Ash Wednesday and Ruth begins Lent with a whimper

And so the forty days begin. It didn’t begin particularly well for me.  As I sat at the table with my morning coffee flicking through my iPad wondering why so many people are giving up social media for Lent, my mind was also ticking off the list of things I had to remember. Lemon for cleaning ashy thumbs. Tick. Pew sheets. Tick. Sermon. Oh no, not me this time. Jane who is on placement from Tisec is preaching for the first time today. Say a prayer for Jane. Tick. Leaflet for suggestions for Lent. Tick. Bishop’s Lent Appeal leaflets. Tick. Dish for ashes… ah. Where did I last see that? OIl for ashes should be in Aumbry but better take a knife to mix with oil… Lent visual display for back of church… now that should be in my study somewhere…

So I went from someone who confidently thought that they were all organised to someone who still had a few jobs still to do so better get a move on. It has been rather hectic round here of late with three parishes to care for and my study and desk are testament to that. Not an inch of carpet can be seen and Rita Kitten has taken to sleeping on top of a bookcase for comfort and in case she is covered in a pile of papers.

But I still had plenty time if I got a move on and so the day began. I gathered up all my bags of stuff and headed for church in plenty time. The heating was on so the church felt lovely and cosy. Good, that’s one less worry. Then as I switched on the lights it hit me smack in the chops. Green! All is green! My lovely Sacristan has forgotten that the church needed to be purpled before Sunday. Still time, if I get a move on. I whipped the cloths off the altar, wrestled the frontal and pole off the hooks and headed up the back to the frontal-cupboard. Going through the door the pole got caught and I nearly somersaulted over it. (Picture dog with large stick trying to get through narrow gate – that was me!) Garrotted in the middle and broke a few ribs probably. Ok, I didn’t break any ribs but it did hurt. A bit. More haste, less speed, Ruth.

ashesJane, the preacher arrived, and quickly helped fold pewsheets, light candles and set up the altar. I started the elusive alchemy of mixing oil and ash to find the right consistency for marking foreheads. I know of old that this is a delicate business. One drop at a time. It must be done slowly for suddenly two drops can turn dry ash into ash soup, ready to run down a forehead and onto a nose. This tends to ruin the solemnity of the moment. I know this to my cost. One drop, mix and stir. Another drop. Mix and stir. And so on, and so on. After five minutes my patience runs thin as I hear people arriving, and pour in two drops. Soup! Instant soup! I knew it. Then you have to hunt for more ash and so it continues. Aagghh!

There are some clergy I know who sit for minutes in prayer before the service. Some read over their sermon. Some pray. I perspire and lose my temper. Not good. Not good at all. The church that was cosy for our congregation now feels like a furnace and the sweat runs down my back. No amount of ash will stick to my glistening forehead, I reckon. 10 o’clock has come and gone. The congregation awaits patiently in prayerful anticipation. Their priest feels like it is all a disaster before it even begins. Next year I’m going to start setting up two hours ahead. One hour is clearly not enough.

“Cleanse our consciences, we beseech thee dear Lord… that we may worship you with pure hearts and minds.” Ha!  We bowed at the high altar and sat for a few moments. Breathe deeply, Ruth, breathe deeply. “Grace and peace to you…” And it began. Lord, have mercy… We turn from sin and seek your face… ‘Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests weep…’ (words from Joel). I sit up straight. How funny is that? Not quite at the weeping stage, Ruth, just a teeny bit dramatic as usual. And I let it go. I let the stress go. I felt the tension drop out of my shoulders. I noticed the green lectern falls left behind at the eagle lectern (or Big Burrd as we call him) and smiled. For it doesn’t really matter. And my little flock came up to have the mark of ashes on their forehead and I was able to do that for them. To mark each one a beloved child of God. Repent and turn to Christ. Repent. Repent. Repent.


How to tell you are in Holy Week

You might be wondering if your priest really does know it is Holy Week. Let me tell you how you can tell…

