Grantchester: Before the mysteries

by
12 April 2019

In James Runcie’s latest novel, the history behind Sidney Chambers’ vocation to the priesthood is revealed

ALAMY

James Norton, who has played Sidney Chambers in the ITV adaptation of Grantchester

James Norton, who has played Sidney Chambers in the ITV adaptation of Grantchester

“YOU wanted to see me?” Rev Nev asks.

“There’s something I need to ask you about. But I’m not quite sure how to put it.”

“Then you need a drink. They’ll come in a minute. Let’s have some gin. It’s so difficult for all of us these days, isn’t it? I always think of George Herbert’s words, “Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer.” We don’t know what to do with ourselves.’

People around them are speaking with the kind of relaxed confidence that Sidney doesn’t know if he can ever achieve — or if he even wants to do so.

“I don’t read fiction any more,” one man is saying. “I can’t abide the stuff. Such a waste of time.”

There is laughter from the far end of the room, between the swagged curtains and under the illuminated busts of Roman emperors. Sidney wonders how soon they will get on to the subject of what he is going to do about his career.

There will probably have to be some small talk first. Men are writing letters on tables in the windows. Others, closer by, are enjoying drinks and joviality, and uttering sentences that seem to bear no relation to each other.

“I can’t say my life has become boring, but nothing matters after Anzio.”

“My daughter’s 27 already. I can’t think who on earth is going to marry her.”

“You can’t stagnate, Marcus. You just need to discover a more amusing way of living your life.”

“Cornwall can be rather desolate, even in summer. And there are never any decent parties.”

The gin and tonics arrive on a silver tray. Sidney’s host acknowledges the waiter, who has an obvious limp, a legacy from the Great War. “Thank you, Vincent. On my
account, if you don’t mind.” He leans forward. “Auntie Flo pays that as well, but I don’t like to take liberties. Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

PAPiccadilly Circus in London, 1946

There is a moment of silence that lies between companionability and expectation.

“Well?” Nev asks at last. “Are you going to come out with something or not?”

“I’m slightly embarrassed,” Sidney begins.

“I thought we could say anything to each other.”

“We can.”

“Then please carry on, unless you’d like to talk about the price of onions.”

“No, I wouldn’t. Why onions, Nev?”

“It’s just something to say.”

“I think it is normally ‘fish’. The price of fish.”

“Fish, onions, Brussels sprouts. You get the idea.”

Sidney shifts forwards in his chair. It doesn’t feel right to be sitting back while he says this. “I haven’t ever spoken out loud about this to anyone, Nev, and you may find it all rather extraordinary, but I wonder if we could talk about what it’s like to be a priest?”

“Are you asking because you are thinking about becoming one?”

“I’m not sure. You don’t think it’s rather implausible?”

“No, I don’t.”

“That’s helpful. Reassuring.”

“And neither do you, otherwise you wouldn’t be suggesting it.”

“I know. But I don’t want to be thought a fool.”

“As Christ was. . .”

“I don’t know much about that.”

“You do, Sidney, and you’ve always struck me as a very serious young man. Too serious, sometimes. You think things through —”

“I’m not always good at coming to a conclusion.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“So you don’t think it’s mad?”

“I do not. And I have to say that I think you might be rather good at it. But you have to be going into it for the right reasons. Being a priest is not so much a job as a vocation, a desire to live differently. There’s no clocking off. It’s with you all the time.”

“That’s how I feel at the moment. I thought it would go away but it hasn’t. Sometimes, it’s all I can think about.”

“And how would you describe this feeling?”

“It’s that I have to do something. I have to make more of my life. I can’t be merely ambitious. I want to do something of value. The right thing.”

“And many priests would argue that there is nothing more important than what we do.”

“I’m not sure I’m up to it, of course.”

“Yes, well, that self-doubt never quite goes away either, I am afraid. Apparently, it’s the same in other professions, but I never believe it. I haven’t met that many money-men afflicted with conscience.”

“I suppose doubt is part of faith.”

Westcott House, CambridgeSidney Chambers’s contemporaries: staff and ordinands at Westcott House, Cambridge, in 1946

“You trust in the Lord but doubt in yourself. Better that than the other way round.”

