Saturday, June 19, 2010

Was it only a year ago?

With Mike the Younger yesterday.

Yesterday I went to Wakefield for a nostalgic journey. Wakefield? It's hardly a million miles from Leeds. Nostalgic?

Let me explain. Yesterday was the Commendation Service for the Yorkshire Ministry Course - a graduation service, if you like. The friends I studied with for two years and who stayed on for a third year, completed their studies and passed out at a service at St. John's church (next to the Police College where we used to have our residentials), what with the cathedral not being available this year. Within a fortnight they will have been ordained Deacon. The plan was that Dr. Bob, Hilda, Stuart and I would meet up and go together but the best laid plans etc....Dr. Bob had a gaggle of Slovak students to look after, Hilda was drafted in as organist and Stuart had a diocesan synod to attent until late afternoon. I went on my own. On reflection that was a mistake.

My first stop was the coffee shop where we all sat in the sun last year before the service. I followed that with a visit to the cathedral and listened to a choir and orchestra rehearsing Vivaldi's Gloria. I walked up to the police college along the route we had all travelled so many times before as a group. I arrived thoroughly dispirited, like an earthbound ghost forever destined to haunt the significant places of its past when its colleagues had moved on.

And then Stuart arrived and things picked up.

The service was beautifully done and, although there were a couple of difficult moments for me, the desire to affirm and celebrate with my friends was far more important than anything else.

I read back over my thoughts from last year and I repost them here:

Somehow - I realise now engineered - my original year group managed to sit together: suddenly for each of the six leavers there materialised a beautifully wrapped package. The others who were going on to do another year had bought us each a book of pastoral prayers - and signed the flyleaf: "To our dear friend Jack ....." (and I feel a little tearful just writing it down now). This was accompanied by a card. It was the only photograph in existance of the whole year group together taken at Easter School and it had been made into a greetings card inscribed with the legend "Things Will Never Be The Same Again." It just happens to be a lovely and joyful photo of a group of good and trusted friends enjoying each other's company.

The rest of the evening was spent in the knowledge that time was precious: a conversation with Danny, a conversation with young Mike and to bed, a little tipsy on red wine.

Saturday, Commendation Day, dawned bright and fair, and early for me due to the flimsy nature of the curtains. The first thing I saw on waking was the card and I knew I was going to have trouble holding it together that day. I went to Silent prayer at 7.30. There were no more than half a dozen of us and I plugged into Howard Goodall's beautiful and reflective "Enchanted Voices" on my I-Pod to help focus my thoughts. I remember Dr. Bob sitting beside me. A couple of minutes in I started to weep and the floodgates opened (silently of course - it being silent prayer, no racking sobs or suchlike) snot, tears the whole works. (And, typical man, I did not have a handkerchief.) It was not just the enormity of what was to come both in the short and long terms. It was also the uncertainty of the future and the sense of loss in the breaking up of that close knit group of lovely, supportive, Kind and very funny people. I think cathartic is probably the best description, although I am sure others would say self-indulgent.

When I related this afterwards Alex said she hadn't noticed a thing.

She is, one feels, a saint.

Dr. Bob asked me over breakfast how I was. "You seemed a little emotional earlier."

A LITTLE EMOTIONAL! He is a master of the understatement.

Still, I had got it out of my system and I was raring to go.

At lunch (this is the last lunch I shall ever eat here) I opted for salad. It has only taken me two years. We leavers had free time after lunch: time to sit and chat and drink more tea before changing and taking our robes on the ten minute walk through town down to the cathedral. As Stuart, Dr. Bob and I set off, scrubbed up nicely and wearing our best suits, it seemed slightly strange that we were moving off to a significant event while the rest of the course was still in classes. As we passed the classroom where year one was working we got some waves and wolf-whistles but as we passed the now much depleted year two room they stood up and came to the windows and clapped us by.

How affirming.

A verger showed us where to leave our robes and we had a wander around the cathedral taking in the atmosphere. Wakefield Cathedral is a nice building. It seems warm and welcoming and intimate for such a big building and it does exude a calm and peace: there are those who say that such ancient buildings have soaked up spirituality, worship and prayer through the ages like blotting paper and that it hangs in the air for those who come after to be touched by. That sounds a touch too new-agey for me but there is no denying that the cathedral carries its own special feeling.

We bumped into some of the other leavers coming and going and then headed off for a coffee in one of the many cafes in the pedestrianised area outside the cathedral. Quite by chance we met up with Hilda, Daphne and Mike: all the year two leavers together. That seemed fitting.

The sun was glorious and it was nice to be chilling-out, sitting, talking and people watching. Members of the music group began to drift by on their way to rehearse for the Commendation Service and that half an hour or so felt like a real oasis of calm. I sensed no anxiety in my friends now and I wasn’t feeling any either. How far I’d come from first thing this morning! Not anxious, not excited, not over-emotional: instead I simply had a sense of relaxed anticipation. Bring it on.

Four p.m. heralded the rehearsal run through. Down in the crypt area we robed, apart from surpluses and hoods. Dr. Bob amazed me by putting a belt over his cassock. Hang on: I’d seen that look before.

“Quick. Someone give him a flat cap. It’s Mr Yeatman from Dad’s Army.”

