The gospel may need no refreshing, but we do. It’s time to go, says George Pitcher
I quit being a parish priest on Sunday. We’re in Sussex, the home of English Catholicism, what with the Norfolks in Arundel and all that. But reformational lava bubbles up every Guy Fawkes’ night, especially in nearby Lewes. So, in our Anglican parish, gags about burning a few Catholics to celebrate my departure have been well worn.
I never wanted to be a rural parish priest. Or, more kindly, I didn’t intend to be. My ministry was for weekdays in the City of London, at St Bride’s in Fleet Street, the journalists’ church. But we sold my interest in a City PR firm and moved here nearly two decades ago to renovate a house that had been owned by Charles Digby Harrod, who owned a department store in Knightsbridge (I don’t suppose anything came of it).
And I went to church locally as a civilian. Then the rector left and they were broke and said they needed a non-stipendiary – that’s the sort of priest the Church doesn’t pay and who doesn’t get a rectory. This would be the moment in a funny B-movie when the penny dropped and I said “Out of the question – absolutely not”. I did say that. Cut to the Bishop installing me in the Parish of Waldron a few months later, further evidence, if it were needed, of the divine sense of humour.
So this God-com unfolded. I learned quickly from fellow priests that there are stereotypical caricatures in every parish, as if there’s a Dibley Central Casting Agency. After a couple of coffee mornings, I had to stop myself saying (and I’ve changed descriptions to protect the guilty): “Oh, so you’re the needy widow. I wondered when you’d turn up, because I’ve already met the white-knuckled Major in tweed and the horny-handed son of toil.”
Now it’s been a little over 10 years and I’m a little surprised to have loved it. Driving through country lanes on a spring Sunday morning to take 8am holy communion takes some beating as an anti-depressant. And it’s no less true for being a cliché that it’s a privilege to be taken closely into families at times of their greatest joy (weddings, baptisms) and deepest sorrow (funerals, interments). We know intimately what’s happening in every other house we drive past in this postcode.
But the time has come. Both the parish and I need refreshment. There’s no set term for a parish priest, but you should know when to go. The gospel may need no refreshing, but we do. I’ve been through the Book of Common Prayer’s lectionary 10 times now and, while there always seems to be something new to say, I do wonder if the congregation is privately thinking they’ve heard a tale of mine at least twice before.
It’s been quite a decade, locally and nationally. We’ve lost a monarch as the supreme governor of our Church and crowned a new one.
When I started, I was given a Victorian copy of the Prayer Book by an old friend, first compiled by Thomas Cranmer and his editors in the 16th-century, in which all the “Our Queen” prayers for Victoria had been carefully changed to “our King” and the she/her pronouns to he/him, first for Edward, then for George.
I didn’t reach for Tippex, but I remembered, even at 8am on Sundays, to change these back for Elizabeth. Now they’re the right gender again for Charles. It’s good to know pronoun sensitivity isn’t confined to the woke.
We survived the wholly shameful episode when, as the country locked down for covid, we locked up our churches. After medieval plagues and modern world wars, when our churches remained resolutely open for the comfort of their flock, we shut when we were most needed. I celebrated communion before the evil eye of a laptop, alone at home, streaming the sacrament. I’m so sorry.
We didn’t get everyone back to church after that. But, bucking the trend, we’ve put on numbers. And now it’s time to leave it. What next, I don’t know – for the church or me.
Like an amicable divorce, I imagine, once you’ve decided to go, you can’t wait for it to be over. But I know I’ll miss it. Ontologically, it’s part of my identity. It’s going to feel very different in the pub. But at least I’ll be able to punch horrid people again, I suppose, if I want to.
I wonder what scripture tells me to do. When the Christ sends out his disciples, he tells them that where they’re not made welcome, they’re to leave and “shake the dust from their shoes.” I’ve been (mostly) made very welcome indeed here. But time to shake the dust.