The interregnum between incumbents is a well-known and often elongated process in the Church of England. I have recently witnessed this one because my wife is churchwarden of one of the three churches (we Catholics operate under a different system) in the benefice. Interregnums are arduous for all church volunteers and tend to erode parish life. It is remarkable how much there is for churchwardens to do. Dioceses tend to demand and obstruct rather than ease and encourage. Luckily, we are blessed with an excellent archdeacon who cherishes parish life and has declared there will be no more closures of churches in the district; but the bureaucratic flow of dos and don’ts (mainly don’ts) is considerable. For example, there are exemptions from the general need for a parish church to get a ‘faculty’ from the diocese to make some small change (to down a branch, say, or install a lightning conductor), but even these require permission in their own right and the spending of a three-figure sum on the formalities. There are constant demands for more money and ever larger amounts of it go on legal and administrative costs unrelated to parish life. In our diocese of Chichester, in particular, I think of the sums spent on the pursuit of the late Bishop George Bell for child abuse when, as the Archbishop of Canterbury recently admitted, he was innocent. Parishes are also quizzed about their work, as well as money. They have to report their ‘outreach’ and produce annual ‘mission statements’. But surely the best outreach is parish ministry, and the best mission statement is the New Testament. There is no shame, for any Christian, in doing mundane tasks. As the greatest poet of Anglicanism, George Herbert, put it: ‘Who sweeps the room as for thy Laws/ Makes that, and th’action, fine.’ But modern parishes are made to sweep ever harder for ungodly laws.
Our parish interregnum coincided, unfortunately, with a much wider interregnum — that caused by Covid. Caroline’s greatest additional task is procuring stand-in priests, usually extremely kind, overworked, brave retired ones. As Archbishop Welby has also publicly admitted, the Church seemed not to strive to minimise the interruptions to worship, but to gold-plate them. It reminded me of Blake’s ‘The Garden of Love’: ‘The gates of this Chapel were shut’/ And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door.’ Small rural communities, often disproportionately served by older people made to ‘shelter’, have suffered an enforced interregnum from neighbourliness. That did not happen before, even in wartime.
So it is particularly marvellous that our interregnum is at last ending. Just before Christmas, our parish will welcome its new rector, an excellent symbol of new life. The first service he takes — if wretched Plan B permits — will be the full lessons and carols on Christmas Eve with a choir of 16 and our brilliant new (but already nationally known) organist, Jack Gonzalez-Harding (whom I accidentally libelled in an earlier column, saying he was in his early twenties: he is actually 18). The new incumbent is 33 years old with a wife and small child. These facts are all but miraculous in a modest country parish like ours. Many parishes no longer have the privilege of their own secure vicars/rectors, but have untenured priests-in-charge, present only at the pleasure of the bishop. Several that can appoint rectors or vicars find weak applicants, sometimes no applicants at all. Getting a young rector is a rarity. In the parish news, ours writes that he loves bell-ringing. So perhaps he personally can ring out this sad year and ring in a joyous new.
In our church bazaar, I bought a first edition of Robin Hood by Antonia Pakenham, produced by the Heirloom Library in 1955 with very period illustrations of the outlaws chopping wood while Maid Marian sits prettily on a log wearing plaits and a lovely light-blue dress. I wish I had read it aged eight or so, when Robin Hood was my hero and I spent most of my time in quarterstaff play or failing to cleave a willow wand at 50 paces. Anyway, I have read it now, with great pleasure. The wicked Sheriff of Nottingham is there, of course, as is Guy of Gisborne, but the author — now better known to the world as Antonia Fraser — creates a third, even more dastardly villain, unknown to the Hood canon, called Sir Oswald Montdragon. Montdragon’s additional evil is that he lusts after Maid Marian, who has been betrayed into his hands by Black Barbara (who is white, by the way). He thinks he can make Marian marry him if Robin dies. I wondered about him. Could the author have modelled him on Sir Oswald Mosley? I emailed Antonia, whose career as a published author is now longer than that of anyone I can think of apart from P.G. Wodehouse. ‘Of course I did!’ she replied at once: ‘I was 22 when I wrote it, memories of my father’s [Lord Longford] body blue with bruises from the Oxford Town Hall Mosley meeting before the war to the forefront.’ I also wondered about Black Barbara, ‘eaten up with jealousy of Marian’. Does she evoke the character of Barbara Skelton, 1950s femme fatale, mistress of King Farouk, wife of George Weidenfeld and of Cyril Connolly? The evidence is strong. The young Antonia was writing a roman à clef.
A friend writes from the United States. He recently installed a version of Word called Microsoft 365, a web-based subscription service. The program seized on the words ‘Mrs Thatcher’ in one of his documents. ‘Editor’ flashed up an ‘Inclusiveness’ warning that ‘it’s best to avoid language that may imply gender bias’: he/she recommended ‘Ms Thatcher’.
In this column last week, I wrote my usual number of words (about 1,010), yet it fell ten lines short. Why? Probably, I was told, because I had used exceptionally short words, having written mostly about poaching rather than politics. A lesson worth learning, I feel.
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