The Rev Dr Gary Bowness continues his tongue-in-cheek letters from ‘Uncle Eustace’…St James the Least of All
On church tourists and outrageous lies
St. James the Least
My dear Nephew Darren
I was sorry to hear of the dawn call by the police because your church had been broken into, although the theft of tambourines, books of choruses and banners proclaiming "Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam" are likely to have a limited market. But you are fortunate that those are the only unexpected call-outs you receive.
Those of us with ancient churches are resigned to receiving telephone calls from people living in remote corners of the globe who happen to be on holiday in England and want to trace long-lost relatives who were married or buried in our parishes. They invariably seem amazed when they find you are not personally familiar with someone who died 400 years ago, what family still exists, where they live and what interesting anecdotes you know about their ancestors - preferably something criminal. Any attempts to put them off will be deflected by being told that they fly home tomorrow and since they are booked at a show in London that evening, could they come round early afternoon?
Once inside the church, they will expect a conducted tour. I have a competition with myself to see how outrageous I can make our history, yet still be believed. One family now thinks that the conical tomb in the churchyard is the last visible tip of the spire of the famous cathedral which once stood on this spot but sank into the ground when cursed by a bride who was jilted at its altar.
A second couple now know that a locked safe contains a set of pagan gods which were worshipped by an obscure sect in the parish during the time of the Tudor monarchs. They were removed by the incumbent of the day and locked away. Only the Rector is allowed a key and is only permitted to look inside at the contents on the day he leaves office, as the sight is too terrible.
Yet another are convinced that several dozen mediaeval gold chalices are buried in the rectory garden, where they were hidden from Cromwell's soldiers and their exact location has been forgotten (I told that story when I was looking for volunteers to dig over the rose beds).
Should they get as far as the vestry to inspect the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, you know that the afternoon is lost. It can occasionally hasten their departure by casually telling them to ignore the mice which will be running round the floor - although hardened visitors are likely to set up their tripods to catch them on film.
The ultimate deterrent is to suggest they stay to Evensong which I am about to say. That is guaranteed to remind them that they have an urgent appointment back at their hotel.
Your loving uncle,
On church towers, rock cakes, scaffolding and the merits of confirming bats
My dear Nephew Darren
We are finally about to start repairing our medieval church tower. Would that we still paid medieval prices for having it done; there would be a degree of satisfaction in giving the builders a hogshead of ale and 10 sheep once the work was completed. I would even be prepared to throw in an Indulgence, sparing them 100 days in purgatory (the architect probably claiming 15% of them for himself).
After several endless jumble sales, coffee mornings – where we were obliged to eat Mrs Jarvis’s rock cakes (many of us would have been happier to make a substantial donation to the fund provided we didn’t have to eat them) – sponsored events (Mr Peat has yet to return, five years late, from his sponsored cycle ride across the Sahara – but fortunately, we had his sponsor money collected before he departed) and a substantial loan from the bank that makes the National Debt seem trivial (and has the same probability of being repaid), we are now able to begin. The only sponsored event I regretted not having was paying to have Lady Trotter remain silent for a month. Even sponsoring her to keep quiet for half an hour would have been pleasant.We received a substantial donation from a local manufacturer. It was suggested that as a sign of appreciation we advertise their products from the top of the tower – until it was gently pointed out that they produce nuclear warheads. I would have had no objection; knowing that council members possessed tactical nuclear weapons would make discussion at meetings rather brisker.
Scaffolding has now been erected around the tower, with the first 20 feet covered in sheet metal in order to stop the Young Farmers, after refreshing themselves at their Tuesday meetings in the pub, from trying to see who could be the first to reach the top. Personally, I suspect it is to stop the more athletic members of the Ladies’ Guild from attempting the same feat. 80-year-olds these days can have fearsome energy and determination.
Fulfilling current safety regulations, there is now a security cordon around the tower of approximately 10 square miles. “Lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone”? These days, a dashed foot would involve court proceedings and damages of several million pounds.
Inside the church, the organ has had to be covered in polythene sheeting in order to protect it. Parish relations were somewhat strained last week when our deputy organist, Mrs Ffrench, while playing for Evensong, overheard me refer to the large bag on the organ and got quite the wrong impression.
The greatest inconvenience will be caused to our population of bats, but if it dissuades them from flying into church so much the better. The only other possibility is to get them all confirmed; we will then never see them inside church again.
Your loving uncle,