It was some time between the great toilet flood of 2008 and the unexpected appearance of Miss Whiplash at this year’s Confirmation Mass that I realised being chairman of the parish council wasn’t working out to plan. I’d taken on the job with grand ideas of turning our parish into one of the green shoots of the late pope’s new springtime of the faith, but I was beginning to suspect that I was not, actually, the gardener.
The realisation came hard. After all, I was young(ish), I’d studied theology and I’d read all the Catholic blogs. I’d gone from pewsitter to chairman in a year, and the sudden eminence supplied me with a great deal of breath. Here was my chance to change the focus of our complacent suburban parish from the mundane to the sublime, from barbecues and beavers (of the woggled variety) to Benediction and Benedict.
First idea: apologetics courses. The Faith, I explained to the AGM, is under fire. We need to defend it and, what’s more, I would be prepared to lead a course myself. The choirmaster, impeccable in jacket and tie and 50 years of service to the Church, inquired if someone more eminent might be available. Now, what can we do about the mysterious case of the disappearing hymnals...?
Second idea: Eucharistic Adoration. What better way to centre the parish on the actual presence of Jesus I told the council? We already do it, they told me – didn’t I know? Er, no. That had somehow passed me by, despite my being a parishioner for a decade. Besides, hardly anyone came. Now, what are we going to do about the Japanese knotweed in the car park...
Third idea: the Extraordinary Form... Um, maybe later.
But then, strange things started happening. As the congregation gently dozed during one of our bishops’s taped pastoral messages, the parish priest, in a truly heroic display of alertness, remained sufficiently awake to hear him commend Eucharistic Adoration. We moved Eucharistic Adoration to a different day and time, the PP himself spent hours sitting quietly at the back of the church during Exposition, and people started coming. Not in great numbers at first, but always at least three or four, and then more and more until we had quite a crowd appearing for Benediction.
Our curate, driven to distraction by the sight of a parent reading The Da Vinci Code while waiting to sign his son up for the First Communion course, took on the polo-necked purveyor of warmed-over Gnostic gobbledygook in sermons and talks, and was last spotted wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, a copy of The God Delusion on his lap and a notebook by his side with “Is this the best that you can do?” scrawled in it.
And the Extraordinary form? Well, anyone hearing the PP weaving his way through the first bar of the Credo before falling into a relieved silence as the choir takes over would realise that that really would be a miracle. But we do have one Sunday Mass in Latin and I am beginning to suspect that there might be another hand at work in the life of the parish. Can’t imagine who.
But what about the great loo flood of 2008? Gum in the parish hall urinals. In fact, the parish hall is the answer to most of the questions that come up in council meetings. Missals and mission, justice and peace, they all take second place to used nappies, overflowing toilets and overrunning parties.
And, after all the hours spent on discussion, some questions remain unanswered. Must used nappies be left abandoned? Could the cubs make any more noise? Is it really impossible to close the door when leaving? And what is it about the irresistible attraction of urinals for gum chewers?
None of these were matters I had anticipated spending much time on when I began the job – my sights were set on higher things – but a few years in the job have taught me to value the mundane. After all, ours is an incarnational faith. God Himself got his hands dirty and His knees cut, and the love that moves the sun and other stars is the love that runs the coffee mornings and mops the floor – not a pleasant sight after a baptism party.
The outgoing chairman of the parish council, when he asked if I wanted the job, told me: “You’ll have no power, you’ll be blamed for the things that go wrong and you’ll be ignored when they go right.” At the time I thought it was a warning. Now I know it was a promise.
But there’s more to tell about our parish, like the curious case of the sensitive bishop and the unacceptable weblinks, but I hope to have given some idea of what an ordinary parish council does and how it works.
But one question remains. Miss Whiplash. We have a traveller family in our parish, and recently one of the boys was to be confirmed. Now, the women of the clan are impressive in their devotion to the Faith and remarkable in their resistance to the cold: even on the chilliest of days, navels and knees appear to give glory to God and confessible thoughts to males. We’d considered saying something about appropriate clothing before, but this was one of the lads, and the youngest. We thought we’d got away with it, but we forgot his sponsor. I doubt the bishop did.