The clocks had gone back and Irish Winter Time had begun. It would be Palm Sunday before the evenings were bright; he always liked the returning light at Easter.
The pile of beech leaves that had gathered that morning at a corner of the gateway had moved on during the day; the grass on the bank outside the vestry door would need another cut before the winter, the mild days had produced an inch of growth.
He sorted through the bunch of keys to find the two necessary. He would joke with those he met that even Saint Peter would not have as many; they had all heard the comment numerous times, but were too polite to comment upon the fact.
Turning on the light switch inside the door, he keyed in the alarm code, muttering, as he always did about the need for intruder alarms in churches. The roar of the decades old boiler came up through the floor. “Thanks be to God for small mercies”, he thought; the boiler had not fired in the morning and only the fact that it was a mild morning had disguised the lack of warmth in the radiators.
He loved the church at night time. Light from the lamp posts along the road picked out the brighter colours in the stained glass. ‘There’s a sermon there, somewhere’, he thought, ‘brightness remaining even in the dark’.
He turned on the lights for the south transept of the church; it was rare that the main door would be needed at an evening service. Opening the transept door, he set out prayer books and hymn books for the faithful who might gather. He pondered the coat hooks in the porch; imagine a community so secure that one could take off one’s coat and hang it in the entrance to the church. Only in the coffee shops he visited each year in Austria had he encountered such a feeling of safety.
Marking the pages in the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible, he greeted the first arrivals. He would write the hymn numbers on a slip of paper and the organist would be able to name the hymns without opening the book. As ever, he was straightaway able to name what was to be sung.
In centuries’ old tradition, the black cassock, white surplice and preaching scarf were taken from the vestry cupboard. He pondered those who had stood in this spot before him and wondered how many would do so in the future. Silent prayers were said before walking across the chancel floor to start the service.
“Good evening. Welcome to our service. In our Scripture reading, this evening, we shall be thinking of Zacchaeus the tax collector. Thinking of Jesus’ call to all who will hear his voice, we sing our opening hymn, “Hark, my soul . . .”
The singing was led by a strong baritone voice; one of those rare souls who still attended church twice on a Sunday. The poetry of the words of Compline again absorbed his thoughts, “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end”.
The sermon was no more than a benign reflection upon the person of Zacchaeus, with a question as to what changes an encounter with Jesus would bring in one’s own life.
He stood in the porch at the end, bidding ‘Good night’ to the faithful. There was a moment of peace as he walked down the church to switch out the lights. There had been twelve people at the service, a tiny number, but twelve more than two of the local evangelical churches, who had abandoned their evening service for want of a congregation.
Opening the Preacher’s Book, that record of week by week congregational attendance, he recorded a congregation of twelve for the 7 pm service on the Fifth Sunday before Advent on the 25th October 2009.
This is a church that would be recognized by Canon Moran from Autumn Sunshine and by Grattan Fitzmaurice from Of the Cloth.