This story is set in a small Anglican church in the provincial England of the 1980s…
It soon became clear that the Reverend Gareth Gordon had not been a good choice as the new vicar for our small church. Ours was a daughter church within a large urban parish and when the vacancy arose the rector could have selected a replacement himself but, wishing to respect our views, he had asked us to choose between the two or three candidates he deemed suitable; so, at first sight, it might seem that the we were responsible for taking a poor decision ourselves. However, it would be unfair to blame our local church committee entirely as Gareth Gordon had given apparently satisfactory answers to all the questions they asked at his interview.
The charismatic movement had crossed the Atlantic a few years previously, touching our church among many others and stimulating a creative spiritual revival: what did Gareth Gordon think about this? Oh, he was very sympathetic and he wanted to know more about it…
Did he think there was a place for a healing ministry within the church? He was very interested in this…
We badly needed to revive our youth work… Oh, he was very keen on youth work and wanted to actively support it…
If the committee did make a mistake it was, perhaps, their acceptance of Reg Farmer’s opinion that we needed ‘an older, family man’ who would apply ‘an experienced, steady hand’ rather than a younger person who might ‘want to try things out’ and would probably find it difficult to relate to the older generation which now made up almost all of our congregation. It seemed to me that if we really wanted to reconnect with younger people we badly needed a younger, more energetic leader but Reg was a lovely chap who had been part of the church family since before the foundation stone was laid, more than three decades earlier, and he was held in such high regard that nobody would ever contradict him.
I’m sure that I wasn’t the only parishioner to feel disappointment with Gareth Gordon within weeks of his arrival. To be fair, he was a man who thought deeply and seriously and who would never trivialise his thoughts by simplifying them the sake of clarity before sharing them from the pulpit or in informal conversation. In other words, he was an extreme introvert and a poor communicator, lacking both empathy and any sense of humour. I found this last characteristic particularly baffling; an ability to see the funny side of life seems to me to be an essential aspect of being human, even for a clergyman. His sermons reflected his personality and, although inspirational preaching is not necessarily expected from Anglican clergy, GG’s pedantic but uninteresting exposition and his lacklustre, monotonous delivery induced sleep rather than spiritual insight among his listeners. Several of us began referring to him as ‘GG’ behind his back, avoiding direct personal criticism of the man but with a hint of anxiety in our voices.
When GG had been with us for several months, he managed, at last, to surprise us from the pulpit. Autumn was moving into winter and the evenings were getting darker. One Sunday the day’s notices included an announcement that he had decided to give us the benefit of a slide show of his own photographs; this would take place in the church during the week , and we were all invited. I was astonished to discover that GG actually had a hobby, and a creative one at that; it was, I thought, the first time he had shown any sign of having a normal life and any interests outside his clerical role and domestic circumstances. As I was also something of an amateur photographer, I found myself looking forward quite eagerly to seeing, and perhaps learning something from his pictures; the show might also provide some insights into the man’s character and reveal what, if anything, made him ‘tick’.
* * *
On the appointed evening a good crowd of us turned out, rather more than were usually seen at Sunday services, and there was an atmosphere of hopeful expectation while we waited for the lights to go down and the show to begin.
GG had decided to take us on a visual journey through the seasons of the year, beginning with winter. Mention of winter might conjure up a mental picture of a snowbound village, frost on the grass or warmly clad skaters on an icy pond. In contrast to this, the first image to appear on the screen was a view of a plain, grassy field below a pale, empty sky. The second slide was of a similar scene, and the third did not seem significantly different. I wondered if we were being shown the same field from several different angles; I wasn’t sure. We still had hard, wooden pews in those days, twentieth-century in style but as unyielding as any traditional church seating; I soon began to experience mild discomfort and restlessness.
The sequence of winter scenes of grassy fields continued relentlessly. There was no sign of any frost or snow but I wondered if we might occasionally be treated to a contrasting close-up of a Cotswold stone wall or an artistically appealing coil of barbed wire: no such luck. After little more than ten minutes I was already acutely aware that it had been a mistake to come. After forty minutes I was seriously wondering how to survive with my sanity intact until the promised refreshments at the end, which I estimated must be at least another hour away.
Inner resources saved me. It occurred to me that while the surprisingly unvarying seasons were passing in front of my eyes (spring at last; but where are the flowers and why is the green of the grassy fields no different from its winter aspect..?) I could exercise my mind by working out just what was so bad about GG’s slides. If nothing else, it might provide lessons for my own practice of the photographic art.