“Trust in yourself and doubt in the Lord?”

“Christianity is very much about the future, Sidney; it’s not so much who you are now but the man you might become. There’s an optimism at the heart of faith. Always remember that.”

Nev finishes his drink and offers another, making a little joke. Sherlock Holmes relished his two-pipe problems. This could be a two-gin problem. He is buying time, changing the subject before coming back to it, giving his friend a moment of respite.

“Well, Sidney,” he says at last, “it’s a brave thought.”

“It’s more than a thought. I think it’s the most momentous thing I can possibly imagine.”

“It is. And that’s a good sign.”

“It’s completely terrifying.”

“It’s meant to be. But you don’t have to do everything all at once. People don’t become marathon runners or surgeons or concert pianists overnight. You need training. And you can always apply and see how it goes. If it is not right for you then you’ll know soon enough. You can always go on and do something else. Olympic swimming, perhaps. . .”

“What?”

“I’m joking. But if it feels that you should be doing it, then you must carry on and see where it takes you. It’s almost impossible to know what God has in store for us or who we are going to become. That’s part of life’s journey. If we knew all along, life would be so predictable that it wouldn’t be worth living.’

“I just want to lead a better life, Nev.”

“And you think you need to be a priest to do that?”

“I’m trying to work it out.”

“And you wouldn’t be doing this out of guilt?”

Nev is aware their second drinks have arrived but makes sure that they are looking straight at each other.

“For Robert. For surviving when he did not.”

(As if Sidney needed the name.) “You’re very direct.”

“I do not think it helps if we are oblique. Not with friends. Not in the times we are living. You cannot sacrifice your life for his. One loss is enough. You must be
doing this because you want to do it, not because, in some warped way, you feel you must, or that your life no longer matters. It cannot be a punishment. Your life matters just as much as his.”

“You gave the letter to his mother. The ‘just-in-case’. . .”

“I did. And you have been to see the family.”

“I have.”

“So, you’ll already know a little of what it’s like to be a priest. To sit beside those who suffer. To understand pain.”

“I don’t know if I understand it exactly. . .”

“I’d like you to remember, Sidney, that you can atone, if that is what you feel you must do, in other professions.”

“I can’t think of any other means of finding my way back from the war.”

“I hope we’re not considering the Church as a last resort?”

“Not at all.”

“The need must be absolute.”

“Do you not think, Nev, that faith sometimes comes when people no longer have the energy or the willpower to deny it?”

“You have to want it with all your heart. Like love.”

“I wouldn’t know about that.”

“You will. Eventually. You have to open yourself up — make yourself vulnerable. As my tutor once told me, ‘Yearning makes the heart deep.’”

Rev Nev stops for a moment, perhaps wondering whether this is all too much for a conversation in a gentlemen’s club.

“Would you like to stay on for dinner? We don’t have to decide anything now. We’ve probably said enough. The idea has been raised. The subject is out. We can return to it once we are ready. There is no hurry. God is not going to go away. That’s one of the advantages of eternity.”

Postwar ordinands practise the pastoral arts

“But ‘strait is the gate’.”

“And you can see it ahead of you. All you have to do is decide when you want to walk through it.”

“I’m expected at home.”

“Another time, then.”

“Thank you for listening to me. I do appreciate it.”

“That’s my job, Sidney. And soon, perhaps, it will be yours.”

“I know it’s a big step. I can’t run before I can walk. ‘The race is not always to the swift.’”
“‘Nor yet battle to the strong.’ You are getting the idea.”

“Will it take long, Nev?”

“A lifetime. But then, Sidney, if you are not always learning, what on earth are you doing with your life?”

“So you approve?”

“I approve of your beginning the pilgrimage. We’ll just have to see how you get on during the journey. But I promise to keep you company on the road as much as I
can. We don’t want to take any wrong turnings.”

So this is the start, Sidney thinks: to say it out loud. To proclaim an intention that forces you to follow it. The conversation doesn’t feel momentous, but ordinary.

Is this how people decide to become doctors or teachers or politicians? When they look back in old age, if they ever get that far, how much do they wonder if their entire career has been some kind of arbitrary accident rather than planned and judged accordingly?

