Other people’s traffic stories can sometimes be a bit tiresome, just something you have to listen to and remember to provide the right combination of empathy and sympathy. Many work days and social gatherings begin with this accepted ritual.
It’s rare to find the same thing at the start of a Sunday church service; most people only have a short distance to walk rather than a car journey to make. But today is different thanks to the combined efforts of some 17,000 cyclists.
The annual Birmingham Velo - a lengthy circular route through the countryside south of the city - passes right by the front door and brings with it road closures and frustration for many. I’ve had quite a traffic story just to get here. Trusting my luck down a series of increasingly narrow and twisting roads, I’m turned back on three occasions by high-vis stewards. On the fourth occasion I decide to trust the road signs that say I’m only half a mile away. I put the car as far onto the verge as I dare and set off walking. There’s a path through the woods and the day is so glorious that whatever frustration and stress I may have had has dissipated by the time I arrive at St Michael’s.
The church has a proud history of its own but has become - in the eyes of many weekend visitors at least - part of its illustrious neighbour, the Baddesley Clinton National Trust estate. It has links to the estate obviously, and boasts a very smart pictorial guide to show it. There are coats of arms, plaques and a very fine stained glass window - just the sort of things the National Trust faithful lap up while downing the cream tea.
I’ve come here to enjoy the special Bluebell Service trumpeted on the website. My march through the woods may have cut it a bit fine on getting here, but I find I am sadly a fortnight late for the blooms. Partly due to the cyclists and partly due to the fact that the climate seems to have shifted forward, the church decided to move the date. Never mind. There’s a lovely postcard of the church surrounded by a sea of blueish purple and for 20p I’ll settle for that.
The service - led today by a Reader - is a very sparse affair. The congregation numbers five. The traffic is blamed, of course, and I wonder if the excitement of the final throes of the race for the Premier League might have proved too tempting for some. Either way it’s an odd affair. At times like this I feel very sorry for those delivering a service when the attendance is as obviously disappointing as this. I find myself trying to be supportive through smiling and - as the risk of being spotted mentally wandering off is so high - concentrating as hard as possible.
It’s very quiet though - not helped by three unfamiliar hymns and some sung responses a little too unexpectedly intricate for me to busk. I feel for the Reader whose carefully prepared sermon on the lessons to be drawn from today’s Gospel passages is heard by roughly the same number of people as when she read it through at home.
Outside in the sunshine there are thousands of people of all ages and states of fitness all turning the pedals and counting the passing miles. For many of them the road is one which will lead them to a longer and healthier life.
While they are busy prolonging this life, those trying to settle their place in the next life are being outnumbered a thousand to one. Perhaps that is a measure of the task the church faces to win back the multitudes. I’m not sure how you’d ever redress the balance. More bicycle racks perhaps.
It’s a very small service and, at well under forty minutes, it’s also one of the shortest I’ve attended. Suddenly I’m back out in the bluebells and, with the road closures blissfully lifted, I have a relatively clear route home.