The trivial round
“WHEN you give this to him,” the man said, as his oft-shaken hand proffered an immaculate envelope in my direction, “remember me to the Abbot.” I thought such scenes were the preserve only of historical fiction, and I have long given up on a life scripted by Umberto Eco or Hilary Mantel. Over a quiet drink near Charing Cross two weeks ago, however, exactly this happened to me.
I haven’t resorted to role-play gaming: I am, in fact, off to Mount Athos. Given the deliberate isolation of the monasteries, delivery by hand tends to be the easiest way to communicate with the monks (although the cleric in charge of hospitality at the monastery that I intend to visit has a far better grasp of email than I have).
I wonder whether the C of E clergy might learn something: public services in the UK are destined to be just as bad as those on a far-off Greek mountain, and delivering the post might be a good way to get to know a parish.
BEFORE any pilgrimage, it is important to acquaint yourself with what you’ll miss; so, not long after this encounter, I spent a few days in deep Kent, between the Weald and the Marsh, doing not very much at all.
I did venture to Canterbury, to the St Laurence’s Ground (more homes of county cricket should be named after saints), and saw the hosts walloped by Warwickshire. I tried to take the loss better than one of the more infamous clerical cricketers, the Revd Lord Frederick Beauclerk. It is to his infamously bad temper and general embitteredness that we owe the concept of the wide ball. One bowler deliberately provoked the good parson by chucking balls far out of his reach, prompting Lord Frederick to storm to the MCC and demand that such balls be declared illegal, with a run awarded to the batsman for each.
As such endeavours suggest, it was said of this sometime Vicar of St Michael’s, St Albans, that “he never allowed his clerical duties to interfere materially with the claims of cricket.” At theological college, I played cricket with his current (much worthier) successor in that parish: suffice to say, my memory of his bowling means that nobody will ever level the same criticism at him.
THE other great sporting event that I have allowed myself to attend recently was a day at Ascot — not the Royal meeting, but a simpler, humbler, bolder one, later on in July. In some ways, this was a pilgrimage, too.
Racing at Ascot was one of the two great loves of Good Queen Anne, the other being the Church of England. I know stipendiary pay day varies by diocese, but I always think it should be a local feast to Anne, whose Bounty means that at least some of the parish clergy can still be paid.
Despite these dual affections, I resisted the temptation to attend Ascot in a clerical collar. I was once warned by a journalist that the thick clerical collars, matched with a natty blazer — as favoured by many clergy (or, at least, by me) in the summer months — were the favoured disguises for illegal bookies and undercover ticket touts at race meets in the mid-century, and their wearers were inevitably followed about the course by the police. In the end, I opted for a tie.
THE guiding spirit of Her Late Majesty has rather followed me around the country. I agreed to be an emergency stand-in speaker at a fringe event in York. When I was tasked with booking a last-minute guest-room the night before the General Synod began, the cheapest available option was the wonderfully named “Queen Anne’s Guesthouse”. Alas, no prints of Bishop Atterbury or Dr Sacheverell, but an excellent night’s sleep.
I don’t imagine that the same can be said for all those who attended the sessions in York. Of course, we’ve had fractious synods before in the history of the Church: the Vandal Synod or the Cadaver Synod come to mind. This one did, alas, feel moniker-worthy.
Perhaps it was the early-18th-century influences of the guesthouse, but the Lilliputian Synod did come to mind as a possible title; for it made us seem so small — or perhaps the Anhedonic Synod. Anhedonia is characterised by low morale or motivation, a struggle to feel or communicate joy, and an inability to learn lessons through the consequences of our actions.
Faith by works
WHETHER in expectation of leaving these shores, or in response to synodical anhedonia, I have been keenly seeking reminders of what I love about the Church.
I was fortunate enough to have it stare me in the face in the form of the glorious St Lawrence’s, York. The church was condemned to closure by the diocese at the turn of the millennium, when a bell-ringer, captivated by its profound holiness, began a campaign to save it. He is now a churchwarden of a thriving community, which takes a particular lead in drawing in local students through a quietly holy ministry focused on the Prayer Book.
It has resulted in multiple vocations. I suspect that I saw one in its formation as I witnessed a student helper there feed and help Valeryan, who, having come here from Ukraine, faced another afternoon on the streets. It is that vision of the Church of England which I shall take with me in my heart when I meet the Abbot.
The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a writer and teacher.