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Warning: Clergyman at work

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Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations . . . 

IT’S not very likely, is it, that the mammon of unrighteousness has any everlasting habitations? It’s one of the Lord’s wry jokes. Ironical. Like when he says to Peter, Thou art Peter and on this rock will I build my church. Vacillating, impetuous, denying Peter called a rock. Just a pun on his name – Petros, Petra, a stone – and a joke about his character. Jesus told quite a few jokes in the New Testament. Remember the one about the woman who married all those brothers and one after the other they died. Did she poison them? I hope the audience laughed. Then he says, At last the woman died . . . And with something like enormous relief, The children of heaven are not given in marriage. Les Dawson would have been proud of the tale.

Dr Johnson couldn’t abide merriment in the clergy, but I have always found it unavoidable. Parsons, it is said, are like manure: spread thinly over the whole ground they do a lot of good but heaped together in one place they stink to high heaven. Anybody who’s ever been to a clergy conference will bear that out. There is such a thing as the odium of the trade. You meet some eccentrics. When I was first ordained, I went to be a curate in Cross Gates, Leeds. There was a senior curate there already – a man of such colossal size and inappropriateness he was utterly inadvertent. A ginger-haired comic cut-out, pasty-faced, mouth open as one catching flies, a sort of slapstick buffoon. 

When he first went to Cross Gates – the vicar told me – he stayed temporarily at the vicarage. One Saturday, so the story goes, he went on his bike to a concert in Leeds Town Hall and got lost on the way back. He returned long after the vicar and his wife had gone to bed. Next morning he charged into the bathroom while the vicar was getting washed and said, ‘Well now, Mr Garside, have you got a little bit of Bostik?’ The down to earth, muck and brass Yorkshireman Fr Garside said, ‘What do you want with Bostik, lad?’ The curate said, ‘Well, I’m afraid when I was parking my bike in your outside loo I did a bit of damage.’ They went out together to inspect it. The vicar told me, amazed, ‘I didn’t think anybody could do that much damage without using a nuclear weapon. The loo was razed to the ground, demolished. All the Bostik in the world couldn’t put it together again.

This curate was, as psychiatrists say, disorientated for space and time. He would call on newly-married couples after midnight. He, the vicar and I met in church every day for Matins and Evensong. Sometimes in winter the curate would say Matins, leave by the main door and lock the vicar and me in. It was still dark at 7.30 in the morning so he thought it was night. The only way we could get out was by ringing the church bells and getting Joyce, the vicar’s wife, to come across and open the door. Her face was a picture and the vicar’s language an education. He used to talk to the curate as if giving orders to an unruly pup: ‘Never do a burial without getting the certificate – it’s a green ticket.’ The undertaker told me with glee of how at one funeral the curate broke off during the final prayers, ran to the back of the church and shouted in full hearing of the mourners, ‘Do I need a green ticket?’

He was a menace. He ought to have gone round the parish bearing a placard ‘This clergyman can seriously damage your health’. It’s true. The vicar had to instruct him on how to sit down, because he threw himself around so violently that he broke parishioners’ furniture. When I first went to the parish, I knew that an elderly aunt of mine lived there, so I made a point of going to see her. When I arrived I saw she had her arm in a sling. ‘What’s the matter? How did you do that?’ She said, ‘I didn’t do it. The other curate did it. I went to the top of the cellar steps to get him a bottle of my home-made wine and – you know how he gets so near to you and nods his head as if he’s going to nut you in the forehead? I backed away from him and fell down the cellar steps.’  

For more years than I can remember, I’ve collected items from church notice-boards. God is good . . . Dr Hargreaves is better . . . On Sunday, a special collection will be taken to defray the expense of the new carpet. All those wishing to do something on the carpet, please come forward and get a piece of paper . . . The vicar will preach his farewell sermon, after which the choir will sing, ‘Break forth into joy’ . . . The service will close with ‘Little drops of water’. One of the men will start quietly and the rest of the congregation will join in . . .

Well, after my curacy in Leeds I went to Oldham and there occurred one of the most amusing, terrifying episodes in my life in the church. It’s strange how the more sombre the occasion, the more scope there seems to be for hilarity. There was an old crematorium in Oldham and I would be asked from time to time to conduct a funeral. The mechanical device for moving the coffin forward at the end of the service was operated by a button on the lectern. As I say, it was an old structure and when you pushed the button, the coffin would lunge forward with a sort of ‘chung!’ – and the relatives would look up. startled. Well, there was an elaborately carved circular door in the wall, like a porthole. And this would open up like a decayed flower to let the coffin through. On what I suppose we must call the other side, there was a trolley placed to receive it. That’s if the two cheerful little necrophiles with their cigarettes and the racing paper had remembered to put it there . . .

On one occasion they had forgotten. The coffin went through and there was an almighty crash followed by a shout, two words, the second of which was ‘Hell!’ I could see from the relatives’ faces that they were thinking these words must have been Uncle Fred’s first impression of the life of the world to come . . .  

Well, that’s enough of that even for a Sunday in August. I end with some words from G K Chesterton, from his Authority and the Adventurer:

‘Jesus, the tremendous figure who fills the gospels . . . His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed his tears. He showed them plainly on his open face at any daily sight, such as the distant sight of his native city. Yet he concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. But he flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of hell. Yet he restrained something. I say it with reverence: there was in that personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something which he hid from all men when he went up a mountain to pray. There was something that he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth. And I have sometimes fancied it was his mirth.’

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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