EVERY church has it. From Anglo-Papalist shrine to HTB church-plant, their corners and cupboards seem to acquire a preponderance of stuff. You can picture it now: a forgotten collation of items no longer needed, books stuffed alongside sheets of paper and stacks of CDs, crumpled, old-smelling vestments jostling for space with binders or candles or costumes from a long-forgotten children’s activity.
I like to think that this clutter is a reminder of the holiness of small and needless things. A worn Prayer Book or frayed stole bears witness to places well prayed in, to the continued inheritance of faith, to a resurrection hope that transcends those petty delineations of time. Not unlike the clergy themselves, sometimes this clutter speaks of holiness, and sometimes it is merely in the way.
At Liverpool Parish Church, where I served my title, we had oodles of it, from the contents of a Sunday schoolroom preserved since its entrance was sealed off courtesy of an impromptu renovation by the Luftwaffe to the bizarre nativity figures, the congregational favourite being the bagpipe-playing shepherd who actually looked as if he was committing sensitive crimes against a frozen turkey.
Where this clutter comes from is a question for the sages, among whom we may not dare to count ourselves. Where it goes — when and if it goes — is a little easier to discern. Much of it goes to council tips. My father was and is a huge enthusiast for skips, having biannual purges of heirlooms and furniture and assorted building materials. As a child, I would clamber into these receptacles, shimmying past the “No hot ash” notice, and from them rescue what I could from the pile.
I think the there is probably something innate in the clerical instinct to preserve and to reuse the seemingly irredeemable. We are broken vessels ourselves, after all. Of course, one can take this instinct too far. I remember the endless stream of Facebook posts from some ordinands when I was at theological college, offering up goods in case someone could “find a use for them”. I think it was when that the half-depleted roll of lavatory paper was proffered that people generally agreed that things had gone too far.
IT WAS with the collection of rubbish in the Westcott House Common Room in mind that I clicked — with some trepidation — “join” on the Facebook group “Clergy Clutter”. It describes itself as “a venue for members of the clergy to sell trade or give away ministry related items”. It does more or less exactly what it says on the tin: perpetuating the cyclical existence of all that stuff from the cupboards and storage spaces of one church, and transplanting them, via the ministrations of Facebook, to another. The driving out of the money-changers did come to mind, but I think we have long since overcome our qualms about jumble sales and the like. Clergy Clutter is merely an online version.
What is baffling about it is the sheer volume of stuff that can be described as “ministry related clutter”. There is quite a lot of metaphysical space between 18th-century Benediction candelabras and a job lot of cyan and magenta printer cartridges for a Canon Pixma printer, but the fact that both fall within the group’s purview is testament to the multiple forms that ministry can take. I long ago realised that there is no such thing as “normal” in the Church of England, but it is always salutary to be reminded just how broad a Church we can be.
For example, I had no idea that puppets played such a significant part in ministry. A significant number of the posts on Clergy Clutter relate to puppets. The first one that caught my eye was not actually an offering, but a request: did anyone have an “early-2000s-style puppet”, with a picture of a pink fleshy, foamy thing with a face and a distinct domed head. It was also wearing a white dinner jacket, as modelled by a cruise-ship waiter or Sir Edward Heath. Alas, nobody was forthcoming.
There followed further puppet-related posts from diverse users, perhaps my favourite being a book of “Puppet Scripts for Every Situation”. My mind raced with images of the possibilities that this opened up for divine worship: Rosie and Jim conducting the Commination; the cast of Fraggle Rock at the General Synod; the consecration of a Muppet bishop. Suddenly, I realised that this hitherto unknown ministry was more relatable than I first thought.
SOME of the clutter is brand new, some is notably dated. There is the old line about being able to tell the year that a cleric left theological college by looking at their bookshelves, and working out which is the most recent book.
All those tomes that looked fresh and relevant in the 1980s look almost comically out of date now: a lesson, perhaps, for the Church’s wider fumblings with what currently passes for modernity. I was particularly captivated by Go For It: a sports-themed New Testament, which combines the Second Epistle to the Colossians with testimony by the former footballer Gavin Peacock and the Olympic athlete Kriss Akabusi.
I didn’t actually buy anything, but was sorely tempted by one CD: Sister Wendy Beckett reading the complete Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. The CD cover bears an approximate rendition of Sister Wendy’s face, with the words: “I hope a sandalwood smell comes across in the recording.” A heady mix of synaesthesia and medieval mysticism — all shall be well.
Not everything was quite so glamorous, but, like any browsing in a junk shop, the search for something of interest became compelling in itself. I scrolled past multiple posts: five tealight holders (the sixth was lost), an entire sound system, a selection of used girdles, Parachute Games by Todd Strong and Dale LeFevre. I looked up Dale in the vague hope that he might be related to Marcel Lefebvre, the renegade French archbishop and founder of the SSPX. Alas, not. Dale is an Australian specialist in “ice breaker” games. I think the late monsignor preferred his iciness intact.
There might be an argument to say that the grubbiness of the mart is not for clerical hands, but Clergy Clutter is very clearly not a den of robbers. Very few of the items go for anywhere near the prices that were originally paid for them. Very often, these artefacts of faith are given away for free. Aside from being reminders of Christian generosity — not something that’s always totally evident in the online spaces inhabited by the People of God — there is also a good Augustinian metaphor for grace there.
It isn’t all sunshine and soul food, however. There are plenty of equally Augustinian reminders of our fallen nature present, too. If the internet has done anything, it has made the existence of the Christian capacity to fall out over things totally undeniable. That said, the odd controversy that is found among the posts tends to be over whether people like or don’t like a book that they have no intention of bidding for. I managed to resist weighing in on a thread about the spiritual value of my bête noire: the inexorable red Common Worship: Daily Prayer book. I simply rejoiced in the fact that someone else was trying to get rid of it, as well.
Of course, Clergy Clutter doesn’t represent only the particular idiosyncrasies of the Church of England. Toleration has reached even Facebook, and membership is not limited to the clergy of the Established Church. This can lead to some ecumenical misunderstandings. There is always a snitch on hand in the comments on some posts ready to tell the requisite archdeacon that a church has been flogging its assets via the good agency of Mr Zuckerberg, only to learn that the silver being sold is, in fact, from a disused Methodist church.
Sometimes, the posts take on a tragic air. After all, the main reason for selling these things is that they are no longer needed; the people who once used and valued them are no longer with us; the churches that they helped to clutter up are now closed. One poster offered an altar for free, with the alternative being that it would be taken from the church and solemnly burned, de-consecration of such an object being theologically impossible.
Amid fleshly puppets and printer cartridges is an odd place to hear the sea of faith’s low and melancholy withdrawing roar.