Excerpts from the prayer journal of Rev JJ Cowan MA (Oxon), Vicar of St Ewolds, Stoke Newington.
‘A man’s pride shall bring him low’
I whispered the text of the advert breathily to myself (which reminded me that the JustEat king prawn pathia was a mistake) to see if it made any more sense that way:
Bishop’s Change Enabler for Three New Multi Church Resourcing Areas.
The Bishop of Chelmsford seeks an engaged person with significant leadership experience, a track record of executive management delivery and who is in sympathy with the aims of the Church of England to lead a radical reimagining of Church life (implementing the 2020: Chelmsford Vision plan) and to bring about transforming growth in this corner of rural England.
Apply to the Bishop of Chelmsford’s PA.
Instinctively, I closed the paper, causing a rustle and a grunt from Pippa, suggesting she was awake after all. I pondered the advert, initially with gospel-centred thoughts – of the changes I could enable, of all my transferable resourcing skills from my previous employment (very much en vogue in church recruitment at the moment), the fact that I am in sympathy with the aims and objectives of the Church of England (well, mostly). But then they became a little more focused on convenience. I thought of Pippa’s upcoming maternity leave, of that dirtiest of words for a cleric: promotion.
I turned over with a little too much gusto – all in an attempt to focus my mind on something more fitting to clerical humility – and rolled off the bed. Much commotion etc. from the other side. Turns out Pippa had been asleep after all.
‘Miserable comforters are ye all. Shall vain words have an end?’
Awoke after fitful sleep with a start and nearly missed the start of Zoom prayers with my deanery colleagues. While I just about had time to put on a black shirt and pop in a white plastic collar, I was still wearing my Christmas pyjama trousers.
I managed to log in to find all the others there already and midway through proceedings. Dr Punch from Hackney Downs sat stone-faced in front of a wall of degree certificates. Rev. Hev from Shacklewell had changed her background to a constantly mutating kaleidoscope: this put me in mind both of a non-verbal reasoning test I once had at PwC, but also of a regrettable hallucinogenic episode I once (and only once) had as an undergraduate. Fr Julian lounged before of a row of empty champagne bottles perched on an ornate Victorian mantlepiece which I recognised as being the ‘parlour’ of the vicarage at St Sebastian’s. The new vicar at St John, Abney Park was clearly sat outside (I hear she’s created a prayer garden which allows for a very relaxed interpretation of social distancing). All while the mysterious rector of St Hilda’s, Milton Grove (who in five years I still haven’t met) had her camera switched off. And there was Matt, of God3, sitting in front of a row of Bible commentaries, vainly trying to get Julian to turn his microphone on.
‘What about you JJ?’
I snapped out of my online background voyeurism and realised that Matt, having given up on a recalcitrant Julian, was now asking me for a prayer focus.
‘Um er…’ I stumbled. Don’t say COVID, I thought to myself, they’re bound to have done that already. The Prime Minister perhaps? No – Dr Punch had been a post-grad with Sir Keir.
‘Job!’ I blurted out, immediately flashing scarlet.
‘Ooo yes – what kind?’ leered Julian, mysteriously adept at controlling his mute function, now that it enabled him to fire some smut into the conversation.
‘I’m thinking of applying somewhere, nothing set in stone, of course,’ I waffled, cursing my own inability to think of something not likely to now spread like wildfire through the gossip mills of the Church of England.
Matt began a long prayer for me to ‘find the path God wants me to take’ and ‘not be put off by failures’. While he continued praying, a newly technologically competent Julian sent me a message asking what the job was and so I sent him a link to the advert. I watched as, midway through Matt’s tenth or eleventh ‘Lord we just ask you to guide JJ’, Julian’s nose crumpled up with disgust. He began to type rapidly, not even bothering to mute the obvious noise of his keyboard over Matt’s seemingly endless intercession.
‘Hmmm. Going to arrange for you to see a friend of mine. He’s very good on this sort of thing.’
The message arrived into my chat with a very loud ping. Matt finally took the hint and rounded off his prayers on my behalf. After pleasantries almost as forced as when we met in the flesh, there ended the meeting for us all.
‘What king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first and consulteth?’
The central evidence I could find for Julian’s job expert was on Twitter. I generally steer clear of it – thinking it a hub of non-Gospel centred values, only posting the odd advert for a service – and even that once elicited a long thread from a very angry man comparing our ‘Little Tots’ group to the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Reverend Gregory Marching, however, was clearly an expert at Twitter, doughtily promoting the worship of St Leonard, Milkchurch, an edifice in the City where he was vicar, as well as firing salvos on causes as diverse as elections to House of Commons Select Committees, the revised changes to the constitution of East Timor and incorrect examples of house style in the Times. Indeed, it was lucky that I did check up on him there, as lurking in my ‘Direct Messages’ folder was the following missive from Gregory: ‘Let’s meet for a ‘distanced’ Aperol tonight. 7pm, Seven Dials.’ So I biked over into town.
Gregory was already ensconced in a makeshift outdoor seating booth and, by the looks of it, had enjoyed at least one Aperol before my arrival. We didn’t spend too long on pleasantries before he fired his opening salvo: ‘You see! It’s actually ALL part of the culture war.’
