It’s a spring(ish) morning so the birds are making themselves known outside the window by the time I get up. They chatter and hoot from inside the fog that masses in the gaps between the houses nearby. My wife is going to church ahead of me, since she’s one of the churchwardens, and I make her a cup of coffee and ask if she’d mind taking a copy of my sermon in her bag. One of the small catastrophes on which my imagination is particularly keen involves me standing up to preach in the middle of the service, and realizing I’ve left the pages full of what I wanted to say in my other jacket. She agrees indulgently and disappears out into the fog.
My brief prayers in the armchair are interrupted by a small furry face pushing itself against mine. Frideswide the kitten is rarely able to resist interposing herself into any devotions. Opinion amongst our friends is divided between the possibilities that she is a very devout animal who wishes to join her praises with mine, or that she is a very wicked one who is eager to disrupt prayer at any opportunity. I suspect it’s more to do with the intolerable spectacle of someone doing something without involving her, and the clasped hands which provide an easy target for climbing. I pick her up and snuggle her against my beard whilst finishing the prayers.
My wife’s early departure means a leisurely mug of tea with a Dorothy L. Sayers novel before it’s time for me to leave, with the kitten making valiant attempts to stick her nose in the brew. A black shirt instead of one of the checks I wear most weekdays; not from any wish to be mistaken for a priest, but because the check would show through the thin white cassock alb I’ll be wearing later. Out the door to see that the fog is beginning to clear, and the sun is gleaming on the chimney pots along the street.
A five minute walk to Greggs’ to buy breakfast: a sausage cob with red sauce and a Diet Coke. My accent marks me as not having been born and brought up round here, but even I know not to ask for “a sausage bap with ketchup” in the East Midlands. Whether it is a bap, a roll, a cob or even (as some of those from Northern latitudes insist) a barm cake, it makes a delicious breakfast when filled with sausage. Sustaining, too. I take it outside and eat it sitting on the plinth of a piece of municipal sculpture in the middle of the town square.
A few people are walking to and fro, most on their way to work in the shops. From where I sit I can hear the bells ringing and I can just see the sandstone tower of our church. Over the bank to my right I can make out the brownish brick tower of the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption, and straight forward the fainter outline of the tall spire of the Methodists. Before long it’ll be approaching Holy Week and the Walk of Witness on Good Friday, in which all the local churches join. But today my mind is on our parish church.
As I finish my cob and set off across the square I hear a call of “Ey up, me duck!” Coming out of the betting shop ahead is a figure in a flat cap and short white beard, waking with his accustomed stick. We know each other from one of the local pubs, where he is particularly fond of cider and Dad jokes. As our paths get within twenty feet of converging he gestures to the church tower and calls out “Put in a word for me, will you? He owes me a bit of luck!” I call back that I’ll mention his name in the appropriate channels.
Our church is not regarded as architecturally important; in his guide to the churches of England Pevsner only takes enough notice of it to be dismissive. But I have only been here five years and I still love looking at it. Parts of it are thirteenth-century, and it was extended and rebuilt by Henry VIII and by Gilbert Scott in the Victorian era. I go the long way round to the door in order to enjoy the sun on the grotesque faces carved round the gutters. The bells are still ringing out as I pass the stately memorial to two officers who died in the Crimean War and the near-illegibly worn graves under the clump of yew trees.
Through the main door, to be greeted by two members of the Mothers’ Union, handing out service sheets. I make a mental note that if they’re on the door, the MU banner will be in the procession at the beginning of the service. I’m not good at rotas, but I’ve observed this correlation. We chat for a few minutes, before I make myself scarce as I’m getting in the way of people arriving behind me. Past the font, where I pause to dip a finger and cross myself with blessed water, and down to the back rooms of the church.
The vestry is a small but cheerful room, with a walk-in wardrobe which takes up one whole wall. The sliding doors make it imperative that you check whether someone is already in there before whooshing them across so you can find your own robes. On the other side of the room (about two paces away) is a desk and a shelf full of service books, ledgers and folders of paperwork. A large safe stands on the floor, and the remaining space is taken up by two four-foot long candlesticks and an iron stand for the thurible and incense boat.
