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Diary: John Wall

22 February 2019


Not to the swift

I HAVE just experienced the longest Sunday-morning service I have ever attended. I was on my usual post-Christmas break in Barbados, and I attended St James’s, one of the historic Anglican parish churches on the island. The service was the parish eucharist; four babies were baptised, and it took two and a half hours, including an edifying sermon that lasted a smidgeon under 35 minutes.

A number of obvious visitors melted away, but the regular congregation took it breezily in their stride. I was impressed. If I tried the same approach in my own parishes, there would be restlessness at the hour-and-20-minute mark, and an intervention by church officials armed with churchwardens’ staves at the hour-and-a-half. Mind you, one morning, in a spirit of mischief, I might be tempted to have a go.


They also serve.

BARBADOS is actually a hugely religious island. There are supposedly some 300 churches of assorted denominations dotted around the countryside — almost as numerous as the rum shops. Staggeringly, that works out as a church per 1000 residents, which puts our ratios in the shade.

As well as the main Anglican parishes (which are the chief administrative units on the island), there are Methodists, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, and pretty much any other denomination you can think of. I remember being rather taken with a jaunty little pink hut that called itself the “Little Jerusalem Deliverance Center” — the spelling suggesting, I suspect, its American origin.

But the presence of the churches is not just in physical buildings. One day, a van cut in front of me, its back doors adorned with the question: “Jesus is coming: are you ready?”, which took me by surprise. Similarly, a number of bus stops have been adopted by church groups, who have inscribed them with “Be still and know that I am God.” On reflection, this is a splendid thought for people compelled to sit and wait in bus queues.


Cloud of witnesses

IT IS, though, the gentle faithfulness of ordinary people which is most affecting. I noticed one woman in the café of a supermarket, her shopping at her feet, reading Isaiah from the Bible that was held in one hand while she drank the coffee held in the other. But the one who impressed me most was a young woman I often saw in the mornings.

Most days, as I’ve mentioned before, I walk along the beach for about half a mile, collecting sea glass, before saying morning prayer on a jetty that stretches out to sea (Diary, 9 February 2018). It is a touching-place for me — a reference point, where I can lay down the past and lift up the future.

I smiled at the young woman as she sat on a wall, noticing that she always had a Bible open. Dressed in uniform, she was getting ready to go to work in a hotel. One morning, I stopped to talk. Her Bible was well-thumbed and annotated: she was studying St John. As I went to pray at my touching-place, I knew I was not praying alone.


Life supports

I RECENTLY bumped unexpectedly into an old friend. I was in the National Gallery, having seen the wonderful Mantegna and Bellini exhibition, and, uncharacteristically, had ventured into the less frequented basement. And there was my old friend, whom I realised I hadn’t seen for years: the wonderful painting by Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid (also known as The Enchanted Castle). It is a glorious painting of twilight, atmospheric and pensive; and — although I’ve always thought the figure of Psyche a bit lumpen — and it is a picture that has resonated with me, both as a child and as a young adult.

At one time, it held pride of place in one of the main galleries upstairs (in the 18th century, any Grand Tourist worth his salt wanted a Claude). The young John Keats knew and responded to this painting in a letter to a friend, and it may have inspired his Ode to a Nightingale; so to see it relegated to second rank was quite melancholic.

For a long time, it was my favourite painting, and, for many years, a reference point — another touching-place, if you will. I remember, as a young ordinand in 1986, I was in my first term at theological college, feeling miserable and out of place, and wondering whether I had done the right thing. I had gone to the National Gallery, thinking I could at least touch base with The Enchanted Castle — one constant I could rely on. And, when I got there, there it wasn’t: it was off in an exhibition somewhere.

I was gutted, torn between bursting into tears and laughing; so I sat in the middle of the gallery and laughed and laughed. The kindly attendants allowed me to do so, which I suspect they wouldn’t now. From that point on, things picked up, and I had a brilliant time in my training.

As I stood looking at the long-forgotten painting, I compared the blond, fringed 25-year-old student in jeans and sweatshirt I had been, laughing on the floor of the National Gallery, with the soberly clerical-collared and overcoated 58-year-old I am now. I pondered sitting on the floor and giggling, but decided against it. I rather regret that, now.

Jetties and prayers in Barbados; a lost painting; and memories in a gallery — all touching-places, and stepping stones along the way.


The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.

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