Advent begins next Sunday. Looking through Advent pieces, I found this piece I wrote in 1995. It appeared in the Church of Ireland Gazette in December that year.
It was written when I was Rector of the Parishes of Bright, Ballee and Killough on the east coast of Co Down. My own parishioners who read the Gazette recognized the story immediately – the fictional Ballykill Church was Ballee and the equally fictional Drumkilly was the church at Clonmellon in Co Westmeath.
When I told the story in Dublin, a lady came to me after the service and said the last two ladies in Clonmellon church were her aunts – Ireland is a small country.
The ‘vestry’ is the parish church council.
‘Cromlyn’, the columnist in the Gazette was Canon John Barry, who died in 2006.
“Ballykill Church needed a new communion table. The table they had was not presentable and the damask cloth, which had covered it for fifty years, was now threadbare. A new cloth would cost the best part of a great deal and a new table would be even more. Not that you could put a new table into Ballykill. The woodwork was more than two centuries old and was well-seasoned.
What was to be done? Never flush with cash, the Church was sustained by a faithful few dozen. English, the rector, raised the matter at a vestry meeting. “Mr. English”, said a vestryman, “could we not get a table from a church which is closed”: so English made inquiries. Sure enough, outside the Pale stood the church at Drumkilly, closed now the last two faithful ladies had been promoted to glory.
The necessary authorities agreed to the acquisition and one fine day in June, English, with two good men and strong, ventured down to collect the Drumkilly table.
The object of their journey achieved, they went to see Drumkilly Church. A sad sight now: slates missing, panes of glass cracked; the interior gutted. English stood and stared at the ceiling. The building had no redeeming features and now had no friends. He thought about the people who had worshipped in this place, the children who had been baptised, those whose lives had been joined together in holy matrimony, those who ad followed the mortal remains of their loved ones into the churchyard outside. What had kept them going?
The last two old ladies, worshipping in a building which was gradually falling down, what had inspired them to come to this place on a Sunday? What thoughts had gone through their minds as they stared at the widening patch of damp?
He was stirred from his thoughts. It was time to go home, back to Ballykill with the table from Drumkilly.
The table was restored with great love and reverence by a church warden who devoted many, many hours of his spare time to the work. Transformed, it was placed into the sanctuary of Ballykill Church and looked so well you would have believed it had stood there for centuries.
English took great delight in the table. He was not sure why. What was it about this piece of wood which was so fascinating? Perhaps it was a reminder of the worship of the faithful in Drumkilly, he didn’t know.
On the edge of middle age and prone to bouts of depression, he was finding the ordained ministry more and more difficult. The faithful gave him encouragement, but there were few enough of them. Why did the Church seem so adrift? Why did the future seem so bleak?
As the autumn months passed he sank into a melancholy. Going through the motions of ministry, he often wondered why he had not done something else. He could have done something with his life.
The table in Ballykill Church fascinated him, but it could also evoke a deep despondency. What had it been about? The passing years of Drumkilly Church, the generations of worship, the faith of those people, what had it all meant? Was their only legacy crumbling masonry and a weed-covered graveyard?
Advent approached and stirred up no enthusiasm in English’s heart. The weeks of Advent meant Christmas was near, a festival in which he could only see excess and false bonhomie. Preparing for worship on Advent Sunday, he picked up the Gazette. The slim journal fell open at one of its weekly features, the column written by Cromlyn. “What is the stubborn old so and so on about this week?” He thought to himself.
Cromlyn’s column was a masterpiece. It told the story of an old lady who had carried on worshipping in her church after it had been closed. Amidst the decay and dereliction she struggled to preserve the sense of holiness she had found in the place. Scrubbing-brush, duster and a pot of paint, this was her service at the sanctuary. On the east wall, with a faltering hand, she had painted three words in red, “TILL HE COME”.
English’s eyes filled with tears as he read the piece, perhaps it was sentiment, but it was more in anger at himself. He had failed. All these years and he had not seen what was obvious to a little old lady in Cromlyn’s Aughnadrooley.
The Church at Drumkilly had not been about the things of this world. It was not about numbers or prosperity or maintaining traditions. It was about Him, “till He come” the old lady had painted. The hope which sustained the faithful was not based on anything human, the closing of the Church did not mean their hope had been in vain.
English suddenly realised how his own liberal thinking had blinded him to the real power and the real hope of the Church. “From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead”, those words had never formed much part of his theological training, but it was those words which gave hope to those little groups of faithful people in little churches across the country. Their faith might seem strange to modern eyes, but God himself would vindicate them.
“Yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself”. When had he last heard those words at a funeral service? It was no longer considered appropriate to talk about worms destroying the body, yet, in the midst of this grim reality, generations of the faithful had expressed their conviction they would see God.
Like a light on the road to Damascus, English saw what sustained these people, firmly, stubbornly, even irrationally, they believed, “he will come”.
Advent looked different now and Christmas became real in a way it was hard to remember. “And so with Angels and Archangels”, he thought to himself, “and with all the company of heaven, and with old Annie, we laud and magnify thy glorious name.”