MY FIRST spell as a Church Times reader began 28 years ago, courtesy of the student-common-room subscription at theological college. The news pages were generally skimmed. The page with the cricket-cup scores might be scrutinised, and note was taken of the book reviews. But it was the Gazette pages that claimed the most interest.
Already, in their first year, the cannier ordinands were connoisseurs of the paths that led to patronage and preferment. A couple of them went through Crockford’s Clerical Directory, tracking the routes that led back from the cross-marked bishops to their first curacies.
We family folk in our thirties were aloof from such brazen venality. But the Gazette nevertheless exercised an irresistible pull. For me, it was a pull backwards. As I was meant to be looking forwards — to my first funeral, a new school for the children, life in suburban Stockport — the Gazette drew my mind back to the first sketches of my vocation.
I grew up in a church-going family. My two brothers and I sang from the age of seven in the choir of St Luke’s, Bath. In the summer, we would get on a coach and head along the Fosse Way to Wells for the annual RSCM diocesan festival. Something happened to me during one of these trips — or, perhaps cumulatively — as a result of which my notion of God became inextricably bound up with music and beauty. The holy ground for me is a time as well as a place, and not only the polyphonic space beneath the Gothic vaulting, but also the lawn by the cloister wall, where we ate our sandwiches with the soft-spoken old men who sang tenor and bass, who had fought in the First World War, and who never tired of trying to straighten our shoulders.
Choirs from all over the county were each allotted their own patch of grass for picnicking, and I became aware for the first time of those Somerset village names, each denoting in my imagination a church tower, a graveyard, a cluster of homes: Limpley Stoke, Hinton Charterhouse, and, my favourite, Huish Episcopi cum Langport. In today’s gluttonous age, they’ve been assembled into benefices bloated with syllables like a Masterchef menu — East Harptree with West Harptree and Hinton Blewett; Chew Magna with Dundry, Norton Malreward and Stanton Drew; Beercrocombe with Curry Mallet, Hatch Beauchamp, Orchard Portman, Staple Fitzpaine, Stoke St Mary with Thurlbear and West Hatch.
Fifty-five years after I first heard them, you can still find those parish names in the Gazette, not only in the vacancies — where they tend to linger — and appointments, but also in the death notices. I cannot read these columns without tracing a mental map of the departed brother or sister’s working life. Sometimes, the record denotes something like a career — well-timed moves, careful accumulation of diverse experience, gradual promotion, followed, in the imagination’s eye, by comfortable retirement in an episcopal rose garden.
Frequently, the Christian name of the deceased offers a clue to the age: Maurice and Stanley are unlikely to be younger than me (they were 93 and 89). Some clergy are well travelled, with a string of overseas postings. Others have barely moved. Unambitious, they might be called by their archdeacon; stagnant, by the ministerial development team; faithful, by their parishioners. It is impossible not to be moved to prayer when reading of clergy whose entire service has been in one place, often into their eighties. Such people are frequently women, who may, like Gillian Dorothy Ireson, have served for many years as deaconesses before being priested.
Reading these lists takes me back to my childhood. Those men, whose portraits hung on the vestry wall of St Luke’s, Bath, certainly looked kindly. With the breaking of my voice, I had left the choir, and started to learn the organ, spending long hours in the church on my own. On my way out, I often paused before the photographs.
They were, of course, all monochrome, and there was a distinct style for the clerical pose. The head was slightly bowed for humility. The eyes were direct, but not hard. But it was the mouth that conveyed most, widened without grinning (perhaps a hint at the willingness to smile?), and, most of all, suggesting kindness. The portraits spanned more than a century, but the only concession made by the sitters to fashion was some small variation in the breadth of their collars.
A vicar modelling this pre-synodical expression of benignity today might come across as bland or ineffectual. But I felt that these men were decent and godly, and I sensed that I might want to be one of them.
How different the poses of their successors: some in obsolete modes of dress, coiffure, and facial furniture; others that might be interpreted as furtive; those exhibiting a slightly desperate heartiness that I recognise from photos of myself.
Somewhere in this gallery may well be a Fr Barry, who remembers when we tried this the first time round, 20 years ago, who does not enjoy change, and likes to tell his experience. Decades later, I realise that I’m being treated with a special kind of solicitude by a quartet of young clergy with whom I find myself at a meeting. And, yes, I recognise in my reflection in the bus window on the way home that I have become Fr Barry. No wide-mouthed generosity of spirit there.
As I look to the next stage of my ministry, I remember the deaths column and the appointments lists. Those names remind me how I was called, by whom, and where, to a place that probably never was and where I couldn’t go, but where, nevertheless, others did. And do. And will. As Flanders and Swann wrote: “Easton-in-Gordano, Compton Dundon, Dultincote”.
The Revd Robin Isherwood served in Chester diocese from 1994 to 2014, and has been Chaplain of the Charterhouse, London, since 2014.