IF THERE was any doubt what to expect from Three Vicars Talking (Radio 4 FM, Monday of last week) — for which were brought together the Revd Richard Coles, the Revd Kate Bottley, and Canon Giles Fraser — then Mrs Bottley cleared it up for us. “I’m exaggerating for comic effect,” she announced, after the retelling of one particularly outrageous anecdote. “It’s one of the reasons we’re here.”
Surfing on generous waves of laughter from their companions and “backstage” from the producer and sound engineer, each Reverend gave us their favourite vestry ticklers; and, in this first episode, focusing on death, they ranged in credibility and humour from the time when an abseiler appearing at the hospital window of a pious patient was mistaken for the Lord appearing in glory to the intervention that one priest had to make in a crematorium fight between two half-brothers.
But, as Mrs Bottley intimated, this was just one of the reasons that they were given air-time. Our celebrity clerics were prepared — on behalf of themselves and their profession — to declare a certain pride in their ability to manage death, and to deal with laity who tend to think about it a great deal less than they do.
It was heartening to hear a Church of England priest — Canon Fraser in this instance — state, unashamed, “We are good at funerals”; and he can also lay claim to the most affecting story of the half-hour, when he admitted to a temporary loss of faith after officiating at the funeral of a child.
Each of the three clerics is intent on a traditional funeral, with plenty of weeping, good liturgy, and not a whiff of that celebration-of-life that has so hybridised the modern funeral. But the walls of the Church have always been a more porous cultural barrier than either ecclesiastics or secularists might like to admit. Profane songs have, for centuries, intruded into divine worship, just as the songs of the Church have been mined for civic occasions, high- and low-brow.
The theme of last week’s A Singer’s Guide to Britain (Radio 4, Wednesday) was just this interpenetration of music from one space to another: the bowdlerisation of opera in the music hall, and the journey of songs from parlour to street and back again. Most provocative was the assertion that the age of the shared song, known and sung by a whole community, was at an end, killed off by the invention of the headphone. We no longer experience or value the same music in the same way. There will be priests up and down the country nodding in agreement, as they prepare the hymn list for their next funeral.
I was clearing my schedule to allow time over the Bank Holiday weekend for Radio 4’s monumental adaptation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; but readers will, I hope, grant me leave to delay until next week. Not even ten hours of languid fin-de-siècle reminiscence could distract me from the events at Headingley on Sunday, so brilliantly conveyed by Test Match Special (Radio 5 Live). Other than the Stokes innings, the highlight was surely Boycott’s embarrassment as it was revealed how many run-outs he had suffered in his Test career.