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Diary: Serenhedd James

26 February 2021


Lady in red

THE forthcoming occupants of the university pulpit in Oxford were announced at the start of Hilary Term. It was the usual bevy of worthies: Canon Wells; the editor of the Journal of Theological Studies, Dr Katharine Dell; the Bishop of Stepney, Dr Joanne Grenfell. As usual, the Annunciation was anticipated by a few weeks and transferred to the last Sunday of Full Term.

Notwithstanding the fact that this has all been driven online by Covid-19, Lady Day appeared in the University Gazette with its customary asterisk, and the accompanying instruction that “On this day Doctors will wear their robes.” It is the least we can do, I dare say, to give thanks for the fiat of the Holy Mother of God.

It was comforting to know that standards were being maintained. Then, all of a sudden, disaster struck: “This service is now cancelled.” A robust discussion on social media followed. Did the instruction apply only to the service? Did it pertain to the day as a whole? For how long should the robes be worn?

The matter was settled by the Vicar of Northolt Park. “The wording is clear. Doctors are required to wear their robes on the feast of the Annunciation. Whether they listen to the podcast or not, they must still wear their robes.”

I have decided, then, that on that Sunday morning I shall adopt a via media and wear my scarlet gown at breakfast.


Movers and shakers

MY ELDEST godchild is already an accomplished marine biologist; she spent a warm Christmas on Ascension Island, where — presciently — she has been engaged in conservancy work since before Covid arrived on our own shores.

The rest are presently at the age at which it is easier to ask their mothers what they might like to receive for Christmas, and then have the relevant book delivered. In 2020, my goddaughter in Gloucestershire received a copy of Alison Uttley’s delightful Little Grey Rabbit and Friends. One of said friends is a mole called Moldy Warp; I thought nothing of this until a few weeks later, when I discovered that “moldywarp” is the old English word for a mole — literally “an earth-thrower”.

As is the way with these things, I then noticed its mark everywhere I went. During the third lockdown (I have run out of cheerful seasonal monikers), one of my regular walks took me the few miles along the river to Iffley, where the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat appears to have taken over entirely.


Digging in

ST MARY’s, Iffley, has remained open for private prayer; it is one of only three English parish churches to survive in their essential Romanesque form. One of the others is at Kilpeck, in Herefordshire, and the location of the third has escaped me entirely; so perhaps someone will be kind enough to write in. No words can do justice to the quality of the masons’ magnificent work at Iffley, and the Victorians mercifully left well alone.

In a matter of a few short weeks, however, the churchyard has come to resemble a green beach covered in brown sandcastles. It is either dozens of indolent moldywarps, content to feed on the presumably high worm count that pertains to a graveyard and remembering to chuck out the odd bit of earth now and again, or a single one who has decided to throw himself wholeheartedly into his work.

Perhaps the Vicar is an animal-lover who cannot bring himself to lay traps to dispatch the determined little diggers. He seems a nice sort; one day I entered through the west door as he was leaving by the north door a few feet away, following the church’s Covid-compliant one-way system. He smiled and nodded at me across the font — the equivalent, these days, of an effusive greeting, and much appreciated.


Beyond the veil

SISTER Mary Teresa SSM went to her reward in January, at the age of 90 and in the 68th year of her vows — may the angels come to greet her (Gazette, 29 January). I remember her well from the days when I was a regular visitor to Walsingham, where she had been Reverend Mother of the Sisters of St Margaret.

Ten years ago, I was there on a parish pilgrimage. The Ordinariate had been recently established, and I was still a pious young man beset with the theological and ecclesiological agonies of the moment. I had arrived in Norfolk with a difficult and burning question.

During the healing ministries on the Wednesday evening, I took the opportunity to pray about my dilemma with someone holier and wiser than I. Taking my place in the queue, I was directed by the stewards to the next available side chapel. I found Sister Teresa sitting there, in her grey habit and black veil. She looked up, beamed radiantly, and beckoned me to her side.

I duly knelt. “Sister,” I whispered, “I’ve asked God a question.” She nodded silently; as I closed my eyes I felt her warm, soft hands coming to rest on the crown of my head. They were there for what seemed like hours of silence; after they were lifted, this small, venerable nun regarded me with a look of benevolence and deep intent.

My life was about to change for ever; my quandary had been whether I was being called to offer myself for ordination in the Church of England, or to become a Roman Catholic. Sister Teresa smiled again; in her glistening eyes twinkled the light of many candles.

“I think,” she whispered gently, “that God is saying ‘Yes’.”

And that, dear reader, is how I ended up working for the Church Times.


Dr Serenhedd James teaches ecclesiastical history at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. He was on the editorial staff of the Church Times from 2012 to 2015.

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