‘May I speak to Dr Peel, please?’ means that in 95% of the calls I answer, an ‘interregnum’ churchwarden is frantically seeking a priest for Sunday duty. Sometimes, however, the approach is different, when a matey clerical voice asks ‘Is Michael there? It’s Fred from Hilton St Mary here,’ leaving the said Michael completely baffled by this new-found friendship with a total stranger. The third type of opening gambit of ‘We wouldn’t have bothered you, but we’re really desperate,’ may not be very flattering, though it is at least honest, but, whatever the method adopted, the message remains the same, ‘We know you’re active and retired, and we need someone to celebrate the Eucharist.’
Further discussion often reveals: (1) We would really like you to come on a permanently monthly basis; (2) We wouldn’t have asked you at all, but Fr X (whom we all love dearly) has been rushed into hospital; or (3) You can do virtually what you like, as long as you COME!
At this stage things start to get complicated, that is, come where?
Newly-retired priests are often living in a strange district. They do not know the villages and their churches (still less their churchmanship), and so often they have to plunge, like rudderless boats, into a sea of liturgical – and even geographical – confusion. ‘You can’t miss the church. It’s up a steep bank on your left as you come into the village,’ but not if you approach the village from the other end it isn’t. Why not send a map? That is surely a simple matter in these days of computers (someone in the village must have one!).
Indeed, a computer can even inform us that our nearest pub is 98 yards from our own front door, a facility much appreciated after some nightmarish ‘helping-out’ experiences!
But I digress – so back to the church, assuming that you can find it. On your arrival, make sure that ‘we always use the Prayer Book’ means what you think it means and not some dog-eared mish mash put together by a previous incumbent, and don’t even pause, let alone falter, when Mrs X walks out half-way through, because you have unwittingly committed some unpardonable faux–pas (like having chosen Tune 2 for her favourite hymn). Replying to the inevitable letter of complaint will at least help you to fill all those gapingly empty days from Monday to Saturday.
When the lights fail and the organ falters, when no–one appears to take the collection and the Banns Book is missing (though not the happy couple), when the wine is locked in a cupboard, to which no-one present has a key, and when the sound system or the central heating has failed yet again, remember that the congregation, who have never set eyes on you before, still look to you to solve all problems, practical as well as spiritual. This, I think, is known as FAITH!
One thing, though, is certain. You can be quite sure that, as soon as you’ve pronounced the blessing and got to the porch, people will shake your hand and say ‘Lovely service, Vicar,’ for ‘great is their reward in Heaven’ – or even here in North Essex and South Suffolk!
Daloni Peel is the wife of a retired priest