  • if she is eating Coco Pops for lunch because she didn’t get shopping last week due to the lack of a day off;
  • if she is eating Easter eggs, bought 3 for the price of 2 several weeks ago, for dinner for the same reason;
  • if the deodorizer on the cat litter tray is failing to do its duty;
  • if the dust all over the house is causing everyone to have allergic rhinitis;
  • if by Good Friday she is scraping mould off bread and slamming it in the toaster willy nilly;
  • if her desk is defeating the laws of gravity where piles of book lie stacked at a tilt and papers remain unfiled;
  • if she spends three hours, not in the Garden of Repose, but searching for the meditation that she wrote for it several weeks ago and filed it under either Liturgy or Good Friday or Sermons or Holy Week or…;
  • if the supply of black clerical shirts is so low that she is reduced to wearing a poly-cotton one that chokes her and turns her face puce;
  • if the hairdresser appointment had to be cancelled because of a last minute crisis and she is reduced to holding her head upside down, blasting it with Elnette and hoping that will do (it won’t 15 minutes later, I can tell you that now);
  • if the supply of Rescue Remedy is getting very low and she is glancing nervously at the cooking brandy;
  • if the last newspaper article she read was when someone posted on Facebook a story about a vicar and a potato;
  • if she decides purple socks will just have to do instead of black (likewise with bras);
  • if the thought of putting a transfer straight on a Paschal Candle reduces her to tears;
  • if the Mint Imperials are running low;
  • if she wakes up screaming at the nightmare when nobody turned up for church cleaning and decorating on Holy Saturday;
  • if her nails are still scarlet from Palm Sunday (now chipped) and not appropriate for the season at all;
  • if her bottom lip quivers at the slightest criticism;
  • if no articles have appeared on her blog for weeks, or suddenly there is a flood of them as she finds them suitable for procrastination;
  • if her adrenaline keeps her high as a kite from 5.30am on Easter morning until the last champagne quaffer leaves at lunch time when she collapses in a big lump in her recliner and vows to be more prepared next year.

That’s how you can tell if its Holy Week.

Sinking into ecclesiastical despair

I usually look forward to getting the Church Times. Usually I browse it on a Saturday but often it has to wait until Monday before I can open its pages and see who’s doing what to whom in ecclesiastical circles. This week it took me down, down, down into the depths of despair. There was little within its pages to make you glad to be a member of the church.

There was a report from the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly which I suppose might have lifted my heart, reporting as it did on the continuation of the moratorium on accepting people in same-sex relationships into ordained ministry. It seems that it was a good debate, dealt with sensitively.  Sadly, on the same page, there was a report about an email sent by Colin Slee, now deceased, about a vile meeting regarding the selection of a bishop in which the Archbishop of Canterbury lost his temper, people were in tears, and Jeffrey John missed out once more. It seems that the Church of England process for electing bishops (well, its not really election is it?) is not terribly healthy and makes me feel decidedly queasy.

A few pages on and I came across an article on Clergy Stress carried out by St Luke’s hospital. Stress and anxiety were cited as the most prevalent reason for sickness absence in a survey. It is a stressful job and sometimes you do feel as if you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. It can be isolating, lonely and exhausting. Thankfully I have some really good clergy friends who empathise, sympathise and will share their hilarious stories at the drop of a hat. But I wonder why we don’t cover more about this in CMD and Clergy Conferences.

Over the page and I see an evangelical pastor is slating the Richard Chartres’s royal wedding sermon. This American visitor to our shores complains that it didn’t preach the gospel. (He was speaking to a Men’s Convention – grrr.)  He is unhappy that the Bishop didn’t talk about sin, about repentance, about the Lordship of Christ. I just despair when I read stuff like this. You know, if we can’t respect one another in the Church what hope have we got of earning respect from others?  And no, I shall never ever preach on sin and repentance at any wedding I take.

In my temper I almost overlooked the wee snippet that said that Religious Hate Crimes have gone up in Scotland by 10%. Sigh.

On the facing page there is a picture of an alarming looking man who looks like he’s sitting on an electric chair at a medium voltage and he turns out to be Harold Camper, the radio evangelist who told us all the Rapture was going to happen last week. Why do we even give column inches to this kind of nonsense?

Scotland didn’t make an appearance in Margaret Duggan’s map of Britain again.

Then we get on to the two big main articles: one on Walsingham and the other on Women Bishops. (I could hear my teeth grinding at this point.)

Walsingham is always a sore point for me. A place of pilgrimage and peace for many and a place of hurt and pain for others. I don’t want to delve into this more closely or I get a pile of hate-mail, but being a priest who happens to be a woman means that I won’t go there until I am permitted to celebrate Mass.

The Guide on Women Bishops covers the same old arguments and again I thank God that I don’t work in the Church of England. Some women bishops interviewed talk of it being a non-issue, and about being accepted for who you are in their own countries. Alongside those stories of affirmation there are the tales of the most shocking behaviour at the last Lambeth conference, about being called names, being sent to the spouses group several times, about 100 bishops walking out of a talk on women and human rights, and about not feeling safe. This is absolutely shocking. Disgusting. That this behaviour goes on in Britain in a church I am in communion with. I think not.

So I’ve folded up the Church Times and put it in the recycling bin. Let’s hope something more positive can come from it now.