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Reform Magazine | December 11, 2017

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Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Secret stories of the clergy

Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Secret stories of the clergy

Priests and pastors are commented-upon people. Sometimes for sporting tattoos, sometimes for celebrating Communion in high heels, sometimes for leading the congregation in prayer for the healing of a leg without spotting it was wooden.

I heard a story over breakfast, however, which almost made me pebble-dash my iPad with a mouthful of porridge: a would-be young vicar was turned down by a prospective church, even though he offered to do the job for free. The reason? The parishioners feared that his youthful preaching would quickly swell their numbers, and then they would have their precious church car park spaces nicked by newcomers. It’s comforting to know that even while churches are haemorrhaging members across the country, their car parks are reassuringly full of spaces. Praise the Lord!

The most curious episode I’ve ever stumbled upon in the weird and wonderful lives of church leaders came about when a friend and I were doing a sketch show tour in the US and stopped off at an Episcopalian church in New Jersey. I needed to use the restroom (as Americans delicately put it) before the show, and asked a couple of the jolly older women in the kitchen – all of them getting sandwiches and cakes ready for the end of the evening – where it was. They pointed me in the right direction, and then one of them cryptically added, to much hooting of laughter from them both: “Make sure the pastor hasn’t been there before you…” “Why on earth?” I asked. “Because of the floaters,” she laughed.

It took a couple of minutes to establish that we hadn’t fallen into one of those yawning gaps between British and US English, where you can walk down the street in your pants, and where a fanny pack is a bumbag. For all I knew, the woman in the church kitchen might have been talking about a strawberry ice cream float carelessly left on the restroom windowsill. But no. What I thought she couldn’t possibly have meant, she actually had meant. The vicar was famous among his parishioners for the occasional log surprise, chocolate dreadnought, or even ocean-going Twix, which simply would not depart in peace – even when the Nunc Dimittis was intoned over it.

I must confess that I sometimes fell asleep during classes when I was in theology college, so I can’t be 100% sure that this precise subject was covered during pastoral studies. But it definitely should be. Who knows what is talked about over the church washing-up?

I mention it because Twitter recently burst into life with a stream of revelations from clergypeople around the world about their real working lives. Casting caution and dog collars to the wind, and using the hashtag #realclergybios, they spilt the beans about the frustrations and exultations of life in the clergy frock.

One minister, Catherine, took the opportunity to disclose the dietary habits of the modern priest: “What I have eaten today: five miniature KitKats, some leftover Communion wafers and a packet of cashews I found in my desk.” Meanwhile, Pastor Melissa tweeted the randomness of doing theology in a beauty salon: “Yes, I will talk about gay marriage with you while you wax my eyebrows.”

It’s clearly tough being a Revd, especially receiving “anonymous notes on my desk just after preaching, with biblical texts telling me why the message I just preached was wrong,” as happened to Revd Lou. Perhaps that’s why pastor Hallie tweeted: “The first drafts of all my sermons have to be redacted for swear words” – which is probably an exaggeration, but maybe not by much.

Several priests outlined how they respond when people ask: “What do you do?” in casual conversation. “I’m in life insurance,” said a priest on a date. “I’m in consulting,” said another, to the person in the next seat on a plane. The penalty for being theological (rather than economical) with the truth could be severe, as one pastor, Steve, explained: “Why yes, stranger next to me on the plane, I did want to hear your life story for the whole flight once you learned I was a minister.”

It’s not exactly breaking news to learn that our clergy sometimes want to disappear when they get the chance. Who wouldn’t, with the joys and griefs, expectations and absurdities floating in their direction each day? Floating, just like that unexpected surprise lurking under the lid in a New Jersey church.

Simon Jenkins is editor of shipoffools.com. 
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonjenks

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This article was published in the March 2016 edition of  Reform.

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