers” being 1920s slang for St Stephen’s House), which makes you look as if you are running on casters, with little visible movement, like a Dalek. Added to this are right-angled turns so sharp that they can produce virtual sparks. Cassock length, I remember, was important, as were proper shoes.
How is it done? Well, primarily (and this is a trade secret) by using short steps, and by putting one foot immediately in front of the other; also by standing up straight, and looking imperiously ahead. I still catch myself doing it at events such as funerals, where I look suitably lowering, gliding down the aisle in front of the coffin and doing 90-degree turns sharp enough to make a Staggers sacristan proud.
Mind you, at other times, I’m just as likely to be running round giggling and firing water-pistols at the children in church on a Sunday morning (they shoot back) — but that’s another story.
Face to face
A LITTLE while ago, I revisited my old parish of Moulsecoomb to take the funeral of a local character, Kevin. Some four-and-a-half years ago, I remember leading carols on Christmas Eve in “the Bevy” (the community pub and hub that I helped to reopen). “Right, you lot,” I said as the carols finished, “now down the road to St Andrew’s for midnight mass,” and Kevin was one of the group who — to my surprise — actually went. Moreover, until he collapsed and died in a Brighton nightclub, he hardly missed a Sunday, getting both baptised and confirmed. The church was packed for his funeral, and we had a suitably leery do in “the Bevy” afterwards.
But the thing that rather wrong-footed me on the day was not the service, nor anything to do with Kevin, but being confronted, when I went into the sacristy, with a happy, laughing photo of myself. Smiling matily and dressed in my favourite white chasuble, I was the latest face in the massed ranks of former vicars and rectors of the parish. It was the first time I had been the incumbent of a church with such a rogues’ gallery, and seeing myself pinned up there like a liturgical butterfly was food for thought.
I remember, some 20 years ago, when I was Deputy Vicar of Brighton in St Peter’s Parish Church, my lasting legacy was to mount the battered regiment of dour, black-and-white photos of past vicars of Brighton in a row of uniform gold frames. While doing so, I came across a photo of one vicar, c.1870, sitting sleek and well-upholstered amid the group of his 12 somewhat shabby curates, looking for all the world like a sleek raven surrounded by grubby starlings.
I believe that, at the same date, the neighbouring parish of St Bartholomew had some 15 curates attached to it. They would all be thrown out of their barrack-like clergy houses to go parish visiting, and were not allowed back in until evensong. Twenty-seven curates for just two churches: how times have changed.
Pictured for posterity
LOOKING at the row of clergy in my former sacristy was a salutary experience. There were some dozen or so of them, starting in the 1920s with formal, posed shots of austere clerics in canonicals. They then started gradually getting smiley and more relaxed, until my predecessor and I finally burst into colour. I was at the funeral of two of these faces, and only the last three of us are still alive.
It’s an odd thing to think that, when I’m dead and gone, this image will still be cheerily grinning at anyone who comes in to take a service. It does, though, make me realise that, three years on from my leaving, I am very much in the past.
Where I am now, in the Church of the Holy Cross, Uckfield, there is a similar, much more extensive rogues’ gallery; maybe I’ll sort out my own picture before I go. A formal headshot of me looking nobly into the distance? Or perhaps I could get away with an action shot: giggling, and armed with a water pistol? I think the latter.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.