There’s a line in a Garrison Keillor story that manages to be ordinary and profound in the way that Keillor does so well. A character’s mother shifts subtly in her comments to her daughter who has not fulfilled the mother’s dreams. “You could do something with your life”, the mother would say; then one morning the change comes, “You could have done something with your life”. The shift in tense is telling; the days of opportunity are past, all that is left is regret.
Washing the chalice, after the midweek communion service with the faithful handful who come along Wednesday by Wednesday, there was a sense of a shift in tense.
The readings used this morning were those set for yesterday, 28th October, the day when the church remembers Saints Simon and Jude. No-one would have come had there been a service yesterday, it is hard to muster a congregation on one weekday morning without attempting anything ambitious. In English cathedrals and other such places, the readings used today would have been those for 29th October, when the church remembers the 19th century missionary James Hannington. Drying the chalice and paten and putting them into the safe, the thought came that it would have been nice to have been somewhere that remembers James Hannington and all those other daily observances. It would be nice to have lived in one of those medieval closes and to have walked into a spectacular building each morning to share in the worship.
“You could have done something”, says Keillor. The tense shifted.
The Church of Ireland is a very flat church. There are five hundred clergy in parishes that, for the most part, differ little from each other. There are a dozen bishops, who are fortunate if they have a part-time secretary. There are no grassy closes within medieval walls to hurry across for choral evensong at 3.30. There are no places where dean and chapter members gather in the half-light of autumn mornings for the saying of matins before the daily Eucharist.
Colleagues would point out that there is a single church in this parish, with a rectory across the road; that there are no crumbling buildings; no requirement to cover half a county on a Sunday morning; no need to constantly fund raise to keep the accounts from sinking into the red; no difficult people opposing change at every turn; no fundamentalist elements trying to force their own agenda; no nasty people holding onto positions for themselves. The list of positive points is lengthy and is topped by a community of good people who carry along a temperamental rector!
To spend a generation or more in a parish here is not unusual, two colleagues within a few miles have both spent over thirty years where they are. To be somewhere twenty years is unexceptional; to leave in less than ten is over hasty.
All the same, for a moment, it would have been attractive to have heard the words commemorating James Hannington being read. For a moment, it would have been nice to have a team of vergers swooping in to tidy away after a service. For a moment, anyway. Maybe it’s a healthy thing to acknowledge disappointment.