IN THE clock tower of St Pancras, I locked eyes with Pope Paul VI. No, I haven’t been overdosing on Dairylea before bedtime again: this actually happened.
I had been invited to a command performance of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, which was being performed for a select audience in the space at the top of the campanile itself. The man who brought us the Second Vatican Council was part of the minimalist set.
The show was marvellous, and replete with many evocations of Liverpool, where I served my curacy (I was delighted to be the only person in the audience of Londoners to get the joke about Liverpool’s former department store George Henry Lee.)
I very often dream that I am in Liverpool again. It has that effect on people: it’s almost a magnetism that draws them back. That’s not always desirable. I heard of a parish trip to the Isle of Man, which descended into a rather boozier escapade than originally planned. En route around the pubs near the port, the party picked up another Scouser, who willingly accepted a place — Christianly offered — on the charabanc back to the final steam packet of the day.
More drinking ensued and, by the time they docked at the Pier Head, the newcomer needed the assistance of some doughty churchmen to get home (the address having been found in his wallet).
Endless knocking on the door of the house in Anfield followed. Eventually, a neighbour stuck their head out of a window and bellowed: “It’s no use knocking — they’re on holiday in the Isle of Man for a week.”
ON THE subject of places I once lived in, but now dream of returning to, I miss Prague in the springtime. Specifically, earlier this month, I missed a memorial service for the Revd Professor David Holeton, held at the Old Catholic Cathedral of Svatý Vavrinec, on the Petrin Hill.
David was an impressive academic and liturgist, but, above all, he was welcoming and kind to those who, like him, found themselves in what Neville Chamberlain called a far-away country of whose people we know nothing. David was an expert in navigating the peculiarities of life in Bohemia, always recommending visitors from the Anglosphere to order “two spices up” at his favourite curry house, the Pind, where flavours had been modulated to suit Czech palates.
He also appeared to possess the republic’s entire stocks of both ginger wine and tonic water, so as invariably to be ready with either a Whisky Mac or a G&T — “depending”, he would say, “which side of Lady Day we are on”. Now that we are indisputably past that great feast, if you are fortunate enough to enjoy a tall glass of ice, tonic, gin, and lemon in the first strugglings of springtime sun this week, do pray for him.
LADY DAY was, of course, the occasion for the settling of debts and, often, the payment of tithes. Loser that I am, I have been engrossed of late in the records of these arrangements. Down here in Kent, proximity to Canterbury did not necessarily mean a higher degree of ecclesial obedience; often, the opposite was true.
I read with joy the proud inscription by Mr Nanes — Vicar in the 1830s of St Peter and St Paul, Newchurch, whose leaning tower rises out of the Romney marsh — in his tithe record that “The Church is EXEMPT from the Jurisdiction of the Archdeacon”.
Kindness of strangers
I DID manage some travel back to a place of the past, this week. I prayed long and hard that the nation’s famously fickle transport infrastructure might get me to Oxford in time to be with another friend, another David, as he died.
It did — just about, although not without some external help. At Oxford station, I joined the long queue for taxis. As I voiced my frustrations down the phone, a young man ahead of me, overhearing my conversation and my reasons for being back in town, let me jump ahead, meaning that I reached the bedside in time.
I am not given to faith in humanity, but I am a believer in unlikely angels.
THE Revd David Michaels was a friend to many, and both friend and spiritual director to me. To him, the resurrection was absolute: “Our bodies shall be made like unto his glorious body,” he would intone. Kindness was at the heart of his ministry, as was a deep generosity.
What made him such a good spiritual director, though, was his sense of mischief. He would recite with glee the story of his accidental arrest in Kilburn in the 1980s, in his pre-ordination career. Out early one morning, he had forgotten his car keys, so tried the handle of the door, only to be immediately apprehended by police, who had been lying in wait for thieves.
His protests were met with the response that he still had to come along with them, but could have legal representation at the station. “Jolly good,” David proffered, “because I’m the legal counsel to the Treasury Solicitor.” Their enthusiasm for the arrest suddenly evaporated.
But what David knew better than anything else was that laughter can be prayerful — especially in the risus paschalis. As Easter is upon us once again, he has, in his final impartation of wisdom (and like any good spiritual director), given me much to meditate on: death, of course, but also life. For him, the two were innately tied together in Jesus; and the cross was, for David, not a full stop, but, rather, the door to eternity — about as appropriate a lesson for Eastertide as possible. Pray for him, as well.
The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a writer and teacher.