Nicholas Farndon regarded himself as something of a natty dresser. The clothing budget of an Anglican clergyman did not run to much. Most of his colleagues settled for faded jeans and sweaters that had long since given up the battle to maintain shape, hanging around the buttocks of their ecclesiastical wearers like overused dishcloths. There were his High Church brethren who espoused the wearing of black, preferably with gaiters. Neither of these styles of accoutrement appealed to Nick. He stretched the budget to include the occasional smart jacket and well-cut trousers. But, in contrast to the jeans brigade, always a dog-collar. He was one of those priests who regarded the wearing of their clerical insignia as very important. He wore it at all times except on his day off and, of course, on beach holidays in France. Then, to the embarrassment of his teenage daughters, he preferred to wear nothing at all.
Today being a working day he was dressed in a grey shirt( with clerical collar), a smart fawn jacket and dark green slacks. His shoes were highly polished. He looked at his diary; meeting with the primary school headmaster at 10.15, four sick communions between 11.00 and 12.30, lunchtime meeting the committee of the W.I. (an acronym that his wife preferred to translate as ‘The Wandering Idiots’), a Deanery clergy meeting for most of the afternoon and a Finance Committee meeting in the evening.
He thought back to his days at Theological College. There had been a good bit of Kierkegard, a smattering of Teilhard de Chardin and John Robinson but nothing, at least that he could remember, about the appropriate distribution of roll-buttering duties nor the way of ushering in the Kingdom by means of a contest to create the best model of the Eiffel Tower out of a carrot. (The W.I. had staged such a contest the previous month. Nicholas – and he failed to understand why he was selected for the task – had been wheeled in to judge fifteen disturbingly phallus-like erections that the good ladies of the parish had sculpted from that lowly, orange root vegetable.)
His heart sank as he scanned the list in the diary. The school meeting was about money – or the lack of it, the sick communions were to four old ladies, not one of whom knew whether it was Thursday or Easter. One thought that Nicholas was the late Bishop of Durham. consequently showering him with abuse as he tried to wade through the Eucharistic Prayer with at least some degree of conviction.
The Deanery meeting would be ecclesiastical politics. Nick hated that. Inevitably it would be about whether cohabiting gay couples should be allowed to receive the sacrament of Communion, a subject that his fellow clergy kept returning to like a dog to its vomit. Nick felt a great unease. he could never understand why Christians were so obsessed with what their fellows did with their bodies. For himself he preferred to focus on their souls.
And he knew that the Finance committee meeting was going to be awful. Despite rising costs the church paid its bills and had considerable reserves. But the PCC Treasurer (whom Sylvia liked to describe as ‘tight-arsed as a lobster at forty fathoms’), a retired bank manager, regarded prudence as a distinctly Christian virtue, surpassing all others – particularly charity. Nick could not really convince himself it was incorporated in the canon of Christian ethics at all, let alone occupying the prime position.
In all this, he reflected, there was precious little about God. For unexplained reasons mention of God anywhere except in the pulpit seemed to be a social gaffe, like peeing in the rose beds at the Manor garden party. No mention of God seemed polite except in the sanctified, sanitised little church in the centre of the village.
What a contrast, he thought. I was years at theological college, talking about God. Perhaps they were trying to get him out of my system. Flood me with God-talk until I had had enough. Only then could I be delivered to a parish detoxified, unlikely to embarrass anybody with inappropriate talk of the Almighty. Supremely equipped to pronounce on carrots turned into models of the Eiffel Tower.
In any case God, Nick reflected, seemed to have changed considerably over the years. From being the old man in the sky with a long grey beard he had metamorphosed into the Being greater than which no other Being could be imagined, onwards to the boring God of the philosophers and, more recently, the Ground of our Being and finally, in a post-modern flurry of excitement and controversy, being deconstructed into Language, ending up as a mythic expression of our spiritual goal with no ontological reality at all.
