Wednesday, 6 September 2017

An Excursion with Old Friends

"Friends" might be over-stating it a bit, but a few months back in 1988-89 John and Muriel Sutters were very friendly to me and my first ex. John was a retired priest who assisted at the parishes of Saint Frideswide and Saint Thomas, either side of the railway station in Oxford. Back then, I was a server, living along the Botley Road I tried to be a good Anglican and worship in my parish church, which was Saint Frideswide's. That suited me fine. The vicar said that parishes are like sherries, and "Toggers" as he called it, was an olorosso, whereas "Friggers" was a fino. I don't think he let the parishioners know what he called them, although occasionally they noticed the sherry.

John was a man of great erudition, and also humility, and the latter might perhaps have got in the way of his doing more powerful things in his career, but he was a parish priest, and a teacher of ordinands, and a private scholar - I still have his book on Saint John. Muriel was attentive, caring, and businesslike, the person to notice what the men had not, in those days before women were ordained (of which John approved, but the vicar didn't, yet they didn't fall out about it).

I remember two occasions on - I think - a Tuesday night when John was saying mass for us when the vicar was on holiday. The first was a great kerfuffle because the keys to the safe had been mislaid, and there was no access to the customary wine and wafers. "I'm only round the corner", said the helpful churchwarden, "and I could bring a bottle and I'll quickly iron a slice of bread ...." John was withering. Then the other churchwarden said "What about a nice little evensong?" "The people have come for Holy Communion!" Eventually the key was discovered in the bottom of someone's handbag, and all was well. I was new to church life back then, and it was a fascinating little glimpse.

Another time I was again serving for him at the altar, kneeling to one side, with a rather lavish lace altercloth right in front of my nose. I loved listening to John saying mass, he knew it all almost off by heart - including the collects ("no, I sha'n't be needing the book for that, thank you"). And in the intercessions, with utter sincerity and kindness, he said "Father we pray for those poor dears in the Sudan". It totally cracked me up. The altarcloth was shaking.

They invited Richard and me (yes, my first ex had the same name, really bad planning) to dinner. We spent ages choosing a bottle of wine to bring, which instantly disappeared into their cellar, because, of course, John had already chosen the evening's wine. That took us aback a little, but we were wet behind the ears in the ways of society. At the end, they asked us to sign their visitors' book. That was a new thing, too. We penned our names many pages after Dorothy L Sayers in the 1950s. They were rather proud of that one.

I knew John had died a few years back as he'd had an obituary in the Church Times, but was pleased to meet Muriel at an event at Saint Frideswide's not long after I came back to Oxford. And a few years after that, I was walking through Saint Thomas's churchyard, and saw her name had now been carved with his on their headstone. I saw it again today.

For John (1915-2003) and Muriel (1920-2015) Sutters, Deo gratias.

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