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Diary: John Wall

19 January 2024


Court dress

I’M IN a bit of a quandary . . . over what to wear. I was called up for jury service at the beginning of December, which — since that would have been horrendous timing — I deferred to February, starting the week after Ash Wednesday.

I had always thought that clergy were exempt (along with criminals, the insane, and members of the House of Lords, or any combination of the above), but, alas! having telephoned to check, I discover that it is no longer so. The question that I am pondering is: clerical dress or not clerical dress? On the one hand, I will be there in my capacity as a private citizen (or, more accurately, subject), not as a priest; but a parish priest is who and what I am. Would wearing a dog collar be an act of witness? Would it encourage/discourage barristers from calling me?

I asked a High Court judge whom I bump into occasionally at the gym. Being a Muslim, he was both intrigued and bemused at the question. When I informed the Bishop and the Archdeacon that I was doing jury service, I asked their advice. They forwarded the question to a retired archdeacon, who will know about this sort of thing. I await his judgement. Until then, as they say, the jury is out.

Hidden attraction

OVER the past few weeks, I have appeared in a variety of costumes, playing different roles. The predictable one — an occupational hazard — was Father Christmas. Usually, I wander round going “Ho-ho-ho!” and distributing presents; or remain seated in a grotto, accepting all comers, and alternating accents between an all-purpose Mummersetshire yokel or a patrician drawl based on the voice of the late, and hugely lamented, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who taught me patristics at Oxford.

This time, I was stuck in a cupboard. In the dark. The idea was from Sue Choppin, our wonderful police community-support officer. I was in school, and the children had to find Santa who had gone missing, and without whom Christmas would be cancelled: a dubious theological point, but I let it pass. Hence, I found myself in the pitch black, in the art cupboard, waiting for the children to find me — which they did, in about four minutes.

D’ye ken John Wall?

THE most fun, though, was at our annual Bonfire Society carol service, just before Christmas. Bonfire Society members from all over East and West Sussex congregated at Holy Cross, in Uckfield, to celebrate and complete the past season of torchlit processions in Sussex towns and villages raising money for charity.

Some 400 were there, all in exotic costumes (though, mercifully, without flaming torches). Martha Mutikani, my splendid Associate Vicar, and I, always do a sketch: this year we were Barbie and Ken. She was resplendent in a pink dress and blonde wig; I was in a fur coat, blond “Boris” hair, and stick-on plastic abs. We came in to “I’m a Barbie Girl” and dry ice. Subtle it wasn’t. My opening line was “I want to make two things clear: one, these abs are real; and two, I wanted to be Barbie.”

As I always say, clerical dignity at all times.

The long sleep

BUT the most surreal role (I was in a clerical collar, dressed as me) was as a dead body. Sue Choppin was this time leading a crime-scene investigation in the same school as the Father Christmas episode. I was spreadeagled on the floor, surrounded by clues, including a knife and an empty vodka bottle, and the children had to work out what had happened. Murder? Suicide?

It turned out to be an accident, which was as benign as it could have been; but it was exhausting, lying still for 30 minutes, trying not to breathe. I remember Kit Harrington saying that playing the dead Jon Snow in Game of Thrones was some of his best work. I now know what he meant.

Cross purposes

THE school in which I doubled as Santa and a corpse has now, sadly, closed. Before the children left, my church of the Holy Cross gave each of them a little olive wood holding-cross to remember us by (“Holy Cross” is a really appropriate dedication for us: rooted in our community, pointing upwards towards God, and with arms open to all).

Dee, my churchwarden, found the crosses on the web, and very lovely they were, too — all the same shape and size, but each unique because of the grain in the wood. She bought 100, and we gave 60 to the children. We bought another 100, and handed them out to our congregation last Holy Cross Day. That’s when they really took off. People gave them away to family and friends, and so we had to order a third 100. We heard stories of a 90-year-old priest kissing his cross and holding it to his forehead as he was dying; an agnostic man with cancer, needing to feel his in his pocket; an aid worker in the Ukraine, holding his through bombardments from Russia.

We ran out of crosses, and tried to get a fourth 100, but there was silence from the producer. We looked at the address they came from: “Plastic Factory Street, Beit Sahour, Palestine”. Our hearts sank. Did Plastic Factory Street still exist? It certainly focused our minds and prayers. Then Dee very sensibly Googled the address: mercifully, it’s in Bethlehem. Contact was re-established, and our fourth 100 arrived in time for distribution on Christmas Day. We currently have about 25 left. Our fifth 100 has now been ordered.

A late thought has occurred to me: maybe my initial quandary would be solved by another outing of my Ken costume? But then again. . .

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

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