Long before the end of the show, which probably lasted a little under two hours, I had concluded that the main problem with GG’s pictures was their almost complete lack of human or animal life. There were, I think, a few shots in which some distant sheep or cattle had wandered into the photographer’s view, spoiling the otherwise pristine greenness of the fields, but I do not recall a single instance of a human presence, even at some remote point in the landscape. Even appearances of inanimate objects, an abandoned plough or a pile of logs for example, seemed to have been strictly rationed to minimise the possibility of any distraction from the fascination of ordinary English fields changing from green to green as the year slowly progressed. Perhaps, I thought, the church had inadvertently appointed not a conservative, traditional Anglican but rather an aspiring Zen master to be our vicar for the coming decade.
By the time the green fields of summer were changing into the green fields of autumn I was getting decidedly twitchy about what I might find to say to GG if I happened to bump into him during the refreshments that were still to come. Leaving quickly as soon as the show ended was not really an option; I badly needed sustenance before returning home. Chocolate cake would be nice but even a (more probable) hard biscuit and an unexciting cup of tea would be better than nothing before escaping into the night. I decided that there was no way I would lie to GG if he asked me what I thought of his photos but I struggled to find any form of words that would combine honesty with a polite expression of my opinion.
Fortunately my dilemma was resolved by the very last slide. It was a truly magnificent autumn landscape; there were, as usual, no people or animals to enliven the scene but in this case they were not needed. We were treated instead to a rich display of the red and gold seasonal foliage of autumnal trees combined with the an orange tinted evening sky in a composition that might have been captured by a talented landscape painter. It was an exceptional image that came close to compensating for the tedious procession of monotonous green fields that had preceded it through the rest of the evening.
As I had feared he might, GG successfully cornered me a short time later; my movements impeded by a precariously balanced cup and saucer in one hand and a plate in the other, there was no way I could avoid him once he had set his sights in my direction. He immediately asked the precise question I was expecting: “What did you think of my photos tonight?”
“Well, Mister Gordon, I must say that last picture was absolutely fantastic” I was able to reply, with complete sincerity.
“I’m so glad you liked it!” he responded. “That’s exactly what I thought of it myself. I came across it in a glossy countryside magazine and I was so impressed that I decided I had to photograph it myself.” He then proceeded to describe in great and unnecessary detail how he had propped up the open page of the magazine, mounted his camera on a tripod so that he could line it up accurately, and taken careful note of the exposure indicated by his hand-held light meter before eventually triggering his shot by using a shutter release cable to minimise any possibility of camera shake. At this point I was able to nod in appreciation of his account and wave my plate hand slightly to indicate that I needed to return my crockery to the kitchen hatch.
* * *
For some time after the slide show I wondered whether I could be so impolite as to fail to attend any further event of the same kind that our vicar might be planning. However, the necessity to take a decision about this never arose; perhaps GG had no other set of photographs extensive enough to match his impressive collection of green field views.
Winter began to give way to spring. Our congregations, already shrinking when GG arrived, sank to perilously low numbers during the season of cold days and long nights. Our two churchwardens, Roger and Mac, viewed the rows of empty pews with obvious anxiety as Easter approached and wondered whether attendance would improve with the return of longer, warmer days.
Easter Sunday should, of course, be one of the joyful highlights of the church year, rivalling or excelling Christmas Day for colourful and festive celebration. The congregation that gathered in the church on Easter morning reflected that expectation; more people turned up than had been the case for several months and the women in particular were brightly dressed, matching the floral displays that some of them had placed around the church the previous afternoon. The Good Friday service two days earlier had been appropriately sombre; GG’s personality was undoubtedly well adapted to projecting the sadness and seriousness of that darkest moment in the calendar. Now it was time to express resurrection joy with the retelling of the Easter story and the lusty, enthusiastic singing of familiar Easter hymns: ‘Jesus Christ is risen today…’ ; ‘Thine be the glory…’
It was not to be… It seemed that GG was overwhelmed by an awareness of the world’s sinfulness; he felt that we needed an Easter of penitent meditation and he only allowed us one hymn (‘There is a green hill far away” as if it was still Good Friday), to be sung very quietly and with a lengthy silence at the end.
Usually there would have been a lively cluster of people at the back of the church after the Easter service, drinking tea or coffee and chattering noisily about how they were going to spend the rest of the day. This time there was only a small, subdued group; many people had slipped quickly out of the building following the final blessing, some of them in tears. Not much was being said but I could sense a strong air of disappointment and repressed frustration among those who had stayed behind.
