Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Ecumenical Matters

Two brothers can't both inherit the farm so traditionally the second-born joined the church. I sometimes think I was cut out for the life of a clergyman (except for the inconvenience of having to get out of bed before midday on a Sunday... oh... and belief in God - I hear they are rather keen on that). 

The first priest I remember is the Reverend Thomas. My mum sang in the church choir and he came round ours for afternoon tea once. There were lots of bookshelves in the house I grew up in and his ecclesiastical eye immediately alighted on a dozen or so Dennis Wheatley novels (sample titles: The Devil Rides Out, To The Devil a Daughter, Gateway to Hell) They all had yellow spines with black writing which really made them stand out. I was a voracious reader as a child and I don't recall any books being prohibited by my parents (except when my dad told me I couldn't read the Silmarillion until I had finished The Lord of the Rings - still rankles). Those Dennis Wheatley novels always came with a stark warning from my mother: "Reverend Thomas told me I should burn the lot!" That made them seem particularly appealing.

After the Reverend Thomas moved out of the vicarage, we got a groovy trendy vicar in the village. I can't remember his name, but I do remember that he allowed alcohol to be smuggled into a youth club party in the village hall and one kid drank a bottle of vodka and had to have his stomach pumped.

I'd not had much contact with the priesthood in Norwich until I struck up an unlikely friendship with Father Peter - an active octogenarian who often pops into the pub with bottles and glasses he has found on the pavement outside. "Do these belong to you?" Occasionally, he would sit outside with a pint of bitter, smoking his pipe and drafting a sermon. Over the years, we got to know each other. I was touched by the little pieces of personal information he would sometimes share. Like the fact that his real name was Julian - but that he had been bullied at school in the 1930s because the name was too feminine so he had adopted his middle name. I told him that I shared a name with the famous Saint of Neocaesaria and naturally this led to a long discussion of thaumaturgy.

Last week, he came into the pub around closing time, much later than I had ever seen him in there before. He ordered a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale (which I knew to take from the shelf not the fridge - Catholic priests can't stand cold beer) and offered to buy me a drink. 

"I'll take a half of Ghost Ship."  

"Make it a pint." (this is the formal reply whenever a bartender says they will take a half - remember this.)

I detected a sadness in his demeanour and spoke with him whenever I got a moment between service. Turned out the church for whom he had worked for half a century were moving him out of his city centre flat and into a nursing home for priests in a village 15 miles south of Bury St Edmunds. With no pub! And worse... he was only allowed to take two of his five bookcases. What a way to treat a man. It's not like the Catholic church is short of a bob or two. I began to think about what I would do if I had to cut my book collection by three fifths. I suppose I could always start by burning a few Dennis Wheatley novels.

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