Excerpts from the prayer-journal of the Rev J.J Cowan MA (Oxon), Vicar of St Ewolds, Stoke Newington.
I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep on a Saturday since I was ordained. I have mentioned this curiously localised insomnia to Father Julian, only to be met with a torrent of what I take to be innuendo: ‘Oh we all get pre-performance anxiety, dear’ he cackled. I asked Pippa whether she thought that this might be true, only to be told that it ‘wasn’t a very Gospel-orientated question’ and that ‘we’re not having the performance discussion again’.
Julian’s penchant for smut does worry me. Apparently, they learn it at the High Church theological colleges where they give each other feminised nicknames. I learnt that Julian’s was ‘Gloria’; recalling what little Latin I’d managed at my own, less ancient college, I asked if it was ‘Gloria as in mundi?’, only to be told, ‘no, as in hole, dear’.
I must confess my Latin wasn’t up to working out the joke. Anyway, in the fitful hours lying awake last night I managed a prayer for him, and the rest of the deanery. Hours is perhaps an exaggeration – but I certainly remembered them to God while the second episode of Narcos was buffering. After the third episode, I returned to bed to find Pippa’s earplugs and eyemask – a necessity if you insist on an 11pm bedtime in Stoke Newington on a Saturday evening – firmly in place, suggesting the malaise is a clerical one and stopping any chance of re-igniting a practical demonstration of the performance discussion. When we first met as trainees at PWC, we might manage moments of intimacy up to three whole times a week – now we might know one another (now that is Biblical language) monthly at best. In fairness, two out of those three times a week were on a Sunday afternoon, which, as a result of clerical insomnia, has now become sacrosanct as nap time. Maybe Father Julian is right and we did overstep things at the Reformation – celibacy doesn’t seem quite the intellectual stretch it once was.
After an hour or so of snatched sleep, I awoke from a terrifying dream about the Archbishop of York and checked my phone. 3.07 am. I decided to have a look at the St Ewold’s Instagram account, which I set up a couple of weeks ago in the hope that we might surf the wave of social media. There were thirteen (13) likes for my post of the churchwardens picking up hypodermic needles from the porch and a lengthy comment from Mrs Bikram, who had the app installed on her tablet by her granddaughter, which contained precisely no punctuation. While trying to decipher exactly what she meant, I noted that Devin, my friend from the Rectory Road coffee shop had added to his story. It was a video of him twirling in a circle with pulsating music in the background and the text ‘Sunday Funday’ over the top. If only he knew what my Sunday was like. I shall make sure to tell him next time I pop into his coffee place for a decaf latte.
Thou and Thee
‘The body of our Lord Jesus, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.’ I repeated it several times in the shower in preparation for the eight o’clock communion. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, all thees and thous. When I arrived two months ago I put it at such an ungodly hour in the hope (God forgive me) that nobody would come and I could cancel it after a few weeks, giving me time of a morning to enjoy the radio, maybe even catch the start of Marr. No such luck. This morning it was the normal crowd of the elderly but doggedly alive, until at 7.59am, two men and a woman – all definitely under 30, one with dyed short hair snuck into the back of the side chapel.
Possibilities rushed through my mind. Extremists? Was I to be martyred while stuttering over a thine? No. I don’t think the mujahideen tend to wear clothing from Urban Outfitters. On a comedown? That’s definitely happened before. We all just thought he had a cold until he solemnly placed half a stale Subway sandwich on the collection plate and announced that he wasn’t hungry anymore. One of the Prayer Books still has the baptism pages stuck together from that poor lad’s runny nose.
Suddenly it clicked – they must be here for the Open Church service (a new imagining of church – based I must confess, on what I’d observed Matt do at Holy Trinity, Clapton, now known as GOD³ – set to launch at 8 PM). There it was – the blame laid squarely and justifiably at my door; three people were now going to be lost to the Gospel because my (admittedly very well designed) Instagram post earlier this week had simply said ‘8’, causing these poor young would-be disciples to get out of bed for nothing.
With only a minute ’til the service started, I didn’t have much longer to ponder, but it played on my mind throughout. So much so, that when I came to give communion to Mrs Hamilton, a lady of impeccable morals who came here on the Windrush and knows the Prayer Book inside out, I stumbled and said ‘preserve thy soddy and bowl’. That’ll be another will changed I should imagine. Leaving the ladies to their tidying up, I bounded over to the three and spoke without pause for 30 seconds.
I realised that I was sounding like Mrs Bikram’s social media persona and stopped. Also, I needed to draw breath.
‘So, um, lovely to see you. You might enjoy our service this evening a bit more!’ I managed to get out, a little more cogently.
‘Er, thanks. We’re busy tonight, sorry’, said Urban Outfitted.
‘Loved just now though’, offered the girl.
Dyed-hair remained silent, looking intently at the rather blasé angle of Mrs Hamilton’s wig.
‘We’re lit students at Queen Mary. We’ve just moved to the new development round the corner? Anyway, enjoyed the service. Language is just beautiful. Thanks again!’
JJ, you tit.
