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organizing madness

My intention this month was to give an appreciation of the terrible mess that Archbishop Rowan Williams has to sort out in the Church of England, focussing in particular on those un-Christian creatures who threaten to leave the C of E if they don’t get their own way. Their behaviour echoes that of Unionist and Republican politicians in Northern Ireland. Even in political terms it is a bit iffy. In spiritual terms it is many degrees below zero. So if I were the Archi I would politely ignore them until they withdrew their threats.

But I’m not an Arch Bp and I blame my theological college, Ripon Hall, Boar’s Hill, Oxford, for this failure. We were a shrill and savage crew. As, after breakfast, we took our constitutional around the lake the air would be filled with questioning cries and the dreadful sound of the ripping apart of dogmas. Not for us the earthy certainty of Wycliffe Hall or the airy fairiness of St Stephen’s House. One for a joke and a joke for all – that was us.

In my first story, about the afternoon the ceiling fell in, the joke might be said to have been on me. We were in the middle of a Quiet Day. A visiting retreat leader had taken us into the spiritual depths/heights. Lunch had been silent, save for the gentle murmur of unmuffled mastication. As I sat in post-prandial quietude at the desk in my room at the bottom of the tower I was disturbed by certain bumpings and scrapings coming from the room above. A quick crescendo, a loud thump and the ceiling landed on top of me, four inches of powdery plaster together with the lathes that had held it together.

With head sore and hair gritty, as if powdered for a renaissance farce, I rushed upstairs to discover that one of my colleagues, usually a rather reserved fellow, had been demonstrating the correct way to conduct a retreat, a turn that nearly brought the house down!

My room was uninhabitable, my clothes had all to be cleaned, my books to be dusted, but there was a delightful reward. The following term I was given the best room in the place, at the top of the tower, with windows on four sides overlooking the Oxfordshire countryside. My sole neighbour was the one beneath me, and he shared my taste in music.

Another joke at my expense. I had a German girlfriend, Barbara, who, when I visited her in Hamburg, introduced me to an extremely strong-smelling cheese. We plotted a mini prank.

At college our post arrived at breakfast time. She would mail me a cheese. I would sit next to the Principal at breakfast and open it. I would communicate his reaction.

Well, the day came, and the parcel came, and I sat next to the Principal. As we munched our toast and supped our tea I slit open the cardboard box. Instead of an overpowering smell there jumped out of the carton a wind-up mechanical toy which kangarooed all over the table. The other ordinands delighted in my discomforture. For, although the Principal was full of bonhomie and joie de vivre, his stock of humour was somewhat slight. He surely thought that my female acquaintance would never make a parson’s wife, gravitas being in such short supply.

Under his uncomprehending gaze my creative juices evaporated and I never found a way to repay Barbara. I suppose I could have married her.

Although pranks were thin on the ground, I did later have an opportunity to exercise my criminal skills for the benefit of the community. It had been decided to refurbish the rather small chapel. At the time the seats were arranged in rows facing each other in normal college style. The new plan had them all facing the altar.

My friends and I felt this to be a retrograde step: theologically unsound. We preferred to look at each other than at the altar. But we were assured that there was no other way to get more people in. I didn’t believe it. So late at night I broke into the Principal’s study and borrowed the architect’s plans. Having carefully traced them they were replaced.

The next day we were able to produce our alternative seating plan which had benches on three sides, thus emphasising the community nature of the college. The plans were accurate, as well-drawn as the architect’s and, as the staff had no answer to them, were adopted. A real triumph! But this was not the end of our scheming. Puffed up by this success we pushed on.

My friend Ken Bartlett and I were both organists who tried to make the best of a bad box of wheezing whistles. We saw an opportunity to dispose of this asthmatic heap.

We persuaded the Principal that it was inadvisable to leave the precious instrument in situ during the refurbishment because it was in danger of being damaged by dust. We got him really worried. Then we offered him a way out. We would dismantle the organ ourselves and place the bits carefully in the basement. He was so relieved he gave us the go-ahead.

We started work immediately, before he had a chance to change his mind. The organ was laid to rest with due care and ceremony. A piano was installed in the chapel for the time being. The singing improved. The organ never went back. And the motto: people don’t know what they are missing until they get it.

I now believe that these experiences were an appropriate preparation for the task I am at present undertaking. The placement of pews and the way the singing is accompanied are still hot issues here in Hartland so I am the man for the job. But I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if we, like our colleagues at Cuddesdon, had been trained to be bishops.

Colin Hodgetts is an Irreverend with responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the people of Hartland, including the editor.

October 2003

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