THE Archbishop of York, when discussing the Lord’s Prayer, has distinguished between “living in” and “living on” the earth. “Living on” might imply walking over, trampling, while “living in” has connotations of rooted connection with neighbourhood and landscape.
In Tales of a Country Parish, Colin Heber-Percy emerges unequivocally as “living in” a corner of the Savernake Forest, his longstanding home and, more recently, his place of ministry. As an accomplished screenwriter who teaches philosophy and metaphysics, he is also comfortable “living in” the worlds of words, images, and ideas which infuse his writing with vigour and variety, allowing his parish-centred view to speak to wider horizons.
For many clergy, the enforced closure of our churches during the pandemic’s initial phases prompted urgent reappraisal of how we continued ministering, making a virtue out of distance in our contact with parishioners, and, in the new forms of worship, we were busily devising. Heber-Percy saw as vital the maintenance of existing, and the making of fresh, connections with the souls in his care. A daily reflective email became his way of keeping in touch, sharing the pain, confusion, and fear of lockdown while offering spiritual support, sustenance, and challenge.
This book, described by the author as both “a record of a remarkable year” and “a hymn to a holy land”, is the result, split into four sections covering each season. In spending time that sharpened his sense of the sacred discernible in home and hillside, he created relationships that rippled out from his parishes around the world, providing solace to folk quarantined in hotels in Thailand, snowed in above the Norwegian line of the Arctic circle, or recovering from Covid in intensive care.
By laying bare his own negotiations through the tangled wires sent sparking by the pandemic, he provided if not a template then a rough worksheet others might use for recalibration and restoration.
The collection encapsulates something of the disconnection and disruption many felt during this year, while offering a personal perspective through the lens of the author’s individual specialisms. Initially, the story of his wife’s slow recovery from Covid earths his reflections in the quavering uncertainty we shared globally.
A supporting cast of recurring characters, including an adopted stray cat and his unreliable, time-worn Seat Ibiza, provide continuity, alongside a voluminous portmanteau of philosophers and theologians whose insights gently weave a spiritual focus into meetings with potholes, petrol stations and standing stones.
Pieces of music chosen to enrich each reflection are suggested at the end of each seasonal section, providing a play-list that chimes remarkably closely with my own lockdown listening. This adds an extra immersive layer to a book which shines with a sense of exploration and generosity towards others, of drawing sustenance from myriad sources while remaining firmly in touch with chalk-encrusted feet searching lost downland tracks. The spirit of Wormingford flows through Heber-Percy’s writing.
Long may “living in” be the vocation of all parish priests; indeed, of all who share belief in the incarnation.
The Revd Richard Greatrex is Rector of the Chew Valley East Benefice, and author of Stations of the Resurrection (Redemptorist Publications, 2019).
Tales of a Country Parish: From the Vicar of Savernake Forest
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