Ontological. He liked that word. He had used it in a sermon once and had received a formal complaint from one of his churchwardens, a retired major of the Burma Rifles. Nick trod more carefully nowadays. He avoided such words and he avoided mentioning God in public. Strange, he reflected, if I were to talk about God like I did at college, what an uproar it would cause. So now he colluded in the uncomfortable compromise of only referring to God in the blandest and most general of ways when preaching – and never mentioning him at all outside.
An uncomfortable compromise which made him feel very sad. He scanned down his day’s schedule once more. An idea was slowly forming itself in his mind. Gradually it grew until it became a resolve. Perhaps today, for one day only, he would talk about God.
The risk of such a venture filled him with excitement. He had renewed vigour and energy to tackle the unpromising day. Grabbing his coat he set off down the road to the school.
The headmaster was waiting for him. Sitting in his office, an airless, windowless room protected by an outer office where his secretary sat, Miles Duggan was not an inspiring figure. He was the kind of man who never seemed able to settle on a comfortable pose. Sitting on a chair he seemed uncomfortable and you wished he would stand up. Standing up he adopted such an awkward stance that he was liable to set your teeth on edge. People turned away from Miles Duggan, or else displayed an excessive interest in the light fitments when forced to spend time in his company. The only time that Nick had ever found it comfortable was when the unfortunate headmaster had been placed in the stocks, only head and hands displayed, whilst small children hurled damp sponges at him at the school fête. Facing Miles Duggan, once he was forced into a rigid symmetry, became bearable.
As if that postural disjunction were not enough, and for most people it surely was, he had a voice like a corncrake. Nick had never actually heard a corncrake but he was sure that if he did he would be bound to be reminded of the headmaster of Nether Watsup Primary School.
“Come in Nick” craked the smaller man, bent into an uncomfortable posture over a board that looked as if it might be the action plan for a NASA expedition to Mars but was, in reality, the timetable. The timetable. Miles’s pride and joy over which he exhausted hours, converting it into his own computer programme, converting it back into this chart of Byzantine complexity; there it lay, full of coloured flags, arrows, string and large letters in red that read FP. These latter seemed to be scattered throughout the chart but particularly concentrated on the column that ran down from the initial MCD. Miles Coverdale Duggan but what was FP. Free period, I guess, thought Nick for the little angular man had devoted most of his teaching career to escaping from children; something that finally he had managed to do – except, of course, for School Fête days. Nick sat down.
“Thanks for coming, Vicar. We have a big problem with the budget.” Nick’s heart sank. It being a church school he was ex officio Chairman of the Governors. He had received a huge bundle of papers about the budget but had yet to tackle them – a task that, for him, was the equivalent of ingrowing toenail surgery without the benefit of anaesthesia. There was more craking to come.
“With the current review of the year from April 5th. we are £20,000 over budget. We shall have to lose a teacher.” As, apart from the corncrake, there were only three other teachers in the school this seemed to Nick to be a bit desperate.
“Are we sure these figures are correct? They seem a bit extreme.” The light in the headmaster’s eyes was switched on in a flash. After the timetable there was nothing better that he liked to pronounce upon than the School Budget. Nick’s mind began to dull as the angularly uncomfortable man opposite him droned on in such a way that it would drive even a corncrake to call for the hemlock and end it all. Nick felt trapped. Perhaps he should feign an epileptic fit or, less dramatically, remember an appointment that he had previously neglected to mention. Perhaps he would just cut his throat. And then he remembered his resolution.
“Miles. Where is God in all this?” The effect was startling and immediate. The little man stopped in mid-sentence and stared at Nick in genuine incredulity. Nick repeated his question. It was not often that his questions had such a dramatic effect. He was more used to being patronisingly ignored.
“I’m not sure if I understand you, Vicar.”
“I’m just asking where God is in this dilemma.”
