Plus ça change
IT WAS with some trepidation that, for the first time since mid-March, I went back into our main church building. I opened the door of the side chapel and went gingerly in, not quite knowing what I’d find.
It was just as we’d left it those months ago — all a bit Marie Celeste-ish. The last time I’d been in church was to record four services (Mothering Sunday to Easter), and everything was still there: the notice sheets for Mothering Sunday, waiting by the door to be collected; the icon on the altar, propped up by a pile of Bibles; a banner made by Junior Church with all their handprints; the odd palm cross or two; and — most poignantly — a little vase of desiccated daffodils, used to represent Easter, now long dead. It was dispiriting, to say the least.
Then I noticed. Last time I’d been in church, it was Lent and all the altar frontals were purple — the colour of waiting, and mourning. But, when I went back for that first time in May, they were white: the colour of festival, the colour of Eastertide.
Unbeknown to me, just before the final lockdown, our sacristan, Linda, had been in and changed them — which involved first moving some 300 hymn books that had been piled up on the frontals chest. It actually made me cry. In the midst of all the inertia and lockdown, the life and life-cycle of the Church, as symbolised by those altar frontals, was gently and unobtrusively continuing.
I left, a much happier rector than when I arrived.
God of small things
AND now, in Ordinary Time, the altars are green, and we are faced with the question: to open or not to open? Like many church communities, we have approached this with mixed feelings. On the one hand, our buildings are hugely valued sacred spaces; on the other, there is the question of safety.
After much discussion on Zoom with the Standing Committee, I found myself opening Holy Cross for an hour a day, preparing to field all comers in the cordoned-off side chapel. To my surprise, the video I posted on Facebook to show people what to expect had had more than 3000 views; so I fretted a bit over how many visitors we might get on the first day, and how to monitor queues and ensure social distancing.
On the day itself, we got the grand total of two. One was a member of the congregation who, feeling stir-crazy, had come to touch base with her God; the other was a young woman who — just passing, with some shopping — had timidly come in to light a candle on the first anniversary of a friend’s death. For the first time in all these months, it felt as if we were getting back to normal.
ONE thing I have learned in these strange times is the art of the backdrop. I remember a Church Times cartoon defining various personality types as represented by their video backgrounds: studious (lots of books); artistic (lots of pictures/statues); chaotic (lots of everything). Mine is very much in the chaotic/artistic vein.
When being videoed singing along to a soundtrack which only I can hear (a surreal practice I will discontinue as soon as I can), my background is the wall of the rectory sitting-room. To my right is an 18th-century print of Chichester Cathedral, which I bought soon after my ordination there some 30 years ago. To my far left — somewhat improbably, and I suspect unique in Anglican streaming — is a metre-high bronze statue of the goddess Sita, which I accidentally bought at a local auction (a silly low bid I actually won). In the centre is a pair of icons of St Peter and St Paul which I bought at the Christian Resources Exhibition years ago, only to discover that they had been part of a display in a flower show at my church in Moulsecoomb, some ten years before I got there. They were obviously meant.
IN PRIDE of place, however, is a large framed oblong object of which I am hugely fond. “What is it, do you think?” I often ask people when they first visit. “Granite?” they venture. “Painted slate?” Well, no. It’s a rusted, galvanised steel shelf from a gas cupboard by the Grand Canal in Venice.
When I was there some four years ago, each evening we’d potter down to the canalside near the Rialto Bridge, with a two-wheeled shopping trolley packed with drinks and nibbles, and garden furniture that we’d set up by the water’s edge. We clutched our Aperol Spritzes and waved happily at the passing vaporetti and gondoliers (one of whom, gratifyingly, once joined us): all in all, one of my happiest memories.
Beside our little jetty was the aforementioned gas cabinet, rusted and broken open. One evening, I noticed that the bottom shelf had come away completely, and thought how beautiful it was, with its grey swirls and lacy, rusted edges; I took it back to my flat, and, later, brought it home to be framed. And very good I think it looks, too. To me, it represents the hope of going back to my favourite city on earth, when Aperol Spritz can once again be drunk in the Venetian sunshine.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.