Today, 25th January, is the day on which the church remembers the conversion of Saint Paul. The story, from the Acts of the Apostles, of Saul travelling to Damascus and seeing a blinding light and hearing a voice from heaven is read each year.
The day recalls a journey to a small town in Co Down on a Thursday evening. It was 1990 and I had been invited to preach at a church dedicated to Saint Paul. It was a rural parish that would never had a congregation sufficient to fill the large building and a couple of dozen ventured out on the chill evening.
The rector was a gentle soul, grateful I had come to preach and grateful to those who had come to the service. He was a man who sometimes seemed to gentle for the frequent harshness of ministry. A sharp wit and scholarly mind, a man with a love of the Prayer Book and liturgy, he was out of place in a community characterised by deep Orangeism and biblical fundamentalism.
Arriving as a young clergyman in the mid-1960s, a turning point in his life had come in the 1970s. One of his children had been cycling on a country road when passed too close by a lorry. The child had been pulled under the lorry and although surviving had sustained serious brain injury.
The rector of Saint Paul’s church never spoke of the accident, nor did he ever speak of what happened when his mental health declined and he sought the help of his bishop. He was told that the bishop would be attending a wedding reception in a local hotel and that if he wanted to see the bishop then the bishop would see him in the hotel bar before the wedding guests sat down for the meal. This was the extent of the episcopal care he received.
The rector of Saint Paul’s retired around the turn of the millennium. He had spent thirty-five years in a parish where his ability and learning were never valued, where he never had an opportunity to be the priest he could have been. There seemed a deep sadness in an institution that talks of pastoral care leaving someone in a place for decades.
I meant to write to him to thank him for the happy memories I had of him, for smiling moments like that when told the name of Miriam, my daughter, he straightaway asked whether I had bought a tambourine (check Exodus Chapter 15 for his quickfire allusion). Of course, I never did write, anyone who has written to me will know how bad I am at letter-writing.
Even his retirement was marked by sadness. After receiving his retirement presentation, his rectory was raided by violent criminals who tied up he and his wife and made off with anything of value.
Not until 2008 did I discover where he had retired. Attending the funeral of an uncle in Oxfordshire, I saw a picture of the rector of Saint Paul’s wife among the photographs of the parish leaders on the noticeboard in the church. The vicar explained that the rector of Saint Paul’s had died within a couple of years of retirement and that his wife was a much valued member of the parish.
I remember feeling a great sense of sadness that there had been no happy ending to the story, that the harsh years never led to him ever having the opportunities he deserved.