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Diary: John Wall

03 March 2023

ISTOCK

The human touch

I AM surprised at how upset I feel: my branch of NatWest is closing. On one level, it’s daft: I haven’t physically darkened its doors in almost 40 years, and 95 per cent of my banking is now done online. But it is a fragment of my past: the York University branch, where I remember opening my new account, my father (dead these 15 years) standing encouragingly beside me as I embarked on the brave new world of adulthood. I was 19, and I’m now 62.

Moreover, I knew the staff. A lovely woman there negotiated a life-saving loan for me; I learned all about her dogs, and told her about mine. I also knew the bank manager: when I left, I wrote to thank him for his kindness at not being as tough with me as perhaps he should have been. I was taken aback, a few years later, when he rang me out of the blue, during my curacy — not (my first thought) because of any financial misdemeanour, but because he wanted me to take the funeral of his mother-in-law who had been living near by. No banking app would ever do that.

 

And ever shall be

SOME things, though, are surprisingly timeless — like the church structures that we still deal with. Late, as ever, to the party, I’ve been reading Nicholas Orme’s wonderful book Going to Church in Medieval England (Books, 1 October 2021).

He wears his learning lightly (the bibliography comprises +/-400 books, breezily referred to as “only main works”), and — although I’m a card-carrying medievalist, with an MA in medieval art and iconography — I’ve learned a lot. I always thought that the vicar of a parish was there “vicariously” for the bishop who shared the cure of souls, but no: a vicar was there in place of an absentee rector who received the income from a parish, paying a small portion to his deputy.

I had also vaguely thought that churchwardens were a 17th-century invention, but wrong again: there they were, as “Proctors” (later “Church Reeves”), by the 13th century.

I love the fact that individual statues in churches would have their own private funds or “stores”, looked after by trainee wardens, presumably on the Lucan principle that “he that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.” Maybe something I could revive. And one of the events that makes any clergy heart beat with eager expectation, the Archdeacon’s Visitation, was also up and running in the 12th century. Plus ça change. . .

 

Ends and means

I FOUND myself at Lambeth Palace recently, to visit not the Archbishop, but the Garden Museum next door. I remembered my previous visit, for a tea party in the Archbishop’s gardens (how much more Anglican can one get?) in aid of St Christopher’s Hospice.

Having congratulated myself on setting out early, I sat on a train in Uckfield Station and waited. And waited. Twenty minutes after the due departure time, the apologetic announcer said that the rails outside the station had been struck by lightning. He described it as “an act of God”, which, considering my destination, was somewhat ironic.

I remember the scramble for a bus to Hayward’s Heath; then a train to London, arriving by the skin of my teeth. Having finally got there, I also remember rather good cake.

 

Journey’s end

THIS journey was more relaxed. The museum is housed in a redundant church, St Mary-at-Lambeth. I generally find deconsecrated churches melancholy places, and the fact that this one is next to the palace has an odd resonance; but I loved it.

I was there for an exhibition of Lucian Freud’s flower paintings, but was captivated by the building. Beautiful and active, it is full of the joy of gardening — which, in its co-operation between humanity and nature, has a real depth of spirituality. I loved Gertrude Jekyll’s desk; I loved the great table tomb of John Tradescant the naturalist, the tombstones of various archbishops, and the memorial to Elias Ashmole, the founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

But my favourite was a simple stone that, amid the great and the good, proudly proclaimed the grave of “Mr John Page, late of King Street Bloomsbury (Undertaker)”. I will go back.

 

Alarming experience

WE WERE preparing for “Messy Church”, expecting some 40 children, when (a churchwarden having burned the first batch of sausages) the fire alarm went off. We are all dab hands at resetting the church-centre security alarm, but soon realised that none of us had a clue about this one. I phoned the other churchwarden, who found the details on a scrap of paper, and, the right buttons having been pushed in the right order, peace returned.

A few minutes later, I realised that Sophie, my little black Labrador, was nowhere to be seen. She is terrified of unexplained noise, and I feared that she — for only the second time in her life – had bolted. A dozen of us wandered round central Uckfield calling, and asking whether anyone had seen a dog in a butterfly bandana (she was dressed for our “Creation” theme), and a photo on Facebook generated a response from friends all over the world.

Eventually, she was found, shut in the men’s lavatory (they had been checked, but she must have been hiding from the noise). It was a very queasy half-hour. She is fine now, although refuses to go into the hall; but me? I’m still traumatised, and won’t let her out of my sight.

 

The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.

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