I should have got used to waking up early in this job. Answering the door to Mike at 4am when he was on a heroin comedown, answering the phone to Mrs Bikram when she thought her house was possessed by evil spirits, answering to my wife Pippa when I woke her up illicitly watching Narcos at 6am – all part and parcel of the vicar’s lot really.
However, those were all examples of depriving myself of sleep to help serve the people I’m meant to serve – a half truth, the Narcos incident doesn’t strictly qualify, but I subconsciously file that under the category of ‘self-care’.
Today I was up at the crack of dawn so the Diocese can send me and the rest of the deanery on a ‘modulated exploratory learning course’. I’m used to early mornings, but on a Sunday rather than a Friday, when I often sneak a lie in, and so I found myself traipsing to the Overground with the rest of the desk meat. I’m not sure that’s a very Gospel-orientated description of the City’s workers, but it was my lot for those five years at PWC pre–ministry.
This was, at least, a chance to reconnect with my friend Devin of the coffee shop at Rectory Road station. I joined the line in front of the counter behind a very sad-looking lady who was scrolling through Instagram, and a man listening to hip-hop music so loudly that the whole queue could hear it through his headphones. I contemplated striking up a missional conversation – perhaps recommending some worship songs for his playlist, or perhaps encouraging her to follow the St Ewold’s Instagram account, as I had posted a very cheering picture of a sunrise to our story that morning. However, my infallible missional instinct told me that neither suggestion would be terribly well received. I said a prayer for them instead.
I arrived at the counter and greeted Devin by name. One of the problems with being a vicar is that everyone knows your name but you don’t necessarily recall theirs. As a result, when I do remember a name, I make sure to use it in conversation regularly. Normally Devin and me would engage in some airy badinage – perhaps about Narcos, of which he too is a committed fan. Or, if I’ve managed to do my research on the internet beforehand, how Arsenal have performed in their most recent game. However, the weekend is very different to a weekday morning, and with the length of the queue and the general air of frustrated commuter agitation, it soon became clear that this was going to be a purely business transaction.
‘Large hot chocolate, please Devin,’
Devin’s extravagantly moustached colleague shot me a glance askance as he measured out a serving of almond milk.
‘With a double espresso as well’, I added. I couldn’t have them thinking that the C of E has some sort of prudish attitude to caffeine. We’re not the Mormons.
‘So a Mocha then mate?’
I suffered an instant flashback to a very regrettable karaoke session when I was newly qualified in the early noughties. Any word that features in Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca is likely to bring this on. It is something that I am continuing to explore with my Spiritual Director.
Unfortunately, Ricky’s Latin tones were so embedded in my consciousness that rather than nodding I just blurted out:
‘You bet – I’ll be Livin’ La Vida Loca!’
Devin’s colleague spilled the almond milk and the hip-hop man took off his headphones to see what the fuss was about. I paid and made my way to the platform where I poured the drink away after a couple of sips. Too much caffeine for me.
8 AM ‘PILGRIM THROUGH THIS BARREN LAND’
My destination was Pimlico, which was where our bus was scheduled to leave. I appreciate that we in the Eastern part of the diocese don’t quite have the same financial clout as the big successful churches of the West, but I rather resent having to traipse across the metropolis for every single diocesan organised event. My High Church colleague, Father Julian, was already there.
‘I charged them for an Uber, dear’, he told me with some glee, ‘if they will make me come to such grotty and barren little places as Pimlico then they can fork out for it.’
He was also put out that he’d had to cancel his normal cruise ship lecture tour to attend the retreat.
‘Isn’t Wikipedia marvellous?’ he’d told me at an early gathering, ‘Just print out the entry on Augustine of Hippo and then a week round the Med with laundry and drinks included.’
This culling of his diary by diocesan officials had sorely affected his mood this morning. It was nothing, he assured me, to do with the three bottles of claret he’d had over dinner the night before.
Slowly but surely the clergy of the Deanery arrived. I knew we were going away for a couple of days but it struck me that Matt from GOD³ was overdoing it a bit with the amount of luggage he had.
‘Not travelling light then!’ I said, in a way that I hope was jocular rather than challenging.
‘It’s a surfboard mate!’ he said, slapping me a little too hard on the back, in a way I charitably took to also be jocular rather than challenging.
I looked at the big book of sudoku stuffed in my rucksack and wondered whether I had misunderstood the nature of the ‘training’. Eventually we were all piled into the Diocese of London branded minibus. I ended up at the back of it with Matt’s surfboard wedged uncomfortably close to my face. We drove through acres of grey expanse to get to the M25 and thence out to the West Country. I was reminded of Chaucer’s pilgrims but then remembered they weren’t very gospel-centred in their instincts. At least not if I remember my A-Level English.
All was going swimmingly – Rev. Hev’s attempt to get us to join in Christian action songs was foiled when she discovered that her self-compiled disc of tunes had been replaced in its case by a CD of Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer courtesy of her teenage son. Dr Punch, late of the University of Cambridge, spent the entire journey listening to a podcast about the Great Schism of 1054, and Matt informed us that he’d ‘had a word’ from God, and that he was being called to read the conveniently brief epistle of St Jude, and then meditate upon it with his eyes closed.
Unfortunately, our progress was somewhat stymied when Father Julian suffered a gout attack outside a Little Chef on the A303. I think he was most shaken by the fact we’d stopped at a Little Chef and not taken a detour via Bray as he’d requested. As a result, we didn’t arrive at the retreat centre until the late afternoon, meaning we missed both the ‘Leading Your Church into Growth’ seminar (given by a senior consultant at McKinsey), and the arrival of a high tide, both of which riled Matt considerably.
11 PM ‘UPSIDE, INSIDE OUT...’
The retreat centre was much nicer than I expected. Whilst colleagues from my theological college who bravely ventured North for ministry often have to make do with concrete boxes on industrial estates, London diocese aids us in doing so by shipping us to the more beautiful corners of creation.
The problem, however, with holding your retreat in a country house is that it’s tricky for the C of E to secure exclusive usage rights and so we found ourselves sharing the Devonian mansion with the preparations for a certain Karen, and her 60th birthday party.
I was pretty shattered after the seminar on ‘Weaponising Mindfulness’ by someone billed as a clean living entrepreneur and was also determined to get some ideas from the early ‘Vibes for New Urban Tribes’ session given by a DJ, who runs a zone for Christian dance music in a warehouse that is technically in my parish. Apparently he’s seeking to ‘reimagine second wave monasticism for the post-grime generation’. Not even Wikipedia could help me get my head round that one. Anyway, conscious of the need to be on form the next day, I turned down Father Julian’s offer to share his taxi to the village pub – ‘for a medicinal brandy’ – even when he informed me that this too would go on his expenses.
Unfortunately, my attempt to get an early night was shattered by the presence of a marquee at the end of the great lawn, from which as I fitfully attempted to enter into rest, came upwards the unmistakable beguiling tones of Ricky Martin. Livin’ la vida loca indeed.
This is a text featured in issue 2 of The Fence magazine
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