Forged in fire
PREPARING to lead a meditation on Zoom, I took down a battered prayer book from the study shelf. It was the Franciscan Daily Office, produced in 1981 and the precursor to today’s Common Worship Office book. It was stained, battered, and well-used, stuck together with Sellotape, and full of scraps of paper and prayer cards. On the inside front cover, above the pasted-in Angelus and Regina Caeli, was an address: “Alan Knight Training Centre, Yupukari, Rupununi”; and a name: “Fr Brian Doolan”.
Brian was a huge influence on me. He was Vicar of Tile Hill, in Coventry, where I went on placement for a month in the late 1980s as an enthusiastic — but pretty clueless — ordinand, training at St Stephen’s House in Oxford (universally known as “Staggers”); subsequently, I was involved in a mission to a new housing estate there. Very much in the tradition of the Company of Mission Priests, he worked in his inner-city parish with humour and absolute dedication; and I learned from him the value of faithfulness in the daily Offices, of Catholic spiritual rootedness, and of social engagement in the local community.
As a child, he had been horrifically burned when his pyjamas caught fire; he remembered a nurse, standing by his bed, saying, “Poor little lad, he won’t last the night” — and Brian thinking, “I damn well will!”
IT WAS this determination that took him, improbably, to become Principal of the aforementioned “Alan Knight Training Centre” in Guyana. Set up to train Amerindian ordinands in the Rupununi region, and named after a former Archbishop of the West Indies, it was generally referred to as “Staggers in the Savannah”. Brian was full of stories of soggy canoe journeys up the Rupununi River (hence the water stains on the Franciscan Office), snakes coiled in lavatories, and (I suspect apocryphally) an “Adopt a Gaucho” fund-raising scheme.
It was this same determination as prompted him to leave the Church of England over the ordination of women and start a new chapter of his life as a Roman Catholic priest. I went to his reordination in St Chad’s RC Cathedral in Birmingham, where he subsequently became Administrator. Thereafter, I tried ringing a few times, but was fielded by a housekeeper who clearly thought that I was a dodgy parishioner and not an old friend. He finally moved to a parish in Banbury.
Looking at the book that he had given me, and about to start on my Christmas cards, I Googled him to check that he was still there, and to find his current phone number for a long-delayed chat. The notice of his requiem mass popped up: he had died, aged 77, on the day before Christmas Eve last year.
AFTER this chastening experience, I started Googling other people on my Christmas-card list, just to check that they were still alive (having recently turned 60, I realise this is now an occupational hazard); mercifully, they all were.
Mind you, it was disconcerting to see the photos that appeared alongside the names. Men and women I had known when they were in their pristine twenties and thirties — and who, in my memory, remain so — now confronted me looking saggy, baggy, grey, or bald. It reminded me of the White Ball, in Proust’s last volume of In Search of Lost Time, when the narrator, having been out of circulation for a while, returns to a society party and finds all his old friends apparently dressed up in wigs as old people, only to realise that they are, indeed, now old.
As for me, having cut my hair short at the Millennium (when no one under 40 had a parting, I noticed), I re-grew it during lockdown, and, to my surprise, found I was still luxuriantly blond. I am now in the process of re-growing my 1980s “New Romantics” fringe (I am proudly regressing); so, in some ways, I look the same. Mind you, the face in the mirror tells another story.
I WONDER what Brian would have made of these strange Covid times, with online services and “Zooming”? He was a good preacher (I realise that my main funeral address is one I pinched, almost verbatim, from him). I think he would have been nonplussed by the one-sidedness of it all. For months, I recorded talks and services on my iPhone in selfie video mode, being animated and engaged with no other audience than my dog, Sophie, who remained bored and unimpressed by the proceedings.
I was so looking forward to preaching again to real people in church, but was bemused, when it finally happened, by being faced with (socially distanced) rows of inscrutable masks. I suspect people don’t realise just how interactive preaching is. I usually keep an eye on three or four specific members of a congregation, to gauge how things are going. Now, there is just a strange blankness.
I sometimes feel that congregations don’t think you can see them when you are up in the pulpit. I remember, on one occasion, a man in the front row very pointedly holding up and reading a copy of Hello magazine during my sermon slot. On another occasion, a friend seemed absorbed by a hymn book in front of her; I discovered afterwards that she had been revising from hidden notes. When challenged, she just looked at me and said, “Well, it’s not as if you were going to say anything new, is it?” I can hear Brian laughing from here.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.