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Church Times - Diary February 2019

I’ve just experienced the longest Sunday Morning Service I’ve ever been to. I was on my usual post Christmas break in Barbados (the tourist police still haven’t  caught up with me yet to say that vicars aren’t allowed in the Caribbean, which is a sneaking feeling I get every time I go) and I was in St James, one of the historic Anglican Parish churches on the island. It was the Parish Eucharist with the Baptism of four babies. Two & a half hours it took , including an edifying sermon a smidgeon under 35 minutes. A number of obvious visitors melted away, but the regular congregation took it breezily in their stride. I was impressed.  If I tried the same approach in my own Parishes, there would be restlessness at the hour and twenty mark, with an intervention by church officials armed with Churchwardens’ staves at the hour and a half. Mind you, one morning in a spirit of mischief I might be tempted to have a go…..

 Barbados is actually a hugely religious island. There are supposedly some 300 churches of assorted denominations dotted around the countryside, as numerous as the Rum Shops. Well, almost. That works out staggeringly as a church per 1000 residents, which puts our church numbers in the shade. As well as the main Anglican parishes (which are the chief administrative units on the island) there are Methodists, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and pretty much  any grouping you can think of. I remember being rather taken with a jaunty little pink hut that called itself the “Little Jerusalem Deliverance Center”- the spelling suggesting it’s American origin, I suspect.

 But the presence of the churches is not just physical buildings, but everywhere. One day, a van cut in front of me; it’s back doors were decorated with the sentences “Jesus is coming. Are you ready?”, which took me by surprise. Similarly a number of bus stops have been adopted by church groups who have inscribed “Be still and know that I am God”, which on reflection is a splendid thought for people compelled to sit and wait in bus queues.

 It is, though, the gentle faithfulness of ordinary people which is most affecting. One woman I noticed in the café of a supermarket with her shopping at her feet, reading Isaiah from her bible held in one hand with a coffee held in the other. But the one who impressed me most was a young woman I often saw in the mornings. Most days, as I have said before, I walk along the beach for about half a mile collecting sea-glass before saying morning prayer on a jetty that stretches out to sea. It is a touching place for me, a reference point I can lay down the past and lift up the future. I smiled at her as she sat on a wall, noticing she always had a bible open. Dressed in uniform, she was getting ready to work in a local hotel. One morning I stopped to talk. Her bible was well thumbed and annotated; she was studying St. John. As I went to pray at my touching place I knew I wasn’t praying alone.

 I recently bumped unexpectedly into an old friend.

  I was in the National Gallery, having seen the wonderful Mantegna and Bellini exhibition and – uncharacteristically – had ventured into the less frequented basement area. And there was my old friend who I realised I hadn’t seen for years: the wonderful painting by Claude Lorrain of  “Psyche outside Cupid’s Castle”, also known as “ the Enchanted Castle”. It is a glorious painting of twilight, atmospheric and pensive; and although the figure of Psyche has always looked a bit lumpen to me, it is a picture that resonated with me , both as a child and as a young adult. At one time it was in pride of place in one of the main galleries upstairs (in the 18th century any Grand Tourist worth their salt wanted a Claude; the young  John Keats knew and responded to this painting in a letter to a friend and may have been inspired by it in the “Ode to a Nightingale”) so to see it relegated to second rank was quite melancholic. For a long time it was my favourite painting, and - although that no longer -  for many years it was a reference point, another touching place, if you will. I remember as a young ordinand in 1986 I was in my first term at theological college and was feeling miserable and out of place, wondering if I’d done the right thing. I had gone to the National Gallery thinking “At least I can touch base with “the Enchanted Castle”; something I can rely on”. And when I got there, there it wasn’t; it was off in an exhibition somewhere. I was gutted and felt that I could either burst into tears or laugh: so I sat in the middle of the gallery and laughed & laughed. Kindly, the attendants let me, which I suspect they wouldn’t now. From that point things picked up and I had a brilliant time in my training.

 As I stood looking at the long forgotten painting, I compared the blond fringed twenty-five year old  student in jeans and sweatshirt I had been, laughing on the floor of the National Gallery, with the soberly dog collared and overcoated fifty-eight year old I was now. I pondered sitting on the floor and giggling, but decided against. I rather regret that now.

 Jetties and prayers in Barbados, a lost painting and memories in a Gallery. All touching places, and stepping stones along the way.

Reproduced by kind permission of The Church Times.

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