I drape my cassock alb around me and fiddle with the buttons at the neck. The room becomes decidedly cosy as I’m joined by the priest, one of the curates, two acolytes, a crucifer and a master of ceremonies. No thurifer to swing the incense around, since it’s not a festival. Getting the microphone clipped properly on the fold of my cassock alb takes me another minute or so. We gossip amiably whilst checking last-minute details – who’s reading the Gospel this week, who’s giving the chalice to the congregation during the Eucharist, which banns of marriage need to be read this week – and soon it’s five minutes to ten. We file a touch awkwardly out of the room and into the choir vestry next door.
As we open the door there is a muffled call of “Stand by your beds!” from one of the choir, answered by one of the others with “Out or down! Out or down!” I don’t know why the choir and adopted these phrases on seeing the altar party, especially since I encountered the latter in the novels of Patrick O’Brien, but they have. A few weeks ago someone tried out “clear eyes, full hearts!”, and the thurifer replied “shiny hair, wet noses!” but it doesn’t seem to have caught on.
We all fold our hands over candlesticks, anthem books, Bibles, or whatever else we’re carrying, and the priest leads us in prayer. It’s not a prayer I recognise, but from the sound and shape of it I’d guess it was a collect from the Book of Common Prayer. It has that slightly chewy, archaic syntax, and that way of beginning with an address to God, then weaving out to draw us in and connect with the world around us, before focusing everything in the person of Jesus Christ and sending us towards him.
We will go towards him, but more immediately we go out the back of the choir vestry. After a brief controversy over whether the moss will make the pass hazardous, we troop out of the door into the churchyard, and walk in procession around the outside of the church. Coming in again at the front door, we stand in lines behind the font. My wife appears with a lighter to provide flames for the acolyte’s candles. The choir mistress steps out to the side and launches the choristers into the beginning of the service.
Soon the congregation will join us in song, and we’ll process down the aisle, but as the choir gather our scattered thoughts together with their voices, I stand looking forward for a minute. Past the font with its blurred medieval carvings, past the rows of chairs which surge up to the stone pillars and wiggle round them, past the altar in front of the congregation, and on to the lapidary box of the sanctuary. Blocked out in rough stone, with wooden beams sweeping upwards, and iron traceries holding in midair the pieces of coloured glass which make up the windows. From this distance the thin trickles of heat from the altar candles make the figures in the windows quiver and stretch. Below them the crucifix gleams insistently. And we set off towards it.
After the service there’s another bustle in the vestry. The acolytes, crucifer and master of ceremonies are washing up the communion vessels, drying them and stowing them in the safe. An involved discussion is going on about rota swaps, and I cross-reference my own free Sundays with the ministers’ sheet, making pencil marks for when I am and am not available. I swap the cassock alb for my own accustomed tweed jacket, and get out of the way.
In the body of the church, the altar is being covered. A few people are clustered around the candle stand by the statue of Our Lady. The organist is still playing the voluntary, and I wander down the aisle with the music sweeping around me. At the back tea and coffee are being served. Some people are catching up on the week’s events, other are standing by the pillars listening to the organ, and some are reassembling prams and buggies on the play mats at the back.
I cast my eye around to check that someone has offered a cup of tea to the couple of people whose faces I didn’t recognise. A tricky matter in an Anglican church, that. Don’t want to seem unfriendly, and anyone turning up might be looking for a community where they can be welcomed in and become one of the family. On the other hand, they might be looking to find some peace away from all the people in the week who want their attention and their involvement. Something of a judgement call. But in this case I see them chatting to two of the bellringers, and they all seem cheery about the situation.
For a third week I decide I don’t really need the P.D. James omnibus from the bookstall by the play area. The choir are taking an informal vote about which pub to have lunch at: the one named after a racehorse or the one named after a queen. Seeing that I’m not required for anything in particular at the moment, I sit down behind one of the pillars and pray wordlessly for a few minutes. Coffee after church always reminds me of the cast parties we used to have after plays at university. Less boisterous and less drinking from the spout of a winebox, but the same sense that we have all been somewhere which has changed us, and that we need to work our way back into the world.
As my wife and I are leaving, one of the older ladies lays a hand on my arm. “Thank you for that sermon”, she says, “I did so enjoy it. But I wanted to ask you to explain something.” I nod sagely. The doctrine of the Logos in John’s Gospel had been an ambitious topic for a fifteen-minute sermon. I’m not surprised she wants a bit more explanation. “Who was the Miss Fisher that you mentioned at one point? She sounded very interesting.” We both chuckle and I fill in some details about the detective novels starring Miss Phryne Fisher, which I had used as an illustration during the sermon. She thanks me politely and says she must acquire one. And we step out into another Sunday morning in the Midlands.