Sunday, 18 August 2019

44. St John Baptist, Berkswell

Berkswell is a splendid sight on a sunny morning. The early golden light seems to make the church stonework glow and the distinctive porch - a thing worth viewing in its own right - is garlanded by some fabulous sunflowers.

I’ve chosen to come here, to an early-shift communion service because I’m on my way into Birmingham to spend the day at Edgbaston watching Somerset and this provides an excellent opportunity to tick off a church I’ve long wanted to visit and get to the ground before the first ball.

Today’s communion is being led by Canon John. He starts proceedings by welcoming us and by telling us he’s recently retired - about twenty years ago. Canon John is here filling in for a couple of weeks while the permanent vicar is away enjoying a holiday. Yesterday he was working too, he says, in this very church conducting a wedding. 

I have many retired friends and they all have one thing in common - they seem to be busier than most people I know who work. Apart from me of course. It could be the demands of the family - particularly grandchildren - or being a key cog in a voluntary organisation, or even just going places or preparing to go places. I know a few who feel duty bound to help out at the place they worked because they don’t want to let former colleagues down. I suspect that is partly the case here, but only partly.

Having been interested in theatre all my life I’ve seen many performances reflecting the wide range of commitment and ability people are prepared and able to give. Although the truly breathtaking pitch-perfect performances are the undoubted highlights, there have been plenty of times when it’s the slightly less polished, slightly less confident performances that have won my heart. I’ve seen any number of stumbles on stage but it’s how people have recovered from those mistakes that makes me want to support their efforts more than applaud the abundantly-talented and professional. 

There are lots of little stumbles on show here - as you’d expect with a stand-in vicar and a congregation very small in number. We have a lesson read by a woman who was sitting quite contentedly in the pew behind me before being asked about two minutes before the service starts if she would mind reading from Hebrews as the person scheduled to do it had not materialised. A quick scan of, it has to be said, a lengthy and complex set of verses, and she read perfectly. Any theatre would be proud of rising to the challenge like that.

I expect Canon John has delivered the standard communion service hundreds of times down the years, but each theatre is different and each production has it’s own peculiarities. But it’s with complete openness and confidence that he stops and asks the congregation if HE should read the next prayers or if someone else has been nominated. He takes the prompt - including the gentle hint that he should by now be heading upstage to the altar to prepare the bread and wine - with calmness and good grace.

Later I see an engaging mime show as three ladies who have all appeared at the same point, divide between them the duties of removing the communion altar rail and re-stacking the kneelers. It’s all done in whispered urgency as if giving the game away would be the worst sin presented before the Almighty this morning.

It’s these small things that help to make life less automatic and more human. They remind us that, while the script may be unchanging, it’s the interpretation on the part of the performers which will determine that performance’s value. I can’t, of course, be certain but I’d guess that none of these people is here expecting perfection to be laid before them. They’re here, I would say, because they want to help out, to take part and enjoy doing just that.

Canon John’s brief address to the congregation centres on his wife’s perfectly reasonable demand that, as he sails deeper into his eighties, he set aside one day each week for spending time as a couple away from other distractions doing the things they like. One day a week, he tells us, to make the best use of the time they have remaining. One day to do only the things that matter and that you love. I would guess that her husband is probably following the path of most retired folk and is already doing that on the other six anyway.