Saturday, 14 September 2013

Thoughts from a Morning Sitting in Church for "Ride and Stride" Saturday

The church is my former parish - but still affiliated! - church of SS. Mary and Nicholas, Littlemore. It's actually rather difficult for me to be affiliated to any church, because as a priest, I am not allowed to be on the electoral roll, which is for laypeople, and as someone without Permission to Officiate from the Bishop, I cannot be ex-officio as a priest who worships and sometimes serves there. For a couple of years I have served on the PCC, but by co-option, as I am not allowed to be subjected to the forces of electoral democracy. It's an odd position to be in, but I am an odd person, so perhaps I have found my place.

"Ride and Stride" is quite a fun fundraising thing that happens once a year, when people walk, or cycle, to as many local churches as they can, with sponsorship, to raise money for the church of their choice. It's a nice and good thing, a chance to open the doors, to welcome strangers, to get on your bike, to get some fresh, and possibly holy, air.

Littlemore parish church is of marginally more interest than most, because it was built at the behest of the saintly, and now officially Blessed, Cardinal Newman, in his earlier manifestation as a Church of England vicar. It was part of his parish of S. Mary the Virgin, in the High Street in Oxford, an example of a most peculiar parish boundary, as the locals had to trudge past other churches to get to S. Mary's - and it's a good three-mile-trudge. I had wondered why they didn't go to those other, closer, churches instead, until someone explained that if they had, they'd have been liable for tithes at both, and Littlemore folk have never been rich. So out of the goodness of his heart, the Reverend John Henry decided they must have a church of their own, to save them that long walk on a Sunday morning, and perchance to increase the prospect that these slightly dodgy and dubious rustic yokels might go to church at all. One of our visitors this morning is a welcomer at S. Mary's, and he said visiting Littlemore was on his wish list (sensible, and lucky fellow, to have ticked something off on such a list - we should all go and do likewise), and I showed him the board of gratitude behind the font listing all the benefactors that Newman scrounged money off, included those Tractarian luminaries, John Keble and Canon Pusey, his mother and his sisters, and even the undergraduates at Oriel College, the parish patron, of which he was a fellow. Newman's last sermon as a Church of England parson (our theology says he remained an Anglican priest to the end of his days, although he chose no longer to exercise that ministry) was from our pulpit, and entitled "On The Parting Of Friends".

Visitors did not arrive in torrents, which allowed me time to pace up and down the church rehearsing arguments for a Manifesto I am writing, of which more anon. The first caller was a lady from Barton, with whom I had received communion only a few weeks before at a weekday service. She remembered me, which was impressive, as I only dimly remembered her. It had been a service with laying-on-of-hands for healing, which, as I had an uncomfortable medical appointment later in the day, I was disinclined to participate in. There are only so many healing hands you can bear to have near you in twenty-four hours, I find. But she was a sweetie, and being chaperoned by her son, who was riding her old bike, a hand-me-down, whilst she was riding rather a smart new one, which he'd given her for Christmas a couple of years ago. It hadn't often been out, and as well as making sure his mother was safe on the roads, I think the son was glad to see it used. She arrived a little before the 10 a.m. official start, having already logged in at the Catholic church down the road - "You can't really interrupt Catholics when they're praying, can you, they're not like us?", and so I said I'd gladly falsify the returns and put 10, but she said, "make it 10.02, because I said 10 with the Romans". Happy to oblige.

Littlemore is known in Oxford for the Lunatic Asylum which is now a building in private and commercial hands, and used for very different and commercial purposes, but an imposing, and grand, and rather fine edifice. It's reminiscent of the Lincoln Asylum which became the Theological College at which I started to learn how not to be a vicar. The village retains its links with mental health, however, and we have visitors, often, who are being treated for various things at the hospital and other therapeutic units here. A youngish lad came in, and, although I asked where he was from, and he said somewhere near Wantage (I don't drive, I've frankly no idea of the map), he volunteered that he was staying at the hospital. I thought that was rather brave. I know a little bit about mental illness, and it's not an easy thing to admit to, to a friend, never mind a stranger. He twitched a bit, and he was obviously under the influence of some quite heavy-duty medication, but he was lucid, and interesting, and interested, and nice. Of course, we all say that before we get stabbed. But I would seem to have lived to tell the tale. I showed him the memorial to the Cardinal's mother who laid the foundation stone of the church in 1835, but died in 1836 before it was finished. We agreed that for a lady to do such a thing in those days was pretty unusual, and rather splendid. And, having ascertained that he was an animal lover, I showed him - so far as I was able, as I couldn't work the lights (the vicar later told me they are disabled at the fuse box because they've started coming on on their own, unbidden, and expensively!) I showed him the marvellous brass memorial to a previous vicar who was famed for his pet macaw. He called the bird Archdeacon Paley, and it often had letters published in local and national newspapers. I believe it even had an entry in the Diocesan Directory. Both vicar and parrot were equally stroppy, by all accounts, and they died within weeks of each other in 1996, the one at less than 60, the other at less than 30, both before their time, but having made a bigger mark than most of us can hope to do in twice as long. And then my unwell friend looked at his watch and needed to go, and thanked me for my time, when he'd been far more interesting than I, and called me "Sir" which was remarkable, but there wasn't time to say I have a name. And I wished him every blessing for a swift recovery and a return home, because we'd agreed in conversation that hospital is a place you don't want to stay in for long, if you can possibly avoid it.

Next in was a practising vicar. Even had his collar on. Shameless. And three other people in tow. I was trying to fathom what the links were, and at first I thought they were all his children, a tall skinny boy, and two small girls. But one of the girls had obviously been sponsored for the ride, and her name on the form they have to sign was different from his, and the other girl, and the "boy" didn't sign at all. I think now perhaps the younger man was in fact his son-in-law, and the girls, his grand-daughters. He had known Father David, the parrot-man, but never seen the memorial, so that was a bit of fun for him. Their next stop was the Catholic Church of Blessed Dominic Barbieri, who received our Anglican vicar into the Roman Catholic Church. The parson was explaining this to the youth club, and I interposed "basically, a poacher". We were all Anglican enough to find this mildly amusing. I said their rather modern church was much to be envied. Asked why, I had to say "It's not pretty, unless you like that sort of thing, but it has loos". They understood. I had already regretted the flask of coffee HL had lovingly made for me, at least twice. Fortunately, no one can see, on the south side ...

And last, we had the human dynamo, who was already on his second column, he'd been to at least fifteen churches already, and fully intended to do at least as many more. Even so, he took the time to look and listen, and then zoomed off, saying if you want a challenge, try the alleyways of the housing estates of Abingdon - his own route was meticulously planned long in advance, with maps and sliderules, and perhaps even horoscopes. I was left breathless.

And then it was time to go. What a funny way to spend four hours! Deo gratias.

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