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Diary: John Wall

05 July 2024

ISTOCK

Once upon a time

THIS year’s Charleston Literary Festival was a vintage one. It’s always a fixed point in my year; this season’s highlights included Dame Judi Dench and the Revd Richard Coles (known respectively, I believe, as “National Treasure” and “National Trinket”). Both were, justifiably, sellouts.

The first day started with a surprise visit from the Queen, the long-term patron of the Charleston Trust, which caused much excitement. She came to a children’s literature event, where Jenny Agutter read from the Queen’s favourite childhood book — sadly, not The Railway Children (those of us of a certain age, all together now: Daddy, my Daddy!”), but The Secret Garden.

The Queen talked about what it meant to her, finishing with a quotation from its author, Frances Hodgson Burnett: “Everything is a story. You are a story. I am a story.”

 

Selective hearing

THIS theme, for me, resonated throughout the festival: the idea that story and narrative give identity, meaning, and hope. We are who and what we are — at many levels, individually, communally, and nationally — because of the stories that we tell ourselves and one another. Stories matter, whether they are family history told around the kitchen table, or stories of national identity, such as the Second World War and the spirit of the Blitz.

But stories are not neutral: their meaning depends largely on who is telling them, and why. I was very struck by the journalist Emily Maitlis’s talking about “challenging the gatekeepers of the narrative”.

The stories we are told — by politicians, the advertising industry, social media, and so on — are at best suspect, and at worst can be dangerous. They have power to capture our hearts and imagination in ways that dry facts and realities often fail to do. How do we sort them, and respond? In a phrase that stayed with me, she said, as a journalist on journalists, “People trust us with their stories.”

 

Life sentences

IT MADE me think of the part that I play as a parish priest: as a teller, re-teller, and recipient of stories, both communal (in the church) and individual (in pastoral care); of the cyclical stories of incarnation and redemption, of Advent and Christmas, of Lent and Easter; private stories told in the confessional to be kept safe; and personal stories told at funerals and weddings to be made public — all telling us who and what we have been, who we are, and who we will be.

Our own personal stories grow, change, and continue to give us our purpose. To add (rather presumptuously) to the Queen’s quotation, with one from (who else?) the Doctor in Doctor Who: “I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s OK: we’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”

 

Testing vocation

RATHER soberingly, 1 July was the 35th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate, and I’ve been thinking about Canon John Cotton, the Director of Ordinands for Chichester diocese in those dim, distant days, and of his kindness.

My vicar in Walberton, the little Sussex parish where I was brought up, had sent me to see him. I was in my early twenties, finishing my MA dissertation on medieval art, and feeling that I really needed to go further with the preposterous idea of ordination which had haunted me since childhood. (I strongly thought that no one in their right mind would become an Anglican vicar — and, quite honestly, in some ways I still feel the same.)

So my dad drove me over to Lewes, and I knocked on the door of an imposing house in Houndean Rise, to be greeted by a tall, imposing figure who ushered me into his study. It went dreadfully. I didn’t really know how to respond to his questions, had little idea of the shades of churchmanship expected, and no clue to what theological college would entail. I left, an hour later, feeling somewhat deflated, and thinking, “Oh, well, it seemed a good idea at the time. . .”

 

God’s good time

A WEEK or so later, Canon Cotton contacted me and said, “John, I’m so sorry, but I’ve lost all my notes on our meeting — could you come back and do it again?” So I did; and this time it all clicked into place.

He suggested that, as a means of testing my vocation, I should go on placement as an auxiliary nurse at St Christopher’s Hospice, Sydenham, which I did for some 18 months: way out of my comfort zone, but a hugely formative experience, and a surprisingly joyous one.

During this time, I went to a selection conference organised in those days by “ACCM” (the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry). I remember that, at the time, the Welsh version was called WACCM, and the Scottish one was SACCM; I’ve always liked these splendidly colourful acronyms — rather more exciting, I feel, than the current “Bishops’ Advisory Panel”, i.e. BAP.

I was selected; and, after a few months working in St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, I duly started my theological training at St Stephen’s House, in Oxford, culminating (as noted above) with my ordination on 1 July 1989. To this day, I don’t know whether Canon Cotton really had lost my notes, or was just giving me another chance. Friends later said he was quite capable of losing them, but I’ve always felt that he was actually being kind. If he hadn’t been, my own story would have been very different.

 

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

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