AS GIGS go, speaking at the Church of England Guild of Vergers’ annual conference is a tough one. Let’s face it: vergers have seen — and heard — it all before.
So I arrived nervously in Malvern, but was greeted with enormous warmth and, if they had heard all my gags before, they didn’t let on. I took as my topic “Whatever happened to my spiritual life?” Clergy and vergers, seeing behind the curtains of the Church, as it were, can easily become jaundiced; we can also spend so much time trying to help other people’s faith and worship that we forget our own.
It was helpful to hear vergers from churches and cathedrals all across the country speak of their work as a spiritual vocation, and to see how seriously they take their ministry of often being the first face that the visitor to a church encounters. It was Pope Paul VI who told an audience of Christians that they might be the only Gospel that many people would read that day. So, thank God for vergers.
ON THE way home, I stopped off at one of my favourite places: Mucknell Abbey. I joined the community for their midday eucharist and, having been unable to visit for nearly two years, was tearful at the sense of homecoming which overtook me as I sat in chapel.
Perhaps because I would make a terrible monk, I find myself drawn to this place, where they, and their Sisters, live, work, and pray.
St Benedict’s Rule is always worth revisiting. He had no illusions about community life and spent a lot of time giving guidance on how to prevent character assassination by disciplining gossip and grumbling. He even makes it clear that monastics should resist the occasional urge to kill or punch each other.
As I took a quick look at Anglicans on Twitter before leaving, I concluded that we need Benedict rather urgently.
IT WAS moving, as a tutor of St John’s, to stand by the main gate and applaud the latest graduands as they made their way to Senate House for their degrees. It’s been a difficult year for students; after a year of their battling with frustrations, loneliness, and anxiety, I felt proud of them as they were led up the high street by the Head Porter.
It’s said that the average 18-year-old student today telephones home three times daily; when I was at university, three times a year was good going. It seems that guidance from parents is in high demand as their alarmed offspring discover that life doesn’t come with subtitles. On graduation day, however, our students appeared more than ready for their lives ahead.
This year’s graduation photograph was taken by a drone. As it took off, generating a ferocious noise and tsunami-strength air turbulence, we looked like the opening sequence of Father Ted as we all struggled to stay upright. We were asked to smile for rather a long time. “Hurry up, you bloody thing!” one don colleague admonished the drone. “I’m running out of sincerity.”
Joie de vivre
AS SOON as term was over, I dashed to the Barbican in London to see the new production of Anything Goes!, starring Sutton Foster. In certain company, it’s harder to come out as liking musicals than as being gay (although the two often go together). But I like them, a lot. And, after recent months, to be transported to a world where people spontaneously burst into song and dance was a great relief.
The dancers were amazing. I thought of Bob Hope, who said that he grew up with six brothers, and that’s how he learned to dance — waiting for the bathroom.
In the play, Lord Oakleigh (pronounced the same) unexpectedly launches into a raunchy Hungarian showstopper. The joy was so contagious that I felt like joining him. Instead, I got on the late night “vomit comet” back to Cambridge, thankful for music, entertainment, dance, and pure fun.
LATER in the week, as I made my way to dinner with the new Dean of King’s College, London (where I spent my own student days), memories flooded back and I reflected on how many of the things that I took for granted back then have proved to be much more fragile than I’d realised: liberal democracy; public dishonesty being brought to account; a commitment to those who seek refuge from persecution; the future of the planet and its life forms.
One of my wonderful teachers, Grace Jantzen, who lectured in feminist theology, once corrected me when I said that I was looking forward to her seminar. “No, Mark,” she said, “I never have seminars. I have ovulars.”
She had a strong dislike of the testosterone poisoning that affects too much academic debate, and preferred classes of students that built ideas together in conversation instead of demolishing each other’s opinions.
The question that she would ask each of us, after we had asserted our latest brilliant thesis, is one that I have returned to many times since — and never more than now, as I listen to government officials, world leaders, and the like: “Who benefits from such thinking?”
The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.