YOU need to have a profound sense of humour and a deep sense of compassion to survive any length of time in the modern Church of England. Those two values shine out in Patrick Forbes’s new autobiography, A Roomful of Elephants. Forbes guides us gently through his eventful life — from radio operator on some fairly gruesome fishing boats to ordination and a hectic life in parish and sector ministry, as well as key appointments within religious broadcasting.
Forbes is particularly well known for combining the role of priest with that of clown. There is, of course, a long history of such conjunctions — the boy bishops and lords of misrule of the medieval period spring to mind. Such holy fools can usefully prick the pomposity of the church hierarchy, besides providing a useful outlet for the deep emotions that are often strictly controlled in the Church. But Forbes never really tells us why he loves to be a clown, why the improvisation is important to him (apart from the fact that he finds it difficult to learn lines!), and why the two roles are such natural bedfellows.
Patrick writes movingly about an epiphany moment when, working as a porter in a mental hospital, he has to retrieve the body of a lady who has spent decades in that ghastly Victorian pile. Looking at her emaciated corpse, he has the profound realisation that death is not the end
After that, he becomes involved in church life, and eventually proceeds to ordination. But, once again, his inner life is almost closed off to us. I desperately wanted to ask him how he felt about the call to ordination and why that was important to him. But you look in vain for such an inner narrative.
At one point, he moves seamlessly from the trivial (unblocking a parishioner’s sink) to the profound: his wife is beaten up and miscarries. Any parish priest will have dealt with such uncomfortable juxtapositions, but I wanted to know much more about how he dealt with those, and with the agony of bereavement. Presumably, the clowning helped, but, if it did, he doesn’t tell us.
That said, many priests find that it is too difficult to think too hard about the strange, tragic, funny, and exhausting lives that we lead. You get the impression that Forbes has a rather beautiful soul, and that alone makes the book a good read.
The Revd Simon Grigg is the Rector of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, in London (The Actor’s Church).
A Roomful of Elephants: My first 80 years in the Church
Church Times Bookshop £13.50