Monday, 20 November 2017

The Curate’s Christmas

The Curate’s Christmas

“CAN you get us a bottle of sherry if you are passing Safeway after the meeting, please?” Maureen called to her husband as she headed out of the door for a late start at the bookshop. “It was on the list but somehow I missed it.”

“Sure,” replied Colin. “Anything else?”

“No, just don’t go wild in the reduced aisle.”

With that, she got in the old Vauxhall Astra and turned out into the road.

Colin Stevens was the curate at All Souls’ Church in a bustling market town not far from Leeds. He and Maureen had moved to the parish almost 18 months ago to continue his training under the vicar, the Rev Euan Bodley.

They’d spent three years in Oxford while he was at theological college and there were two more years to go as a curate — a kind of apprentice vicar — before the Church of England authorities would let him have a church of his own.

All Souls’ Church was a friendly place and Colin and Maureen had been welcomed warmly by the
congregation.

The parish normally received a curate in training every few years and the couple were housed in a small semi on a fairly quiet estate about 10 minutes’ walk from the town centre.

Friday morning heralded the weekly staff meeting, where, after prayers, the business of the church ministry team would be organised and planned.

As well as Colin and Euan, there was Michael, another ordained clergyman who did something fairly secretive at Lambeth Palace in London during the week but who could help out at weekends, and Petra, the parish lay worker.

It was the Friday before Remembrance Sunday and Euan was in a state of nervous anxiety.

“I’ve forgotten to invite the girl guides to the parade service again,” he moaned. “They’ll hate me forever.”

“What about the Mayor? Do you know if he is coming?” asked Michael, helpfully.

“Yes, his PA left a message.”

Euan’s mood was not cheered.

“...and did she confirm that he was happy to do the address?” continued Michael, probably less than helpfully. Euan’s face paled.

“Lord, no, she didn’t. I can’t possibly ring again. I’d look a complete fool.” He held his head in his hands.

Euan was one of those clergy who could be depended upon to bring an element of chaos to every gathering. Michael, on the other hand, exuded a calm air of complete omniscience.

“Not to worry, Euan,” Michael said. “Colin saw how we do it last year, so I’m sure he could do the talk in case the Mayor hasn’t prepared anything.”

Colin, who’d been daydreaming, sat up sharply.

“What, me?” he gulped. “But there’ll be hundreds of people. Half the town comes to Remembrance!”

Euan, whose skill at grasping straws was the stuff of legend, moved in for the kill.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. You’ve got...” he looked at his watch and did a little mental maths,
“... almost 49 hours.

“And you can mention the war as much as you want. Not like Basil Fawlty.”

Later on, in Safeway, Colin was still in shock, distractedly looking for inspiration in the frozen foods.

“Oh, God,” he prayed quietly. “Help me think of something to say for Sunday. I could really do with an idea.”

A litre bottle of sherry, together with a quick-sale box of cream cakes, nestled in his basket.

“What’s that then, Colin?” asked Olive Turnball, the Mother’s Union chairwoman, peering over his shoulder into the basket. She raised her eyebrows as she’d seen the sherry.

However, God had heard Colin’s prayer and an immediate riposte came into his mind:

“Early Christmas present for the vicar, Mrs Turnball. Don’t let on, will you? The cakes are for Maureen. I think all ladies deserve a treat, especially as the nights are drawing in.”

Colin smiled both outwardly and inwardly. But he was not yet delivered. Olive Turnball was forthright in the way only a Yorkshire woman knows how to be.

“That’s grand of you,” she assented. “But, look, you’ve got your trainers on again. I really don’t think a man of the cloth should wear trainers at all. Haven’t you got any proper shoes?”

There really wasn’t any way to answer that. In front of Olive, even God knew when to keep quiet.

Back home, Maureen said: “Well done for the sherry but why two bottles? It’s not that bad, surely?”

Colin laughed. “One is for Euan — an early Christmas present, for which he will need to thank Olive.”

Remembrance Sunday came and went, the crowds came and went and Colin’s panic-strewn Saturday putting a talk together was not necessary after all as the Mayor had turned up, sheaf of notes in his hand, and performed admirably.

The names of the fallen were read, silence was observed, the trumpet called out the Last Post and not a few lumps in throats were swallowed.

The parade moved from the war memorial to All Souls’, hymns were sung and flags presented as the uniformed organisations paraded.

The girls guides were there, their leader remarkably magnanimous at Euan’s administrative oversight. After the service she complimented Colin on his prayers.

“Very meaningful, thank you,” she said to him. “And how are your Christmas preparations coming along? After all, it always seems to me that we move straight from Remembrance to Christmas, don’t we? So I expect it’s even worse for you.”

It was true. Colin’s Christmas usually began sometime in the summer, when the service plans for the next six months were drawn up. He’d known since August that he’d be taking the carol service and then one of the crib services on Christmas Eve.

Euan had put himself down for Christmas Day morning, with Michael taking the early service. Colin and Euan would be taking the midnight service on Christmas Eve together. This was as well as the usual round of Sunday services during December.

“It’s all in the planning!” Euan had enthused.

This time it was Michael’s turn to raise an eyebrow as everyone knew that it was he who initiated and led the worship steering group.

Colin asked Euan when he should start preparing his Christmas talks. He had worked out that he would need three this year — one for the carols, one for the crib service and one for the midnight communion. Euan was, for once, very helpful.

