IT WAS good to be back in my old parish in the West End to see Maureen Lipman in Martin Sherman’s play Rose. What a performance. In just under two and half hours alone on the stage, she plays a Jewish woman who brings the 20th century to life for us by remembering it.
Some of the descriptions make us shiver with exposure. On arrival in Atlantic City, she notes that “the air smelled of aspirin and chicken fat and suntan oil.” At 80, Rose is short of breath as she recounts her life, and has trouble swallowing; so she chews anti-cholesterol pills crunched up in ice cream. Don’t try this at home.
What I found poignant is that, although assured about the lessons that she has learned in life, Rose often questions her own memories; and, when it comes to making an assessment of an event or a person, she is quick to add, “On the other hand . . .”.
There is something liberatingly generous and rare about this. It wasn’t too long after seeing the show that I made my way to Shropshire to see my Nan, who, at 101, is also starting to have trouble with her memory. It is as if she has gently left harbour, but is not yet out of view; so we will still cherish what we can together.
I AM sometimes asked to give after-dinner speeches, though I never feel I’m very good at them. The balance of being humorous with not being vacuous is tricky. There’s nothing more tedious than a vicar trying to be unholier than thou.
I was kindly invited to speak by a Cambridge conference of oncologists and surgeons, all involved in both the research and treatment of brain cancer in children. They were truly remarkable people. Just being with them renewed my understanding of the word “vocation”.
As well as a couple of thoughts for the day, I managed one or two gags that seemed to go down well, but they didn’t relate to the occasion quite as well as the speaker a few days later at the Worshipful Company of Vintners’ dinner. She told of the supper in a convent at which, quite unexpectedly, the Mother Superior tapped her glass.
“Sisters,” she said, “I have important and solemn news. We have a case of gonorrhoea.”
“Well,” one Sister said, “I hope it’s better than this Liebfraumilch.”
I WAS very happy to lead a study day for the chaplains of the RAF, and to spend some time with my old friend Giles, who is now Chaplain-in-Chief. We first met about 35 years ago at a vocations conference, when we were both still at school and thinking about ministry in the Church of England.
The chaplains were funny, thoughtful, and great company. I admire our chaplains in hospitals, prisons, the armed forces, schools, and universities, and feel that they need to be celebrated more than they often are. All chaplaincies, ministering on thresholds as two-way ambassadors, can be simultaneously hugely rewarding and isolating, at one remove from the life of the mainstream Church, and yet not quite native to the organisations that they serve.
It is good, however, to know that some realities are universal. As I left, I was talking to a pilot. “How is it in the RAF today?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” he replied, “even if you laid all the junior officers on the ground end to end, they still wouldn’t reach a decision.”
I HADN’T been to Chichester since I was 12; so it was wonderful to be invited to preach at the cathedral for the Southern Choirs Festival. At the festival eucharist, the choirs sang Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, which, after it was composed, Martin had put in a drawer for 40 years, saying that it was a matter between him and God. Religious social media could learn from this.
Now, I am not a musician, and musician friends think — because I’m not much drawn to music composed before Haydn — that I’m a bit Upton Park (two stops off Barking). But I agree with Beethoven’s invitation to us, not only to practise music, but to “force our way into its secrets [as it can] raise us to the divine”.
If Christianity is an art of attention, the music that seeks to glorify God, sung by choirs made up of individuals who have to regulate themselves for the sake of the whole, seems to be one way of reminding us of both God and neighbour, and a good antidote to a lot of the fast-food religion on offer.
OUR sermon series in college Chapel came to an end. We’d been looking at the people who are the “disappeared or overlooked”. I chose the people we take for granted every day, who often include those we love most, and those who care for us more than anyone else.
I suggested that we take a bit more time telling our partners and families we love them, thanking friends for what we share, and showing a little more understanding to our work colleagues, because we don’t know what it is like to live their life.
Nothing original, of course, but always urgent, because — as Evelyn Waugh said — the saddest words in the English language are “Too late”.
The Revd Dr Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.
Read his essay on this month’s Book Club choice here and listen to a podcast interview here.