He takes the Tube home and tries to guess the profession of everyone in his carriage. There are RAF uniforms that help, and giveaway signs (a lawyer’s briefcase, a red-cloaked nurse, a bag of tools). There’s even a young woman from the Salvation Army who smiles at him encouragingly. He decides that this is a coincidence rather than some oblique message from God.

“I WAS hoping you’d be pleased for me, Dad.”

“Yes, I am, Sidney, of course I am, and all I can do is to wish you luck, and remind you that you have our support. I suppose there will be quite a few stages to go through before you become a saint. Will you tell your mother, or shall I?”

“I’ll do it.”

“Better coming from you. She can think she’s the first to know.”

“I WAS just thinking,” Alec Chambers says on the bus home. “The Victorians used to send either their youngest or their dimmest sons into the Church. Aren’t you a bit
too intellectual for them?”

“I’m not aware that being clever is a clerical disadvantage.”

“Perhaps it isn’t. I’m sure they could do with you. Maybe chaps like you are supposed to redress the balance?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea what the others may be like. But there’s no such thing as being ‘too clever’ for them, don’t you think? I must make the best use of whatever gifts I may have.”

“And the Church is the best place to exercise those gifts?”

“I don’t know, Dad.”

The bus heads north through Camden and up towards Highgate. Two drunks are swinging at each other outside the Bull and Gate, staggering without ever falling over, missing their punches. A man crosses the road in his dressing gown, appearing to wear his medals from the Great War.

They overtake a woman on a tricycle carrying a basket of sunflowers. It is a surprise of colour amid the impending dusk. Perhaps she is on the way back from her allotment?

Sidney’s father is still thinking. “Has God spoken to you about it all?” he asks.

“I don’t think so. Not yet.”

“Isn’t he supposed to? You haven’t had a Damascus Road moment?”

“No. But perhaps I don’t need one.” Now is not the time to lecture Alec Chambers on the theological significance of the Supper at Emmaus. “I just need to acknowledge the kind of peace I can’t find anywhere else.”

“Ah, so it’s peace you’re after?”

“Not world peace, although that would be good, but a kind of quiet, a solitary striving: a need to be still, to listen, if that doesn’t sound too pious. I want more of Christ in my life, and, even more than that, to give my life to him. To live in Christ and Christ in me.”

His father looks to the side and behind them. He isn’t sure he wants people overhearing the conversation. It isn’t the kind of chat you have on a bus. You’re supposed to talk about the weather, the cricket, and what you’re going to have for tea. God is best kept for Sundays and inside a church.

An elderly couple smile encouragingly, as if to say that Alec Chambers is lucky to have a son at all.

“You are aware of what you will be giving up, Sidney?”

“A priest has to set an example, be examined and judged. You’ll have to sacrifice your private life.”

“As you have done.”

“I’m not on call all the time. A priest is.”

“I don’t know about that. I think they do have time off.”

“In which they pray, meditate, reflect. It’s a calling. A whole life. It won’t be like anything else.”

“I know, Dad.”

“And won’t you get bored, have doubts, wonder if it’s all been worth while?”

“I think that is part of the job. I’d have more doubts if I went into the Foreign Office.”

“And what about money? What will you do about that?”

“The Church does pay.”

“Not very much, I imagine.”

“I think that’s the idea, Dad. Jesus didn’t have much time for money — or moneylenders for that matter.”

“And will you have the common touch? I suppose the army has given you a bit of that.”

“I don’t know. All I know is that I have to do something. Why did you become a doctor? Perhaps it’s the same thing. St Luke was a medical man. We have to be more than ourselves. What did your parents say when you told them?”

“They didn’t approve. Imagine, your mother and father not supporting your desire to be a doctor? They thought I should have worked on the farm.”

“There you are then. Imagine your mother and father not supporting your desire to be a priest?”

A bell rings. The bus slows down and pulls to a halt.

“Very good, Sidney. This is our stop. I think you might call that checkmate.”

This is an edited extract from James Runcie’s new book The Road to Grantchester (Books, 29 March), published by Bloomsbury Publishing at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special price £12.99).

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