Stephen led us to the front pews and, working through the list, sat us in our places. I was next to Jane, one of the leading characters of the Manchester leavers which meant that she and I would process in at the front behind the crucifer and process out again at the back in front of the Bishop’s party. The practice had us lined up behind the choir stalls and processing out through a side door ("Too fast. Slow down.") around to the front of the cathedral, much to the interest of passing shoppers, and back to the front door through which we would process in stately glory at the start of the service. It was at this point that I saw Rachel standing to one side of the door, camera in hand having arrived by train from Leeds. A quick wave of greeting and we were off again through the main doors and back to our seats in slow procession ready for the real thing in a little over half an hour.

Back in the robing room there was frantic hair brushing and the smoothing of surpluses. Photos were taken and academic hoods adjusted. Jane produced an expensive looking box of chocolates and the crowd descended like vultures with the flapping of clerical robes. Twenty nine Anglicans in choral dress and one Lutheran.

“You look very smart” I was told more than once. “I much prefer your clerical dress.”

My clerical dress consisted of a clerical shirt and collar which it had been my practice to wear since Bishop Walter told me I should at the end of my first term on the course. In addition I was wearing my preaching gown (my academic gown from my graduation half a lifetime ago) and the Yorkshire Ministry Course hood. My only disappointment was that I could not wear the preaching bands Bishop Walter had given me because the collar-gap in the clerical shirt I had brought with me was too narrow. But yes. I had to agree I did look the part. For the last couple of months people had been asking me what I would be wearing. The truth was now plain for all to see. It was not a little something in a nice leopard skin print after all.

The cathedral was filling up and several first and second years were acting as stewards. As we stood in rows patiently behind the crucifer waiting for the starter's gun, I saw Pastor Mark walking down the side aisle. He gave me a wave. "There's your pal from Whitby" said Jane. And then we were off.

A slow procession through the side door and quite a wait at the front door while a few late comers scurried in. We were given the nod by one of the canons and our elegant procession began to a rousing rendition of "Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord."

Principal Dr. Christine is, of course, used to public speaking and her welcome and M.C. role were measured and authoritative. The Revd. Kenneth had worked with an over-large and somewhat demanding group of leavers to put this service together and it was a triumph and testament to his wisdom and experience. A student from Year one read from Isaiah: Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said: "Here am I. Send me." A second year student read from Ephesians I pray that according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. Stephen read from John's Gospel: Jesus said to them again: Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. followed by a little Taize chant: Nada te turbe. "Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten: those who seek God can never go wanting. Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. God alone fills us."

The music group, led by Anne performed an incredibly beautiful piece in four parts with her taking a solo. I think I held my breath for the whole of it. Magic!

The sermon was delivered by the Bishop of Doncaster, The Right Revd Cyril Ashton, who talked to us about the challenge of speaking out. He began with a very Yorkshire joke: "There was a lad from Barnsley who was given a part in the school play. Thrilled, he went home and told his mother who asked what part he would be taking. On being told that he would be playing the husband she was less than pleased. "Go back to that teacher and tell him you want a speaking part!"

My favourite chorus followed: "King of Kings, Majesty, God of Heaven, Living in me." and before we knew it we were being called out one by one. We each knelt and Stephen anointed our open hands before we passed on to Christine to receive our certificates. (Shoulders back, stomach in, don't trip up or fall over getting up from kneeling.) It was on the way back that I saw Bishop Walter and his wife Jennifer who were sitting only a few rows behind me. I received an episcopal wink. I took my seat again. I have graduated. I sneaked a look at my certificate.

This is to certify that Doorman-Priest during the years 2007 - 2009 has completed a programme of theological education, training and formation with the Yorkshire Ministry Course and has achieved the necessary learning outcomes required by the Church of England for candidates at the point of ordination.

I showed this to Jane and we both laughed. I am, it seems, an Anglican after all.

Before I could register the passing of time the recessional hymn (All my hope in God is founded) was in full swing and Jane and I took our places at the rear of the column. The timing was good and we were just approaching the main doors as the last verse began: "Still from man to God eternal, sacrifice of praise be done. High above all praises praising for the gift of Christ his son. Christ doth call one and all: (Jane stumbled up a step and there was some flailing of arms as I grabbed her.) ye who follow shall not fall.

Ours was a slightly less than elegant exit and we certainly could not trust ourselves to sing the final few words.

The leavers grouped outside the front door.

"Look I've achieved the necessary learning outcomes required by the church of England."

Big cheer.

"That can be arranged" said the Bishop of Doncaster, who I had forgotten was just behind me in the procession. "Come and see me in my office on Monday morning."

There was much photographing and general milling about accompanied by a lot of random hugging and then we made our way back to the college for a reception. I chatted to Walter and Mark and to Fr. John, my tutor and then Rachel and I decided it was time to make a discreet exit. It was not to be.


Cathy, Karen and Shan were waving from across the room and there was more hugging.

I tried again only to be intercepted by Ian with some lovely words and a card.

We finally made it only to encounter Barry in the foyer. More handshaking and hugs.

"Just before you go, a word of wisdom. I had a friend who was a Kleptomaniac. When it got really bad he had to take something for it. Gotcha!"

Things will never be the same again!


Only the ordinations at York, Wakefield and Sheffield to get through and Dr. Bob's, Hilda's and Stuart's priestings. If I can cope with them I will have the psychological strength of Charles Atlas.

I think I might cry.

"Here I am Lord. Send me."

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