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Diary: Fergus Butler-Gallie

03 May 2024


Clock watchers

YE MEN of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? Well, in my case, it’s because the clock on the church tower is broken again. That’s so often the case with the Church, I find: we assume theological or partisan motivations, but, in practice, the motivation for most of what we do ends up being — for better or worse — grimly practical.

When it comes to our clock, multiple precautions have been tried: pennies on the weight, strings in the mechanism, prayers on the ground. But still it keeps its own mad time, chiming quarter-hours in the middle of the night, and stopping at just the most confusing two minutes before the start of divine worship on Sunday morning.

So, as it stands, ye men and women of Charlbury, gazing up at it — not even reliably right twice a day — won’t do any good at all.

Incriminating evidence

IT’S not the only part of the tower at St Mary’s which is not as its designers intended. One pillar at the foot of the tower is covered in graffiti. At one point, it was at the back of the church, where delinquent parishioners would hover, not listening to sermons. Now, because of a reordering, it is by the vicar’s stall — a caveat from the past to discourage the clergy from inflicting boredom on the present.

The actual carvings are, thank goodness, mostly initials. Contrast St Mary’s, Ashwell, in Hertfordshire, which bears the medieval etching Archi(di)aconus Asemnes: “The archdeacon is an ass”. While that statement is demonstrably — and fortunately — not true in our neck of the woods, it would still be tricky to explain at a quinquennial.

Next to godliness

ARCHDEACONS appeared in an even less likely place recently, though not one where graffiti is unknown. At a dinner in the sort of fancy and fashionable venue I would rarely set foot in, I had reason to pop to the facilities. Rather than look up, I looked down: from around the rim of the porcelain, a familiar title stared back at me — “The Venerable”. I chuckled away, to the strange glances of those in proximity, and then returned to my collation.

On the last train home, I checked the catalogue of the manufacturer. Alas, there are no other models named after terms of ecclesiastical address. Elsewhere, however, there are — available to purchase — a pair of matching porcelain sinks called “His and Her Grace”.

Contextual comedy

I DON’T only gaze up, but sometimes also go up — in this instance, up the road to Ditchley Park. Just two miles from here, it’s a Gibbs pile, once home to Rochesters and Trees. In the Second World War, it played host to Churchill, who thought it safer from the Luftwaffe than Chequers or Chartwell, because of its sleepy location and agreeably dense foliage, which made the German bombers think that it had been abandoned.

I wasn’t there to hide, but to hear — specifically, for a fund-raising event by Michael Palin. Much of the first half involved his encounters with people who were avid fans of Monty Python. He described how he so easily tired of people quoting lines and gags at him, because invariably, out of context, they weren’t funny.

There was one exception. During one of his very regular episodes of train travel, coming back through the Gare du Nord on the Eurostar, he found himself pulled aside by French customs, who insisted on rifling through his case. Even the usually insouciant Palin began to get flustered under these irritating circumstances. Then the official paused, looked up, and said, “I never wanted to be a customs officer you know. I wanted to be a lumberjack.”

Heavenly messengers

I LOOK things up, too, as well as looking up at things: trains, mostly — their times, their likelihood of being cancelled, their increasingly exorbitant cost. Such is the combination of those three that I managed a trip to Herefordshire for a friend’s birthday, courtesy of a kind lift by a mutual friend.

There, talk turned to New York, and I reflected on how odd my predecessors and their parishioners would have found it to look up and see a jumbo jet. I presume they would have thought it a sign worthy of Acts of the Apostles. That might have caused them to stop their graffiti-ing for a moment or two. Nothing focuses the mind on a sermon like a sense of the Second Coming.

Signs of the times

FROM Herefordshire, I took the opportunity to dash up for a visit to the finest city we have: Liverpool. This time, I did take the train, but, as I rattled through South Parkway, the signposts to Liverpool John Lennon airport prompted further meditations on plane travel.

One of Merseyside’s 20th-century icons, Cilla Black, was an infamous terror of cabin crew. On one flight, she reportedly refused to speak to the steward, communicating her increasingly obnoxious demands via her agent, who was with her. As she pushed past to leave after touchdown, the steward growled in her ear, “I always knew you couldn’t sing, but I didn’t know you couldn’t speak, either.”

I have since made my way home to this little corner of Oxford-adjacent earth. Now, Ascension looms, as does Whitsun: ales have been blessed, the lawns have been cut, and we might even have a solution to repair the clock. It isn’t just the men of Galilee who are looking up.

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

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