I felt a fleck of peanut fly past my ear; Gregory had been laying waste to the free pots of them that came with our Aperols like a Biblical locust.
‘Endless jargon, smoke and mirrors, the constant paperwork – all part of an agenda.’ This last word was emphasised by a now empty Aperol glass pointed in my direction – ‘an agenda we must resist!’
‘Well, I must say more managerialism wasn’t quite what I expected when I joined the Church but…’
‘We need you in the parish, JJ – fighting, praying, preaching!’ This final part was shouted in the manner of a Shakespearean actor – I was reminded of when Pippa made me stand at the Globe to watch Two Gentlemen of Verona. Would it work from my pulpit at St Ewolds? I don’t think so, although they do some times say that they can’t hear me but, in Mrs Hamilton’s case at least, I know that to be her selective deafness coming through.
Another two Aperols arrived out of nowhere and I gave up making my lame little joke about my time at PwC and focused on drinking my half-finished first one to keep up with Gregory. So, it continued: an unanswerable indictment of the plague of managers and the need to fight fiercely in every arena, online and otherwise, that we could.
As I biked (wobbily) back to St Ewolds vicarage (Pippa still thinks it’s unwise to take the tube) I had almost convinced myself of Gregory’s passions – only to recall that the face of this grim and ruthless managerialism in our deanery, was none other than Rev. Hev, who once asked me – not a man renowned for his pop culture experience – whether Dua Lipa was something she could buy at Holland & Barrett.
‘Mischief shall come upon mischief, and rumour shall be upon rumour’
Have been thinking about your job application – have you ever considered the synod? I think you would be very good. My son has set up ‘zoom’ with my friend who is on it who will give some good advice.
The idea of being on Synod – the offline battleground of the National Church to which Gregory had alluded last night, like Twitter but with more socks and sandals – was the last thing I needed as the Aperol made its presence felt.
Still, I clicked on the link and found myself presented with the form of the Reverend Prebendary Stephen Baker – resplendent in a pink shirt (no collar) and with a heavily pixelated photo of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s kitchen as his Zoom background. He was wearing a mask despite being inside and, with the exception of the digital Welby looming behind him, was completely alone.
‘Hello JJ,’ he began, friendly enough. ‘But to what’s important – Hev tells me you’re interested in Synod.’
‘Well, actually it was just about a job that I’d…’ I stuttered before being cut short by Stephen, his initial chumminess having evaporated.
‘I should warn you it’s a VERY serious business,’ Stephen continued, ‘ALL part of what I can only describe as a culture war.’
‘Our churches are not only death traps in the current context, but also deeply symbolic of a failure to reinvent ourselves in the shape of the modern world, to sweep away all the dusty, fusty oldness in the parishes that’s holding us back.’ It did cross my mind that he must have been at least 60, but I chose not to say anything out of Christian charity.
Stephen continued, his eyebrows performing acrobatics – the only real indicator of how vexed he was. ‘In fact, my thread on it was described in one particular quote tweet as a ‘must read’. If you don’t do Twitter then I could read it to you now?’
I decided it was now or never in terms of making an exit: ‘Um, I’ve got to get over to church actually but this has been really helpful. Thanks so much for your time…’ (I thought God would probably forgive me a manifest untruth in an attempt to escape).
A tut emerged from behind the mask. ‘Don’t you know that God’s in the home too? More so, in fact, than in some old building! What we need is less worship of stones and more…’
I pretended I hadn’t heard and left the meeting. I had a shower afterwards.
2 Corinthians 4:17
‘For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory’
None of this made me feel any better. Not even a brief YouTube session of Futurama clips – normally a guaranteed pick-me-up – could help. Eventually my cycle of introspection was ended by a ping from WhatsApp.
It was a message from the hospital chaplain – Ruth, a walking bastion of kindness whom I had got to know over the precious weeks. Mrs Bikram had finally gone. No family nearby, of course – not even I, who due to the accidents of geography had been entrusted with the supposed care of her soul. Just the mix of holy oil and hand sanitiser from Ruth’s worn and holy hands to see her into the eternal. All those fights between clergy seemed terribly small now, and ‘Enabling Change’ was the last thing on my mind. I said a prayer for her, her family and one in thanks for Ruth.
Two other pings followed in close succession. One was a Twitter message from Gregory suggesting I centre my application on building a coherent narrative against President Erdogan’s Islamification campaign. There was also an exceptionally long email from Stephen listing the ways in which contacting the sick contravened advice from the WHO. I deleted them both.
I went to break the news to Mrs Hamilton – Mrs Bikram’s oldest friend and also, in the way that only ladies of a certain age can be, sworn enemy. She had been keeping a prayer vigil on her third-floor balcony every day since lockdown began, unwilling or unable to hear her phone, and so shouting up to her nest of ferns and concrete was the only way to break the news. On the way I took the advert for Change Enabler, tossed it into the roadside bin amidst the bags of dog dirt, Fosters cans and syringes.
I hummed Abide with Me – Mrs Bikram’s favourite hymn – into my face mask as I went.
As told to Fergus-Butler Gallie.