Follow the Master
A FEW weeks ago, I had a landmark birthday: one that, until very recently, would have put me in receipt of my state pension. My family had asked me what I wanted by way of presents; so I shared the inevitable reading list, top of which was Ronald Blythe’s latest collection of columns from this august organ, Next to Nature (Books, 25 November 2022). My daughter Nell bought it for me, and I read it at bedtime over the course of a few weeks. And now, here am I, expected to contribute to the same pages.
I became convinced that I was in the presence of a master prose stylist, and, what’s more, one who measured time by the turning of the seasons and the passing of the liturgical year — which, by any criterion, is a good brief for what a writer might be expected to pull off in this sort of space.
To make matters worse for me, he clearly visited this part of Radnorshire at Presteigne Festival time; and even, in some entries that I’ve seen online, mentions Prebendary Steve, whom I thought to be unique to me. So, now I’m in love with the work of a recently deceased 100-year-old man, and, like many young lovers, I’m feeling pangs of jealousy. What was I thinking in asking for it? Still, I have another 35 years to keep practising.
HOLY WEEK in Presteigne started in splendid style, as Dean Emeritus (DE) Michael led members of the congregations of all four churches in town through the streets on Palm Sunday, on the short journey from the Baptist church to St Andrew’s.
It’s only a ten-minute walk (most places in Presteigne are, at most, a ten-minute walk from one another), but the DE stopped six or seven times to lead us in prayer: at the police station to pray for our emergency services, at the pub to celebrate fun and community, at the library to thank God for learning, and so on. We held aloft our palm crosses, and sang “Oil in my lamp” at each stop.
At the crossroads, the DE asked us to celebrate the different traditions that the four churches bring to the Lord’s table: “The Baptists, who remind us of the central role of baptism in our faith; the Methodists, of the importance of song; the Catholics, of the beauty and mystery of the eucharist; and the Anglicans, who . . . er, well, what do we bring?” All laughed, but I heckled, “Compromise!” and the Dean Emeritus agreed. “Yes,” he said, “the via media.”
What he had done was a special act of public ecumenical worship. Not everyone on the walk came in to share worship at St Andrew’s (though many did), but a high percentage of the Christians of Presteigne walked through the town together, holding our palm crosses high, praying aloud, and singing together of our love for Jesus. This can only be a good thing. Next year, we’ve been promised a donkey.
WRITING about this on social media throughout Holy Week brought out a large number of my mates who, 47 years since we left school, wish to continue sixth-form debates — “Christianity: Yes or No?” It’s both odd and annoying.
Many of my pals are country-rock nerds (me, too), who will happily listen to the Byrds’ version of “Oil in my lamp” from their 1969 album Easyrider, while objecting to actual Christians’ performing it in public.
Similarly, my pals, who, for the rest of the year, know mostly about football and Beatles B-sides, suddenly reveal themselves as folklore experts, who delight in telling me the real origin of Easter, about which they know much more than does, for example, the Pope. Or academics who study folklore. Or me, who has been duped, in their view, into joining a cult called “the C of E”.
PRETTY much any “churchy” post on the social meeja draws incoming. A favourite topic is what Christians — I, in particular — believe. Somehow, many of my pals feel, I’ve become a mad, right-wing fundamentalist without their noticing. When did this happen to me?
Sometimes, it turns into something of a pile-on, and I can end up feeling bullied for my faith. In this, I am sure, I am not alone. In my new book (sorry) One Fine Day, I write about my ancestor’s faith, alongside my own.
It’s OK, apparently, to write about my ancestors’ faith, because “they” didn’t have science then (they did, just less of it), whereas we do; and “we” (my pals) understand it (they don’t); and, in time, it will answer all our questions about everything (it won’t).
Or, equally, if not more annoyingly, they explain how the Christians came over here, and rooted out the true British religion — no one knows what that is, but they’ve watched The Wicker Man, and it’s a bit like that, but nice.
IT IS frustrating, because my aim in my new book is to present myself as the sane Englishman with his pipe and cardigan, who sits in his accustomed pew on Sunday, and not much more.
Sixty-five years ago, when I was born, Anglicanism was all the rage, and no one would have so much as blinked if a writer admitted in print going to church and praying. Now, it’s virtually unheard of. Perhaps I’ll follow Blythe again, and get a white cat.
Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire. His new book, One Fine Day: A journey through English time is published by September Publishing at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-1-91283-699-4.