“I really don’t know what you mean. Can we get back the matter in hand? I’m a busy man.” Yes, thought Nick, you are. You need to be otherwise people might wonder why you, a headmaster, could not do a bit of teaching yourself. But he said nothing. Things were not looking too good for God here.
“So it seems that to mention God is irrelevant.” This was quite enough for the small man. He leapt up, scattering the papers from his desk.
“I can’t spend any more time on this, Vicar. I must go” and with that he dashed from the room. Nick stayed put for a few moments then rose, collected the papers together, stuffed them in a black Bin-bag and tied the top. He had noticed other bin-bags outside the school when he arrived. One more would not be noticed. He left the office carrying his briefcase and the black sack. The secretary was sitting at her desk.
“Where’s Miles gone, Mrs.Walker?”
“Last time I saw him he was heading at high speed for the toilets” she drawled lugubriously. Nothing ever excited or amazed Gladys Walker who had been at the school longer than any of the teaching staff. “Probably yesterday’s rissoles” she offered, all the while staring at her nails that were freshly painted an unusual shade of Episcopal purple. “Doing the dustbins for us, Vicar?” she called as he left the room
“Oh well. Anything to help” quipped Nick. He made a dash for the main door. If talking about God is going to carry on like this, he thought, I’m in for an interesting day. Nonetheless, he reflected, it was an unpromising start for the Deity.
Half-an-hour later and it was pouring with rain. Nick dodged the dustbin lorry as he hurried to the first of his sick communions. Old Mrs.Boroughbridge – known to everyone in the village as ‘old Mrs.B-B’ – lived on her own. She was pretty disabled these days, stone deaf with that delightful characteristic of the old and batty – she didn’t care what she said to anybody.
She had never married but in her youth had collected a fine total of eight children, many of whom still lived in the village and helped to look after her in her advancing years. One of them had made good and was now the Borough Surveyor of a large town in the Thames Valley. He had disowned his mother and family and never came to visit.
“Stuck up little sod” was old Mrs.B-B’s response “S’pose we’re not good enough for him these days.” The truth was that in recent years old Mrs.B-B had become confused about which of her children was which. It was quite probable that she would not have recognised the Borough Surveyor if she had indeed seen him.
Sick communions with old Mrs.B-B were always a public affair. Nick had to shout loudly to allow the old lady to hear the words of solace and consolation. Consequently, as old Mrs.B-B’s house was in the village square, many other people heard; and often, out of a natural sense of community, participated in the service.
He ducked his head as he entered, nodded to the home-help who was in the kitchen and went on into the bedroom. Old Mrs.B-B had been spruced up for the liturgical occasion by one of her daughters and her granddaughter, a trainee hairdresser in the next town. The old lady was wearing a bed-jacket and had a hairdo that looked dangerously like Madonna, except in grey rather than blonde. Put along with the edentulous grin the effect was, to say the least, striking.
“Hello, Mrs.Boroughbridge!” bellowed Nick.
“What?” The old lady looked around and spotted Nick. “Oh. It’s you Vicar. You look a bit of a ponce today.” Nick was accustomed to her directness. He rather liked it.
“You look pretty fancy yourself” he responded in similar vein, except that his words were heard across the square, even into the bar of the Dog and Duck.
“You rude bugger! Have you brought your stuff then?” Nick opened his case and removed the paten, the small goblet, the white wafer. He placed his stole around his neck. It was highly coloured, made in South America and his pride and joy.
“What’s that around your neck?” she cackled. “Look’s like a tart’s knickers. What’s that all about then?” Nick was used to this kind of abuse from old Mrs.B-B. He ignored her and opened the prayer book.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” he shouted.
“Amen!” she shot back at high speed. Nick was aware of a few muffled ‘Amens’ coming from outside. He ploughed on.
