If I go to church now, it is to it at the back of a vast red brick 1950s Catholic church to listen to the homily from the parish priest. The Church of Ireland in which I served and which I once knew has disappeared, its ways alien to the world in which I live, its words irrelevant to those with whom I work.
My ideal of a Church of Ireland clergyman, makes the occasional, seemly appearance in the pages of re-read William Trevor novels. He has disappeared from the contemporary world.
There seemed a time, perhaps lost and gone forever, when the priest of advancing years might cut a particular figure. He was the avuncular cleric, sat in in his study with a pipe of tobacco and a cardigan with frayed sleeves, staring into the burning coals of the fire. He was the cleric whose gentle words bore a stark contrast to the fierce strictures of the bishops. He was the man who bore no-one ill will and accepted without complaint the slings and arrows of 20th Century Irish history
It is to such a cleric that Ulster poet John Hewitt is a guest in his 1946 poem Freehold:
I found my poet-parson and his fire
expecting me. When unobtrusive care,
that natural acceptance of a friend,
had eased my tired bones, and my weary mind
had stretched its knotted sinews, that still man
and his quick wife, the doctor, once again
confirmed intention, slowly making plain
that by heart’s blind wisdom I had found
my seeming-aimless feet on solid ground;
that, when good talk had brimmed my singing head,
the lamp, the shallow stairs, the friendly bed,
till chortling blackbird in the neighbour trees
woke me to sunshine and the cruising bees.
Such a friendship now seems an unlikely phenomenon: a huge cultural gulf has opened between parsons and poets.
Poets would now be regarded with suspicion in a utilitarian and managerial church. They would be regarded as holding mistaken beliefs amongst the anti-intellectual wing. They would be seen as an irrelevance by planners and strategists. They would be felt to be unruly and anarchic by those with an obsessive desire to impose alien liturgies upon quiet low church congregations. They would be ranked among the unsaved by those who have turned Jesus into little more than a cipher for their own ideology.
Poets and parsons now inhabit different worlds, to the loss of the parsons. The increasing loss of engagement with the intellectual world outside has left the church to talk to itself, satisfied with its circular arguments, smug in its own self-importance.
Ragged cardigans and slippers beside the fire represented an age where material poverty was matched by a cultural richness.