a 3-part guide to Sanctity with Sanity

Christopher Idle asks:

– ten stages in the approach-work.

0UR FIRST SNAPSHOT in this brief album of moral theology provided guidelines for fledgling bishops. For some, this will be an enthronement too far. Not for you the trappings of office, the chauffeured car, the House of Lords, and what not. It is not that you have failed. Maybe you have had the dreaded ‘Not recommended’ announcement arriving on your doorstep one fateful autumn morning. Maybe you realised it was never going to be quite You. What you now need is the Second Spoke of The Threefold Way. Your modest goal for the present is to find an evening service within the Church of England that is not simply the Vicar saying his prayers.

Apart from the obvious advantages such as doing your bit to keep St Philemon’s open, there are other gratifying spin-offs here. For example, you can become a Statistic. You may sometimes have wondered wistfully why you have never featured in a MORI or Gallup Poll. You see the devastating figures for the Government or the Opposition or the Don’t Knows, and you think ‘But they never asked me!’ All these percentages, trends and forecasts are basically Other People. That is essentially because they never do ask people like you!

But come to Evensong, and immediately you matter to every church statistician in the land. You appear in Handbooks, Yearbooks. Church Papers and National Trends. You can say ‘That’s me!’ You have made your personal numerical contribution to the final demise, revival, or simply continuation, of the Church you love to love.

I do not write for city-dwellers; for these, the quest may already be hopeless. Most churches have given up. But it is different in the country. There are few things nearer heaven, you heard someone say, than the setting sun slanting through the stained glass of a village church as Evensong begins. But where is it? How can you track it down? There are eight churches, you discover, in this united benefice. Join me on the long search for Sunday evening paradise. You may face the occasional hurdle. Let us set out together, in the spirit of Psalm 122: I was glad.

It is important, first, to let your fingers do the walking. To search on your feet would take hours; in the car, many litres of precious petrol. But 8, 11, 6.30; is there anyone out there, I wonder, who still remembers those sacred magic numbers? If there is, too bad; today is a different scene, man. Get on your telephone, mobile, static, or whatever.

One: No answer.
There is not much you can do about a Rector who isn’t there. Let us move on hopefully.

Two: Answerphone.
You are now through to the Rectory. So far as you know. The voice doesn’t actually tell you that; what he does tell you is that he isn’t there either. In fact, anyone who might have been there is sorry that there is no-one here to take your call. You might have guessed; no matter. What he does not say, nor can you guess, is when he will be back. ‘As soon as we can’ is short on information. If you want to send a fax, he will tell you when to press which button; but you may not so desire.

Three: Engaged
But the person you are calling knows that you are waiting. You can picture him, or possibly her. A minute or two of that, and she changes her tune: ‘Please try again later’.

Four: the Rector’s away.
At last (sooner than average) a live voice! But not the Rector. He is elsewhere, and there is no service tonight. So far as your informant knows.

Five: Which Sunday?
You will need your wits about you. A close relative, you suspect, of the Incumbent. Now, let me see; is it the third Sunday or the fourth? Or was this the month we were going to reverse the rota because of the Confirmation? Could you just hang on a minute? (Pause; shuffling of papers; footsteps retreat and advance; a child cries.) I’m sorry, you’ll think me awfully silly, but I can’t find the magazine. Rodney should be back in about half an hour. Could you try again then?’

Six: Wrong Number.
Or rather, ‘Sorry; the number you dialled has not been recognised. Please get your act together next time’. Or words to that effect.

Seven: Fifth Sunday
Thanks so much for calling; as it’s the fifth Sunday we are joining with the Methodists, Baptists, URC, Salvation Army, Unitarians and Christadelphians, and the service is in the school. Where’s that? Let me try to explain. You know the pub hidden by the trees, just a couple of miles past the college playing field on the main road? Just before you see the Esso sign? Well…

Eight: Act of Synod
Yes, fine; tonight we have a very special service to welcome the Rev Daisy Poppett into the Deanery as our new Bishop’s Auxiliary Adviser for Communities within the Community, and Chaplain to Travelling Conpersons. She will celebrate mass at 6.30, and afterwards there is a …Hullo? Hullo?

Nine: Change of scene
You give the phone up as a bad job. There is, after all, no substitute for personal exploration. Reach the church in the dark; no lights. Your new umbrella is already up and the ancient Ordnance Survey map is out; reach for a middle-aged torch with your third hand. A leaning notice-board advertises last week’s harvest, last month’s fete, and last year’s Table of Parochial Fees. Rather handy if you need to be married or buried that evening; less useful in the search for Evening Prayer. Sunday services? Not a trace here; they’ve successfully buried all the evidence.

Ten: Finally…..
Here is a church with lights on, three cars and a bike outside, and an open doorway. A bell may even be ringing – the long search has been rewarded after all! You step into the warmth inside. A welcoming hand and warning smile steers you away from the main aisle towards the vestry door. Five people in a semi-circle sit on straight-backed wooden chairs, staring at a blank TV screen. Two gentlemen are fiddling with a video; another struggles with screwdriver and plug. You mutter something you hope is unintelligible and stumble out once more into the night. Where exactly was that pub, again?

I have deliberately painted a bleak picture because the quest for goodness must be realistic. Too many aspiring saints have thought that all you need do is buy your moral travel-card and jump on a ready-made, roadtested ecclesiastical vehicle. It isn’t like that. It may not be all doom and gloom either; the magazine ‘Country Way’ will show you the glossier side of godliness when it comes to rural churchgoing. But I have to tell you that both George Herbert’s Bemerton and Charlotte Bronte’s Haworth have changed a bit. Mobile phones would have done wonders for the plot of Wuthering Heights.

And just suppose, somehow, that neither of these first two Ways quite matches your personal profile, felt need, and spiritual DNA? The good news is that there is a Third, which makes less demands on the explicitly religious side of your character, though it may make some. To this, our final feature will turn next month.

Christopher Idle looks for Evensong in the Diocese of Southwark