The liturgy of sick communion is a scaled down affair compared to its parent, the celebration of the Eucharist, held in church. Consequently it was usually over in about ten minutes. Nick followed the usual pattern. He was aware that old Mrs.B-B had fallen asleep so before he embarked on the Eucharistic Prayer – which would have taken him straight through to the Eucharist itself and quickly on to the end of the service – he stopped, drew in breath and spoke
“Perhaps we should ask where God is in this celebration.” The effect was extraordinary. He had not shouted, old Mrs.B-B appeared to be asleep but she jerked up in the bed, turned to look at him and snapped
“What’s that you said?”
“Where is God in all this?”
“God! God. What’s he got to do with it?” She was shouting now. “Fat lot of good he’s done me. No use when I needed him. What you got to bring him up for? What’s got into you Vicar? Just get on with your job. I want me lunch.” She slumped back on the pillows, exhausted by this outcry. Nick finished the service off as quickly as he could. Within five minutes it was all over. As he left the room she was still muttering to herself. “God! God. What’s he got to talk like that for? Man’s a loony. Silly bugger.”
And so the day continued. Nick went through the other sick communions without repeating the experience of old Mrs.B-B. He avoided mention of God. At the W.I. committee all the talk was of the next month’s competition, the best likeness of Mrs.Thatcher (a hero of the W.I. Chairman) made from a mangel-wurzel. Nick dared to ask whether this creativity was our human response to God’s love. There was an embarrassed silence. Afterwards the Chairman took him aside and in hushed, confidential tones – through which her Mancunian origins were not difficult to detect – told him that that sort of thing would upset the ladies. He left to the sounds of “…bring me my arrows of desire” and reflected, yet again, what a strange world it was that we inhabited.
At least, he thought, my fellow clergy will have no difficulty in talking about God. He was sadly disappointed. As soon as he mentioned God the Rural Dean – jeans, open-toed sandals and a sort of “Isn’t Jesus a jolly good chap” expression on his face – would move on to discuss whether it should go through the Archdeacon’s subcommittee of the sub-Archdeacon’s committee or to be a motion left on the floor. This last sounded quite unsavoury so Nick left.
OK God, he thought as he drove home, you’ve got one more chance.
The Finance committee met in Nick’s study at the Vicarage. Perhaps, thought Nick, it will be easier on home ground. The main agenda item was the level of giving for the next year. Nick felt strongly about this. His view was that they should decide a figure for giving that was substantial. This would force them to reduce their other expenditure in order to meet that level of giving. In this way there would be an element of sacrifice in their giving, something that Nick regarded as crucial.
The Treasurer (Sylvia’s aforementioned Lobster), priding himself on being a prudent man saw things differently. A retired bank manager he thought that all other bills should be settled. Then, if there was anything left it could be given away. The two of them had debated this before but this meeting was destined to be face-on confrontational.
The arguments lurched to and fro. Most of the committee members were of the same mind as the Lobster. Nick remembered his resolution.
“Why don’t we talk about our giving in relation to the inherent givingness of the nature of God?” The silence was deafening. The Lobster went red (appropriately, thought Nick), the ex-major harrumphed and blew his nose, nobody said anything. Nick could not believe it.
“Hello everybody. Are you here? Did you hear what I said? Have I committed some indiscretion?” The ex-major rose to his feet and left, muttering things under his breath about keeping this God stuff for church. The Lobster prepared to speak. At last, thought Nick, we are going to have a sensible discussion about spirituality and money. The Treasurer spoke.
“I’ve been looking at the expenditure projections for next year, combined with or quota allocation for the financial year from 5 April…….” Nick could not believe it. He droned on, this Lobster Treasurer, as if nothing had happened. Nick interrupted.
“Ladies and gentlemen. I’ve had a long day so I am going to bed. You are welcome to carry on. Just turn out the lights and lock the door when you go.” With that he was gone. Getting a glass of water in the kitchen he heard them leave.
Well God, he thought, You and I’ve had a hard day. I don’t know about You but I haven’t felt so good for years.