South by Southwest

At Christ Church, Gipsy Hill – sentinel over the finest view in South London – there is a corridor leading from the vestry, down which the clergy walk before every service. And along this is an avenue of imposing photographs, featuring the saintly former vicars of that church.

These can be diverting, if you are a member of the congregation, partly because the portraits – up until about 1960 – are uniformly stern. In the sixties, it seems, clergy began to warm up for the camera: prior to that, each looked as if they had just about had enough. When you happened to be their successor, the compound effect of this could be disconcerting. If the sermon had gone well, I would walk past with a spring in my step, noting an indulgent brightening of their expression. If not, I’d hang my head as I ran the gallery’s gauntlet, muttering ‘I know, I know…’, half-expecting to find them facing the other way.

Being appointed as a bishop only doubles the daunting effects of apostolic succession. Glancing at the roster of former Bishops of Ramsbury, I notice they include at least two official saints: St Sigeric the Serious and St Oda the Severe, the latter being commemorated in stone over the West Door of Salisbury Cathedral. Possibly for light relief, the Church took a well-advised thousand-year break from appointing any others after the Ramsbury see was transferred to Old Sarum in 1075.

The Diocese of Salisbury has a rich spiritual landscape, with deep roots in the national story. Reconnoitring recently, I also find its roads have rather more tank crossings than we’ve been used to in Surrey. My best counsel thus far has been that I stop for them, not the other way around.

On these excursions, I have wandered under Oda’s statue several times, looking for some lack, or crack in his carapace: wondering how severity could characterise someone saved solely by grace. The impression that we are not nearly as good, or holy, as others is no bad thing, of course, and its current return reminds me I have felt this way at every stage of committing myself as a believer: at sixteen, teetering on the brink of faith, or at twenty-nine, donning for the first time the ring of white plastic. And I remember also that holiness is not something achieved by us, but – we trust – by God’s patient advocacy.

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The experience and encouragement of others bears witness to this, carrying us beyond our own momentum. My late father was ordained (by the fabled Mervyn Stockwood) at Southwark Cathedral in 1961, before serving his title at St George the Martyr on Borough High Street. Sorting through Dad’s papers earlier this year, I found a letter to him from Michael Mayne, then Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC, written on the brink of moving to what would become his most challenging post. Michael offers his prayers, ‘in the turmoil of beginning to say goodbye and the trepidation of wondering if you can cope, and if it’s all been a great mistake; knowing at your centre that you can and it isn’t.’

That is an assurance to hold close, and take to Salisbury, along with the correspondent blessings of eighteen years in Southwark – and the avid hope of seeing St Oda smile.

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