Behind the scenes Roger and Mac had probably already had some tentative conversations about the vicar. As churchwardens they held positions of responsibility but very little power and they could do little to alter the course of day to day events that lay almost entirely in the vicar’s hands. It was still the early days of GG’s extensible five year contract but he had taken it for granted that we would want him to stay with us until he was due to retire; meanwhile, Roger and Mac were worried that the rapidly shrinking size of the weekly congregation might condemn the church to closure even before the vicar had completed his initial five year term. The rector would be too discreet to comment on the performance of his colleague and in spite of his status he had, in any case, almost no real authority over our vicar; the churchwardens decided that the situation had now become serious enough to go over his head and approach the bishop directly.
Bishop Paul was about the same age as Gareth Gordon and, like him, took life and its hazards quite seriously: there the similarities ended. He agreed to meet Roger and Mac in a quiet corner of the diocesan office where they sat around a committee table ornamented by a flowery porcelain teapot with matching cups, saucers and plates. One of the plates carried a small but varied selection of biscuits. The bishop, dressed in his official purple under a smart black tailored jacket, looked most comfortable and relaxed. Roger and Mac sat facing each other across the table; both feeling slightly uncomfortable in their suits, Roger’s brown and smart, if a little dated, Mac’s grey, well-used and slightly too small. Roger’s healthy crop of dark hair and flamboyant orange tie marked him out as the youngest member of the trio; Mac’s white moustache and bald head gave away his seniority. Between them the bishop glanced at their faces in turn through a pair of unobtrusive wire-framed spectacles.
“It’s a real pleasure to meet you” said the bishop, with obvious sincerity. “Help yourselves to tea and biscuits. I understand that you’ve come to me with a problem; please speak freely, anything said here stays within these four walls.” And indeed, I do not know exactly how the conversation continued but I do know that after an hour or so of discussion the bishop rose, escorted his visitors to the outside door and waved them farewell saying: “Leave the matter in my hands, I will try my best to find a solution for you.”
A few weeks later when GG and his wife appeared for the Sunday service both of them seemed unusually cheerful and apparently distracted by some private secret. The reason did not emerge until, shaking the hands with some of the parishioners on their way out of the church GG revealed that: “Miriam and I have been invited to take tea with the bishop next Saturday… Such an honour!” By the time I had overheard GG repeating his titbit of gossip three or four times with his wife standing rather grandly behind his left shoulder I had realised that they were both immensely proud to have received a simple token of recognition from the head of the diocese.
Afternoon tea in the bishop’s parlour is, of course, an informal but wholly private occasion. However, I did discover later that, a few days after the event, the bishop made reassuring phone calls to both of our churchwardens. According to Roger he had said: “I see what you mean; he really is very boring, isn’t he? You were right to raise your concerns… Don’t lose heart, I’ll do my best to help…”
It was about six weeks, or perhaps two months, later when GG solemnly requested our prayers as he was facing a difficult decision. The bishop, it seemed, had asked him to consider leaving us and moving to the vacant parish of Rutley and Pinnerswell, a rural location several miles outside the town. Our vicar was, he assured us, “…deeply troubled at the thought of breaking my contract and leaving you in the lurch so soon after coming here…” Clearly his mind was balanced on a knife-edge, a sense of duty towards his struggling urban congregation set against the personal patronage implied by the appeal from Bishop Paul.
Even an unambitious vicar, if worthy of his calling, would be tempted to stick with the obvious challenges of life in the contemporary urban world rather than accept a move to the superficial charms and petty inconveniences of times spent in a draughty Georgian vicarage and cold, empty Norman churches. Perhaps Bishop Paul employed deliberate subtlety by delaying a few days before following up his initial approach with the offer of an additional role as Rural Dean of the Woldcombes Deanery. Although a quaint sounding title, the office of rural dean carries real responsibilities in the Anglican hierarchy but the bishop judged that in the sleepy rural landscape of the Woldcombes the post would give status and self-importance to the holder without causing him any real bother. The more devout members of the congregation may have prayed fervently for a satisfactory resolution of GG’s dilemma, but it seems to me likely that it was episcopal recognition and the bishop’s implied confidence in his qualities that finally persuaded the Reverend Gareth Gordon to forsake our little flock for pastures new.
* * *
I recall that on the first Sunday morning following GG’s departure one of the lay readers from the parish church came to take our service. As he didn’t know us very well, he suggested that we should pick the hymns ourselves. I was in my usual place, ready to play the old piano we still used in those days, when he announced the first hymn: ‘We really want to thank you, Lord…’