“Don’t do what I do,” he said. “You should begin after October half term and try to prepare one of these special services every 10 days or so. That way you won’t get caught out in the final weeks when there’s usually a few extra funerals and all the school stuff.”

Colin could see the sense in that. They were the only Church of England parish in the town, which meant they could have more than 100 funerals a year to conduct.

Add to that the four primary schools and two secondary schools, most of which had some kind of carol service or Nativity, and the final weeks of the Christmas term would pass in a whirlwind of activity.

Sometimes the parish would attempt to stem the rising tide of materialism with an Advent prayer group, which would meet weekly through December.

It was often a welcome chance for some peaceful reflection upon a bible passage or a devotional book and to remind everyone that Christ was coming and that He was rather more significant than Black Friday bargains.

Sadly for Jesus, he could not really be said to have much clout in the marketing department. Nevertheless, Euan would persist, sometimes taking along some German spiced biscuits, or a panettone, to encourage his little group in Advent traditions as well as their fellowship.

Colin noted the steely faithfulness in his incumbent and found something he wanted in his own life.

“Just ask,” came the still small voice.

There was always irony in the fact that, by the time Christmas actually came, most people were already fed up with it, having had mince pies and brandy cream on special offer since September.

For the Church, the Christmas festival begins on December 25 but does not end until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, the twelfth night.

It was always a challenge to see how late one could leave the purchase of a tree so that it might last the duration, the risk being that they would all be sold out.

The church’s tree was invariably a monster, purchased not from the wooded slopes of Norway (although many thought it was) but from a local woodyard.

Men were only allowed to fetch the tree into church, erect it and ensure its stability, as the decoration was strictly reserved for the ladies of the Women’s Guild.

Adjudication for the times when the Mother’s Union Christmas Nativity scene encroached a little too closely on the Women’s Guild Christmas tree was the sole preserve of the vicar.

“Don’t get involved with any of this, lad,” he had said to Colin. “Not if you value your sanity.”

There was a particularly difficult year when a number of the fired clay nativity figures emerged from their storage a little the worse for wear, notably John the Baptist, whose head had broken off.

Suspicions were aroused and dark murmurings of foul play bubbled up, not helped by the Women’s Guild suggesting that the Nativity scene manage without him given that John the Baptist would not have been a grown man anyway at the time of Christ’s birth.

Happily for Euan’s mental stability, the missing head eventually did turn up and with a judicious application of superglue, John the Baptist reborn could return to his customary place at the rear of the stable, where he was doomed forever to be mistaken for a fourth King.

The more theologically literate would point to the line on his clay neck and tell startled visitors to the church that this was John the Baptist resurrected, pre-figuring the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God that the birth of Christ was ushering into the world.

By mid-December Colin was quietly pleased with himself. Two of his Christmas services were ready and he had only to find half a dozen more readers for the nine lessons and carols.

But then he caught the flu. He spent the last week of the school term in bed, Maureen becoming increasingly exasperated as she conveyed telephone messages to his prone form.

“The headmistress of Blackfriars School rang to ask if you’d be able to take their carol service as the vicar has apparently double-booked himself,” she said.

“I told her that you were ill but all she said was did I think that you’d be better by Thursday afternoon?”

Colin groaned and rolled over. Christmas was one of those times when only the dog collar would do.

“Tell her I’ll be there but that if I’ve died first you’ll get the undertakers to drop my corpse at the school on the way to my funeral.” “Colin!” scolded his wife. “You can’t say that.”

There were times when he had learnt to be grateful for her innate sense of public relations.

When Colin emerged from his bed a few days later, ashen-faced and baggy-eyed, he rang Euan, who was soldiering on but sounded relieved his colleague was functioning once more.

“We’ve had a rush of funerals,” he said. “I need you to deal with two, I’m afraid. One at the crem and one here at a graveside.”

Almost as an afterthought, he added: “Before Christmas Eve.”

Colin knew there would be a price for his illness and wondered if this was it but there was more.

“Michael has been called to London by the Archbishop for something, so I need you to take the midweek communion and the carol service at the hospital that he was going to do, please.”

All at once, Euan’s earlier advice about Christmas preparations suddenly seemed quite reasonable.

It still seemed terribly artificial to be writing a Christmas sermon in the middle of November but Colin reminded himself that the corporations spent millions and probably started getting their Christmas messages sorted in January. They and their marketing departments, agencies and sub-contractors.

“Never mind, Lord,” Colin murmured to the kitchen sink. “You had angels, kings, shepherds and a draughty stable. Now you’ve got Euan with his chaos, Michael on the train somewhere south of Doncaster, me with half a virus and all the rest of us at All Souls’. We’ll just have to be your marketing department.”

As he said it, Colin wondered if he or any of them were really good enough for the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

But the still small voice surprised him that evening after he had dropped off Euan’s sherry and seen the normally harassed face break into a great big beaming smile at the unexpected gift.

“You’re doing fine,” the voice whispered quietly. “Christmas will be wonderful, I promise. As long as you leave room for me.”

“I get it, Lord,” Colin said to the sky as he stomped home through the evening chill.

“Vicars and curates need Jesus too. We spend so much of our time at the door of the stable, showing people the way in, that sometimes we just forget that absolutely everyone needs to sit in the straw for a little while to share the joy of what you’ve done for us in Jesus.”

“You’ve got it, lad,” came the reply.

l Rev Kevin G Davies is the team rector of the Langtree Team Ministry

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