12. Downend 1999-2002
I retired from teaching at the age of 60. When I felt that I was repeating myself year after year I lost enthusiasm and wanted to return to my first vocation.
In my last year of teaching, Dad died. I moved to Locking to be with Mum and commuted to Bruton from there. It was very good to be able to do this, and to be close to Mum in her last months. Chacquie was a great friend and ally all through this.
I was free from work from July 1997 and Mum died on November 1st. But I was looking for a parish position, and even thinking I could take Mum with me. The archdeacon suggested Mells, a parish near Frome, with lots of little churches and a big traditional central church. In fact our distant cousin who wrote as George Birmingham had been incumbent there. It was attractive in many ways, but the number of churches put me off. I could visualise hectic Sundays going around preaching to half a dozen people and then another two men and a dog. Anyway, I said no.
The next place I applied for was near Bruton, forget the name. I would have taken that one, but the interviewing panel thought that first, I wouldn't understand young people (having been a school chaplain for 18 years) and that I was tired (it being the end of the summer term). They appointed the chairman of the interviewers instead. They also thought that their village was a Very Important Parish.
Next I applied to be curate of a group of churches in Clevedon. The vicar was one of these whizz kids who was always going on courses and acquiring new qualifications. He walked through his parish office at speed, greeting the secretaries on the way. Again, I think I would have accepted, though relations might have been difficult, but one answer I gave, that the vicar would have the last word, convinced him that I could not take responsibility.
Finally, after visiting the central registry in London as well, I was put on to Downend.
I eventually went to Downend in July or August 1998, and stayed until the vicar retired and the new one came, and I was 65 and had my various pensions. I remember the interviews. I was asked about beliefs, and tried to show that my beliefs were orthodox but that I believed that 'the love of God is broader than the measures of man's mind.' I am not sure that some of the panel were happy with that. An NSM objected to my age. Certainly with the vicar, himself and me we made a very elderly team, but a senior curate was appointed, a young woman called Rosie Nixson, and balance was a bit restored. I was junior curate. The senior curate had the big purpose-built house beside the daughter church.
My house also was a full sized one, and quite close to the parish church. Well, 15 minutes' walk. Although it didn't affect my own curacy, I record the sad fact that my poor predecessor, who lived in that house, had motor neurone disease. The back garden was quite manageable, and because it was so small I devised a trellis near the house with roses and honeysuckle (the latter kindly given by Dorothy) growing all over it, with a couple of nice wooden arches to look and walk through; the idea was to give an illusion of more garden than there was.
The first job the vicar gave me was to compile a cookery book. I never did, and the Kingdom of God was not, I suspect, any the poorer!
One of my activities in Downend that the parish knew nothing about was writing the history of Bruton School for Girls in time for their centenary in 2000. I used to do most of this work around midnight. I had done the leg-work before I came to Downend going around the country visiting former heads, school secretary, and old girls. I recorded the interviews on tape and edited them into pithier form, which I always gave the person to approve. As I finished each chapter I emailed it to Judy Wade to vet.
When the book was done, I hoped and expected that the school would take it over and have it published. The Head had asked me to write it, four years before the centenary, and had received the Governors' approval. But rather nasty things had happeed at the school in the meantime, and head and governors were all changed. The new governors disowned their responsibility, and I was left with the choice of letting all that work go to waste, or publishing it myself. I spent £3000 of my own money getting 1,000 copies printed, very nicely, and then took the result to the school. They were not even interested in selling the books. I felt really let down. Still do.
I settled down to parish life, enjoyed preaching and visiting, and had the chance to do lots of interesting things.
The vicar had been at Downend a long time – possibly too long. But he had the place ticking over beautifully. Everything worked well. I was grateful for the structure.
The biggest musical event was to celebrate the millennium. I put on a mammoth concert with music from Roman times till now, with orchestra, choir, soloists, organ. We had a young tenor to sing Nessun dorma . I went down to Tesco at midnight to invite him, where he was working. Paul Potts. He later won an important TV award. I orchestrated all the hymns, and played the piano in the Trout Quintet, as well as conducting and introducing it all. The church was full. It was part of the vicar's aim to get 2000 people into the church around the Millennium. We didn't achieve that target, but very many people did come.
Later we put on Noe's Fludde as part of an ambitious Flower Festival on the theme of the Promises of God, with our brilliant young organist conducting the massed forces, and me singing Noe. That was a lot of organisation. I went into the church primary school to train the animals in their movement and singing. I went into a local comprehensive school at lunchtimes to train the soloists playing Noe's children and their wives. We used a local handbell team who played up in the church gallery, and buglers under a trumpeter friend. The strings came from the local Saturday Morning Music group. It worked.
My own personal musical evening was given to the Parish Fellowship. I took Mum's life and wove in music and recitations, and only told the audience that it was Mum at the end. It was very moving for me, and I think they sensed some of it, too. I had prepared an encore, which one or two people knew about and got me to play. It was the second movement of Rachmaninov's 2nd piano concerto. I recorded the orchestral part on the Clavinova and played the piano live. It is probably the most ambitious piano music I have ever attempted, and I could do it. A very good friend, Hazel Roberts, said she was in tears.
