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Diary: Fergus Butler-Gallie

02 February 2024


Sound management

I BEGAN the week of my licensing as Vicar of Charlbury by attending a retirement party. It wasn’t so much a memento mori (the cleric in question is far too energetic for his post-incumbency years to be spent in dotage) as a good reminder of the interwoven nature of beginnings and endings in Christianity — inevitable, I suppose, when Christ is both alpha and omega.

As is so often true of gatherings of clergy and those who find themselves adjacent, much of the discussion focused on the joy that can be found in minutiae. Talk turned to microphone systems in churches (more interesting than it sounds, I promise), and I was delighted to learn that one central London church accidentally ordered a new public-address system that had actually been designed for an airport.

The possibilities for overlap are endless: from announcements for arrivals and departures to calling gates (narrow, of course). I found myself wondering what an airport that was run by the Church of England might be like. I suspect it might prompt a reconsideration of official doctrine on purgatory.


Voluntary exile

IN PREPARATION for the aforesaid installation, I have done some research into my predecessors — just in case they come back to haunt me, like the ghosts in Ruddigore, and I need help to recognise which is which when they are mid-threat.

My living predecessors have been most supportive, but, further back in the history books, there are more daunting precedents set by those who had the cure of souls here: Dr Hutchinson, who translated the epistles for the Authorised Version; or William Wellwood Stoddart, whose father was the editor of The Times, and whose mother wrote children’s books with cheery titles such as The Scottish Orphans: A moral tale.

Perhaps to escape his parents, Stoddart spent much of his incumbency in Italy, and died at Genoa.


Opportunities for growth

WE HAVE a thriving ecumenical life in the town, with Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers all very much present.

Mindful of this, at my first service I sought to reassure them that I would not be following the example of one of my predecessors, Thomas Silver, who refused allotment space in the town to anyone who did not attend the services of the Established Church.

I have made it clear that anyone who wishes to help to work the vicarage garden is very welcome to do so, regardless of denominational loyalties.


Shared ministry

THE growing of food has been much on my mind of late. Perhaps it is the interminable cold and frost, which makes it almost impossible to imagine the soil as fertile or friendly. Such is the frozen state of the ground that the only thing that my garden would currently be good for is ice for a gin and tonic. Still, there are alternative culinary comforts: kind parishioners and friends call with cakes and other delights; the patron, most kindly, has provided a case of wine.

Then there are the options on offer beyond the vicarage doorstep. A friend who was a student while I was at Westcott House is, by pure coincidence, a chef at one of the excellent pub-restaurants that we are blessed with in town. At the end of a shift, we caught up, reflecting, as we sat, on what it is to feed people, in every sense of the word.

An airport might not function, but I can envisage a restaurant run by our national Church in which the menu would be filled with tantalising options, but ultimately — despite all the other culinary joys on offer — critics would take particular note of the famous fudge.


Light my fire

THE pub is lit almost entirely by candlelight. My own relationship with candles is a mixed one. I am very pro their use on the dining table and the altar — I have a print (a kind gift from colleagues in Kent) of the great Fr Tooth, who suffered for my right to have them on the latter —- but am indelibly marked by the fact that my siblings spent my confirmation service using candles to set one another alight, so had to be removed as the Bishop of Rochester finished his sermon, lest they turn to arson rather than simply light each other. I think my parents bear the mental scars to this day. Candles are very rarely deployed back at the family home.


Seeing salvation

SO, BACK to the beginning — or, rather, the end: that great feast of candles, the Presentation of Christ or the Purification of St Mary the Virgin. Regardless of what we call it, at its heart is a reminder of the deep relationship between endings and beginnings which dominates any Christian view of the passage of time.

We will mark it here, in Charlbury, with the retirement of a colleague who has given a great deal to church and town over almost two decades: a retirement party, but, again, one that focuses on celebrating the great pastoral gifts of someone who has been such a stalwart support to so many.

The Nunc Dimittis is perhaps my favourite canticle, replete with beginnings and endings, all tied together by the vision of salvation in the most unlikely place. It is a good anthem for the Church, being one of both hope in, and resignation to, the purposes of God. And, after all, it is a Church, not an airport or a restaurant, that the Church of England is seeking to be.


The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is Vicar of Charlbury with Shorthampton, in the diocese of Oxford.

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