Rector's Reflections

From January 2021 Church Times Diary Piece by Fr John Wall

I was preparing to lead a meditation on "Zoom" and took down a battered prayer book from the study shelf. It was the Franciscan Daily Office, produced in 1981 and the precursor to today's Common Worship Office Book. it was stained, battered and well used, stuck together with Sellotape and full of bits of paper and prayer cards.

On the inside front cover, above the pasted-in Angelus and Regina Caeli, was an address - "Alan Knight Training Centre, Yupukari, Rupununi"; and a name - "Fr. Brian Doolan".

Brian was a huge influence on me. The Vicar of Tile Hill in Coventry, I went on placement for a month with him in the late 1980's as an enthusiastic but pretty clueless ordinand training at St Stephen' House in Oxford (universally known as "Staggers"), and subsequently I was involved in a Mission to a new housing estate there. Very much in the  tradition of the Company of Mission Priests, he worked in his inner city parish with humour and absolute dedication and I learned from him the value of faithfulness in the Daily Offices, of Catholic spiritual rootedness and of social engagement in the community around. As a child, he had been horrifically burnt when his pyjamas caught fire, and he told me he remembered a nurse standing but his bed saying "Poor little lad, he won't last the night", and Brian thinking "I damn well will!"

It was this determination that took him, improbably, to become Principal of the aforementioned "Alan Knight Training Centre" in Guyana. Set up to train Amerindian ordinands in the Rupununi region and named after a former Archbishop of the West Indies, it was generally referred to as " Staggers in the Savannah", and Brian was full of stories of soggy canoed journeys up the Rupununi River (hence the water stains on the Francisican Office), snakes coiled in toilets and (I suspect apocryphally) an "Adopt a Gaucho" fundraising scheme.

It was this same determination that saw him leave the Church of England over the Ordination of Women and start a new chapter of his life as a Roman Priest. I went to his re-ordination in St Chad's R.C. Cathedral in Birmingham, where he subsequently became Administrator. I tried ringing a few times but was fielded by a housekeeper who clearly thought I was a dodgy parsihioner and not an old friend. He finally moved to a Parish in Banbury.

Looking at the book he had given me, and about to start on my Christmas cards, Googled him to check he was still there & to find his current telephone number for a long-delayed chat. The notice of his Requiem Mass popped up: he had died aged 77 on the day before Christmas Eve last year.

Following this chastening experience, I started “Googling” other people on my Christmas card list, just to check they were still alive (having recently turned 60, I realise this is now an occupational hazard) and mercifully, they all were. Mind you, it was disconcerting to see the photos that appeared accompanying the names. Men and women I had known when they were in their pristine twenties and thirties and who remain so in my memory, now confronted me looking saggy, baggy, grey or bald. it was disconcerting to see the photos that appeared accompanying the names. Men and women I had known when they were in their pristine twenties and thirties and who remain so in my memory, now confronted me looking saggy, baggy, grey or bald.

It reminded me of the “White Ball” in Proust’s last volume of “In Search of Lost Time” when the Narrator, having been out of circulation for a while, returns to a society party and finds all his old friends dressed up in wigs as old people, only to realise that that it is because they are indeed now old. And me? Well, having cut my hair short at the Millennium (when no-one under forty had a parting, I noticed), I re-grew it during Lockdown and to my surprise, found I was still luxuriantly blond. I am now in the process of re-growing my 1980’s “New Romantics” fringe (I am proudly regressing), so in some ways I look the same. Mind you, the face in the mirror tells another story.

I wonder what Brian would have made of these strange COVID times, with online services and "Zooming"? He was a good preacher (i realise that my main funeral talk is one I pinched, almost verbatim, from him). I think he would have been nonplussed by the one-sidedness of it all. For months, I recorded talks and services on my iphone in selfie video mode, being animated and engaged with no other audience than my dog Sophie, who remained bored and unimpressed by the proceedings.

I was so looking forward to preaching again to real people in church but was bemused when t=it finally happened by being faced with (socially distanced) rows of inscrutable masks. I suspect people don't realise just how interactive preaching is; I usually keep an eye on three or four specific members of a congregation to gauge how things are going. Now there is just a strange blankness. I sometimes feel that congregations don't think you can see them when you are up in a pulpit.

I remember on one occasion, a man in the front row very pointedly holding up and reading a copy of "Hello" Magazine during my sermon slot. On another occasion a friend was absorbed by a hymn book in front of her: I discovered afterwards that she had been revising from hidden notes; when challenged, she just looked at me and said "well, it's not as if you were going to say anything new, is it?" I can hear Brian laughing from here.