I was part of a schools assembly team that devised extra good assemblies and took them round once or twice a term to all the local primary schools. One that I am pleased with was about Creation. I wanted the children to associate God's creation of the universe with real science rather than a three-decker universe, and chose to emphasise the vast numbers involved. Having got two children in their pyjamas (members of the assembly team, of course) talking to their mother about the stars they could see outside the bedroom window, I got the mother to ask if they could imagine just one million. Then we demonstrated a million, by surrounding the whole school assembly hal with a paper ring consisting of graph paper whose tiny squares added up to a mllion. Then we talked about how great God is, if we can't even imagine the size of his creation.
Many of our successful assemblies used glove puppets and a taped script that we got from somebigger organisation. Once we all went to a demonstration of the latest script and puppets, and were expecting to be lent both tape and puppets. We could have a copy of the tape, yes, but not the puppets. Panic. We very quickly learned how to make glove puppets. I did the wooden bits, and skilful dressmakers did the soft parts. It was a very rushed job, but the new puppets were ready for the first assembly, and they were ours to use whenever we needed them. I wrote exactly what happened in the parish magazine, and people thought it was fiction!
I used to go into the church junior school weekly, and latterly into the infant school as well, and Tiger my glove puppet helped me. Years later I met a builder in Street who had been in those assemblies. He didn't remember me. But he remembered Tiger.
I started Sunrise!, a very successful half hour once a month on Sunday morning, for Infant and pre-school children and their parents and carers. It was an idea I picked up at a diocesan gathering, and it worked very well. A lovely choir lady called Mary was a big part of the success. She visited all families we were in contact with each month with an invitation, and when they came she was in charge of putting an apple with the child's name on, on a wooden tree.
I brought the idea back to Street, where it is going well.
I was involved quite a lot with the Parish Fellowship, a large organisation officially open to all, but in practice attracting the more elderly. They had monthly meetings in the church hall, outings, and an annual weekend away. Once we went abroad, to Bruges, but usually it was by the seaside. The entertainment there was great fun, and the Holy Communion held in the hotel was a high point for most people. I used to put a lot of thought into the arrangements and the sermon for that..
The vicar used to organise a Christmas concert in the church, and tried to make each one unique. One year it was a video made by a talented local man who spent hours on it. I was roped in to improvise an organ background to it. The vicar also chose some new Christmas song to be the theme song of the year. One year it was a Graham Kendrick song, which could be sung simply or in a more elaborate arrangement, so we did both..
With such a big parish there were bound to be many funerals, and my car knew the way to the local crematorium well. The really interesting funerals came from the gypsy community. The families spared no expense in having the most mpressive cortege possible. I might as well never prepare a talk for a gypsy funeral, because as soon as I began to speak, the wailing began and drowned everything. I noticed that when I visited the caravans before the funeral I was welcomed politely, though as a foreigner; whereas if I visited afterwards they looked at me as if I were from Mars and wanted nothing more to do with me.
There were also many baptism requests. In my time in charge we tried to get a system going for adequate preparation and instruction. We had lay people to make the initial home visit, and invited families to one Sunday afternoon's teaching and discussion, based on a very good CPAS video, followed by the rehearsal the next Sunday - it wasn't just a rehearsal, of course, but the chance to give another afternoon's worth of teaching. So every family had three sessions before the Baptism. Lay people were assigned to keep an eye on each family. They also received an invitation to Sunrise! (the exclamation mark is part of the name).
There had been a marriage preparation course offered during the vicar's time, but when I was left in charge I changed it to the new CPAS one, which included a lot of work done just between the couples, answering questionaires and discussing their answers with each other, for example. It wasn't compulsory, of course, but those who took part found it valuable. It was usually held in my house.
We held one or perhaps two wedding shows in Christ Church, with exhibition of wedding dresses, explanations of all aspects of marriage including the cost of weddings - this is one of my enthusiasms, that people should not be put off by feeling they have to sell the family silver and take out a mortgage in order to tie the knot. Some commercial firms were invited to take a stall in the entrance room between the church doors and the inner doors to the worship area, and a wedding car was parked outside. I used to encourage couples to make their weddings diferent in whatever ways they chose. I don't think anyone went too far.
When the vicar retired, Rosie also left for a country parish, and I was left with this huge parish to look after on my own. People may have thought it would be too much for me, but in fact the church went forward well. The bishop told me not to obey the traditional rule not to change anything during an interregnum, and there were some changes. I held a regular meeting with wardens and readers, to form a leadership team, which helped. I had learned one or two things since Woodbridge days.
The new vicar was Jonathan (Jo) Vickery, in almost every way different from the old. He was very kind to me, and invited me to stay on as long as I liked as his curate. I did stay until I felt sure he was thoroughly at home, and then took retirement. It would not have been right to stay longer. The new vicar needed his own team, and the curates he chose included, from what I have heard, some outstanding people. I was honoured to be invited back for Jo's first birthday, as it were, and was very impressed by the life of the Church. Alas, Sunrise! was one thing that did not survive.