Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Clerical life: No room in the nave

When things go wrong in the parish, it becomes parochial in the bad sense of the word
November 3, 2022

Parochial. Meaning: “of the parish”. Parochial. Meaning also: “narrow in scope or outlook”. Don’t get me wrong. I love my parishes, the four villages, each smaller than the last: Fulbourn, then Great and Little Wilbraham and finally Six Mile Bottom, a hamlet of fewer than a hundred souls. I love the parish system, the principle that wherever you are in England you are in an ecclesiastical parish with (somewhere or other) a parish priest who owes you something: attention; prayer; the rites of the church, should you desire them.

I love the principle that the holy can be found here where we are. You don’t have to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Rome, or even to the next town. God is here, where you live. Your children dress as shepherds and angels at Christmas, and a local baby is the centre of the tableau. When the parish goes wrong, though, it becomes parochial in the other sense. There’s no room at the inn. It becomes a hostile environment.

I drove out of my patch recently to attend the ordination of Funmilayo, one of the students sent here for two years to learn about village ministry. The service was held at a parish church near Chelmsford. We had been sent tickets and advised to arrive early, which I did. The nave had a clear view to the chancel, the bishop’s chair and the places where the five ordinands would kneel. In addition, separated by a series of big, fat columns and a pulpit, there was seating in the north aisle with a clear view of the door to the hall and the toilets. Naturally I wanted to sit in the nave. Well. Every pew was filled with parishioners or, if not filled, reserved for friends who would be coming later.

I walked from pew to pew asking if there was room for me. There was not. It felt just like eating lunch as an unpopular kid in high school. I was determined to see, though, so I took a chair at the back, by the font. “We’ll have to ask you to move,” said one of the sidesmen. I sat there seething. Then a group of people came in—beautifully dressed, carrying flowers and a gift—and I thought, “This must be Funmilayo’s family!” So I followed them to the front of the north aisle and asked whether I could join them. They welcomed me.

That was when I noticed that the people who looked like they might be Funmilayo’s guests were seated in the north aisle. How did I know? How do you think I knew? Because they were all black. How did this happen? Maybe because they’d come from other London suburbs and the good seats got snapped up first by the locals. That must have been part of it. But I learned later that those who arrived earlier even than I had were shown to the north aisle and asked to sit there. Yes, that’s right. Unless my eyes deceived me, it was white people in the nave, black people in the north aisle. I don’t believe this was intended by the good people of the parish, but it looked terrible. It looked, at best, like a classic case of unconscious bias. It looked like parochialism in the worst sense of the word. And it meant that the people who’d come to see Funmilayo ordained got to hear the service and receive communion but missed the moments when the bishop laid his hands on her head and anointed the palms of her hands for the work of a priest.

Afterwards I spoke and later wrote to the archdeacon about all this, and he said he would look into it as a matter of urgency. While I wait to hear back, I’m reflecting on the parochial. If a church is lucky enough to have a choir, they can expect their dedication feast to include the Latin gradual “Locus iste”, ideally in Bruckner’s setting. The words are taken from the story of Jacob’s dream: out in the desert between one place and another, he lies down to sleep with a stone for a pillow. In his dream he sees a ladder stretched between heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending upon it. He wakes and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16). On the day when a parish church celebrates the essence of its local particularity—which is what a dedication festival is—a voice rises to remind everyone with ears to hear that its holiness is in the eyes of the visitor from elsewhere. Welcome the stranger and you welcome God.