Robbie Low: The Parish Profile
A Wet Tuesday Evening in Crewe
THERE ARE MOMENTS when I have a passing sympathy for bishops. Not many mind you, but one of them is when I have accepted an invitation to preach away from home. Like everyone else, I expect, I accept out of genuine desire to be helpful mixed with that little bit of vanity at being asked. After that I forget about it until a week or so before and then spend the build up berating myself for ever agreeing to such a ridiculous idea. I will not know what their concerns are, what their week will have been like, what their expectations are. Will they have a sense of humour, will there be 19 or 90 of them, what are the acoustics like, what is the vicar like? etc. etc. etc. All this human fidgeting has to be got out of the way before getting down to the Word of God
To cut a long story short I had accepted an invitation to preach at the patronal festival of St Barnabas, Crewe. (Parish priest Fr. Ralph Powell). It was not an auspicious start. First of all I had not realised where Crewe was (and is!). My geography is so terrible that only the last minute intervention of my dear wife once prevented me from confusing St Albans with Bishop Auckland, on the grounds presumably that they were both religious names, catching the wrong train and failing to make the interview for my second curacy. Then there was the unbelievable news that there is no train out of Crewe after 9.03pm any evening. Crewe, of all places, I ask you. Not only was I giving up my day off but I would have to catch the milk train back to be on duty the following morning. I could feel the martyr's crown receiving an extra burnishing.
Worst of all was the, as yet unseen and unknown, vicar. Fr Powell had not seemed particularly enthusiastic on the telephone, about my coming. It was only when I met him that I realised his quiet and somewhat diffident telephone response was not due to indifference but to the caution of the slightly deaf not wishing to speak too loudly and lacking the important reassurance of visual response.
Still, you couldn't fault him for his candour. "Why are you inviting me?" I enquired. "Because Geoffrey Kirk couldnt," come he replied unabashed, "he's got another preaching engagement." Sadly Fr Kirk has not yet acquired the useful faculty of saints - that of bi-location - and to those who say it is just a matter of time I would say Time will not be enough!
So it was that your disconsolate correspondent maundered down to Watford Junction to await fate in the form of the 13.51. There was a brief hope of reprieve when the power failed, but the blighters fixed it and I hurtled northwards into a grey and increasingly soggy afternoon.
At the station I was greeted by a tall, spare and gently correct priest in soutane. The monocle (actually a genuine assistance to the spectacles) and the old Rover, with the long forgotten smell and comfort of leather seats, did not seem out of place (the genuine never does) in the winding terraced streets of this urban priority parish.
The vicarage was large, light and Victorian - transported to my parish it would fetch the best part of a million. The garden was huge with an endless lawn which my boys would kill for as a soccer pitch. Made completely at home in minutes and, post ablutions, I made my way to the kitchen where a Hindu neighbour had cooked an excellent roast. Mealtimes still keep the routine of Ralph's family home, where his late father's diabetes dictated refuelling stops. His mother, up for the patronal, fought a cheerful but unequal battle to keep him at the table while the usual vicarage interruptions of door and phone conspired to confer chronic indigestion.
We said Evensong together (Prayer Book - hurrah!), and the church had that sense of life and welcome that tells you, straightaway, that it is prayed in. An hour and a half before the service children appeared in the vestry - 'when's it all going to start?' - and were sent off to play in the garden. I realised how dramatically my Eeyore was beginning to be overtaken by Tigger.
After an hour's quiet in my room I headed for the vestry, and could scarcely get in. Altar men and boys; choir men and women; children; the visiting Armenian priest struggling to put his cowl on; Fr Brooks arriving to deacon with three minutes to spare carrying with him, as ever, the serene timelessness of heaven and a cheery smile; the retired priest subdeacon who vouchsafed that he really would not want to serve anywhere else. Somehow Fr. Powell brought us to order and prayer and the procession began.
Lights; the crucified aloft; the smoking spices of ascending prayer; the junior school children's choral group leading our praises; and we moved down the aisles and altarwards.
If I tell you simply that what followed was some of the best and most uplifting worship I have experienced in my 25 years in the C of E....
The congregational singing would have done credit, in its volume and enthusiasm, to any evangelical church; the choir and soloist were worshipful and unaffected. The liturgy (old rite) glorified God and was celebrated with prayerful attention, dignity and the heart of a priest for his people and his Saviour. You don't get much higher church; but it was wholly without the art and artifice that disfigures some anglo-catholic worship. I dare say that most evangelical members of my congregation would have felt curiously at home. The Holy Communion was followed by a procession to the ikon of St Barnabas where the children sang to guitars, and then onto Benediction. Somehow we were captured, grown ups and children alike, in that worship of heaven where awe and wonder and love and naturalness and the family life of God's people here and in eternity are indivisible.
We were there, nearly 300 of us, for two glorious hours and then, led by fifty excited children back to the hall for a magnificent spread and the Salvation Army Band playing choruses from Mission Praise as a gentle background to our feasting and fellowship.
The new Mayor (a United Reform man) sought me out to say how wonderful he thought the worship was. Many ordinary parishioners spoke quietly and with great affection of Fr. Powell's ministry there. This is no overnight success, he has done eighteen years at the sharp end; and yes, his ordinary Sunday figures are good too.
I went up, I thought, to give encouragement to the good people of St Barnabas (the great encourager). In fact I returned home greatly encouraged and inspired myself.
So brothers and sisters, if you are in the Crewe area next St Barnabastide, or any Sunday really, the doors are open.
And, brother clergy, if a quiet, matter of fact voice ever rings you up inviting you to spend a wet Tuesday night in Crewe, my advice is - Go for it!
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath.
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