Bodies and Blood
Main parish service. More trials and tribulations. My churchwardens – Clive, a retired policeman whose two primary skills are making the boiler work and moving on vagrants and Petra, a newly single mum who has a heart of gold but the vocabulary of a docker – were waiting for me as I arrived, with a gentle (or in Petra’s case, warmly expletive-ridden) reminder not to leave the vestry door open after 8am. It was the third time I’d done it this month. Churchwardens are very handy – after all, they do much of the day-to-day work (as Pippa regularly reminds me – I’m useless at domestic duties) and they don’t have what Father Julian calls ‘the stench of holiness’ that we priests do, and so can do those jobs that our calling sometimes makes it indelicate for us to perform – such as telling Chris (who has had £14.20 out of me so far this week) where to go when he starts urinating in the Easter Garden – but sometimes they do remind me a little of the mafiosi. Perhaps it’s an East End thing?
We had communion again, but more modernised this time. Hymns from the 70s, prose from the 90s – that sort of thing. It’s a favourite with families, though in my cynical moments I do wonder whether this has something to do with the nearby church school. Dr Punch, newly installed at St Athanasius, Hackney Downs, hasn’t quite managed to shake off the airs of Cambridge chaplaincy and gives parents a lengthy questionnaire about the Council of Chalcedon if they wish to be sponsored for a church school place. Whereas I mostly just sign the form.
One such family – Tess, James and their son Jack – are pretty regular. I know they used to go to St Athanasius and even had a brief period attending Rev Hev’s Meditative Spirit Invasion, but I think the amount of prayer pebbles they were bringing home became too much (Tess told me that after three weeks the centre of their dining room table looked like Chesil Beach), so they’ve ended up with me. They come up for communion – and normally it isn’t my place to speculate whether that’s a movement of the Holy Spirit, or rather incentivised by the excellent facilities and strict discipline at the C of E secondary. Today, however, Jack, having caused merry hell in Sunday school, rushed up to be the first to receive communion and, after looking me square in the eye, sneezed – loudly and messily – into the chalice. I thought about pretending it hadn’t happened but the look (and mouthed obscenity) I got from Petra made me realise that wasn’t going to be possible. As it had been consecrated, I had to drink the wine, replete with child-snot, and then – to further the pain – say the second half of the communion prayer again.
The woman behind Jack dutifully waited and then, as she approached the chalice burst into silent tears, seen only by me, as she received the sip of wine. Hers wasn’t a face I knew.
When the service was finished, I made sure to catch her as she scuttled towards the door and, mindful of the pastoral hash I’d made of the 8am service, and that I had a half a pint of fortified wine in me, took a deep breath before asking her how she was. It was, I quickly learned, the anniversary of her son’s death. I took her out to the churchyard where the blaze of spring sunshine made even our faded flagstones and ramshackle benches speak of the beauty of creation. A stark contrast to the pain now unfolding in front of me – but, as my tutor at theological college used to say, ‘if you can’t hack paradox, then you won’t hack ministry’. Anyway, I’d already given her communion, a much greater gift than any platitude I could come up with – so listening was the next best thing I could do, I suppose.
I was tripping from foot to foot as I arrived to open up for Open Church – that was, in part due to the game of hopscotch it’s necessary to play in order to avoid treading on a needle, but it was also from genuine excitement at launching a new expression of church. I truly love the smell of mission of an evening. There was also a pretty potent smell of marijuana in the air, something I did once try in my headier younger years, although Pippa doesn’t know it; and so I managed to ignore it and focus on the task in hand as I opened the doors.
I must confess that all sorts of hopes filled my mind. With those students on board, we could number 20 people, and then we might make 50 the next week, and 100 the week after. Perhaps this would be the next big thing, a new force for God in the capital. I’d be hailed, I would likely be made a bishop. St Ewolds would be the Holy Trinity Brompton of East London, and we would welcome a host of young bankers and up-and-coming fund managers who would help finance the digital outreach programme I’ve always dreamed of making. We’d re-convert a now listless and pagan nation! Maybe I would make the list of saints after all. Except, contra my previous expectations, I wouldn’t be listed as Jonathan Jeremy Cowan, Martyr but Jonathan Jeremy Cowan, Evangelist.
No such luck. We did make 18 people, but most of them were in fact regulars. Mrs Hamilton turned up at least, which initially gave me hopes that we might be re-included in her will. However she became grievously wedged into one of the deluxe beanbags I had bought from Ikea to use as seating in lieu of the pews. It took both churchwardens as well as myself to help her out of her sedentary position, and we only managed to do so at some considerable cost to her dignity and so, financially speaking, I fear that St Ewold’s loss might alas be Battersea Dogs’ Home’s gain.
Father Julian came along too, which was very sweet of him. ‘Moral support, dear,’ he said as I showed him to a bean bag. Regrettably, he had to leave early due to a coughing fit midway through one of songs I had borrowed from Matt at GOD³. It was during the following verse, which I thought was actually very powerful.
‘Welcome Holy Spirit
Be here with your presence
Fill me with your power
Come inside of me.’
Julian’s coughing fit must have been a delayed reaction to all that incense he uses. I’ve never understood why he doesn’t see that it comes across as a bit ridiculous.
Feeling a little deflated, I finally got home at about ten, only to find Pippa waiting for me in bed but regrettably, with her eye mask firmly on (it is a Sunday night after all). So I ended the week, laptop perched atop a cushion, with an episode of Narcos.
Illustration by Olga Prader.