19 Jun The Open Door: A Short Story
The Revd Dr John Fox is curate at Sumner Redcliffs Anglican Church in Christchurch. He was an Intern (2004/05), has taught on the Residential Fellowship, and has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Auckland. He reflects here on the wonder and glory of the Easter season, and the importance of celebrating it, while in isolation.
A note from John: Yes, I am an Anglican priest. None of these people are in my parish, the Minister isn’t me, and this isn’t it. I’m deeply attached to Church, which is why I gave my life to her wholeness and sanctity, and also why I get to have a little affectionate fun at the expense of our common littleness. “Let both grow together until the harvest” (Matt 13:30).
This one is for the parishes I love. And the ones who, for some reason, love me.
The Parish Council met to plan reopening on a Thursday.
Sitting at two rickety trestle tables in the Fellowship Hall, at precise intervals, we curled over against the cold. Two of us were armed with coffee in travelling mugs, one brought knitting, and another a yak’s wool pashmina. We did not touch.
“Important thing is” said Albie Duncan “fitting us all in at once”.
Albie Duncan was the sort of man who always spoke first. Retired farmer. Red face, blue plaid work shirt, gumboots, telegraphic style. Emphatic. Minor. Sentences.
“Only if you want to kill us all!” said Moira, flipping her long greyish-red hair equally emphatically, the pashmina heaving. “The building only seats 50!”
“I think you’ll find” said Dan the retired lawyer “that is not provided for in the guidelines from the Diocese”. He steepled his hands, and leaned both elbows on the guidelines, a solid hundred pages or so, with spiral binding for easy and last minute changes.
“Sod the Diocese!” said Ben the Builder. He isn’t really called that, but he has a truck, like the Mad Butcher. He is a Baptist. Sometimes, unkindly, the rest of us wish he had stayed one.
“I don’t even know what a Diocese is” mouthed Moira at me.
“I don’t even know what a Diocese is!” exploded Ben.
We watched Edith wilt visibly. When she dies, they will stamp “Anglican” on her bones, lest she gets mixed up with the riff raff, and they will bury her with her feet pointing toward Lambeth Palace like a lost homing pigeon.
Simon the youth rep gave her hand a squeeze, and Edith undrooped.
“I should like to know” she said, squaring her shoulders “what the arrangements will be for Holy Communion. Someone will have to sanitise the hymn books”.
“Actually, Edith, we were thinking of using Powerpoint” said the Vicar.
Edith’s jaw dropped open in pure shock, her knitting ceased, and the Vicar hastened to fill the silence.
“I’ve got here the COVID Committee’s report. Someone is going to have to distance all the chairs. Ben, would you happen to have a tape measure?”
Ben produced a tool box with a thump. The table shook alarmingly.
“Have you been carrying that around?” asked Simon, awestruck.
“Comes in handy” said Ben. “What distance?”
“1 metre” said Moira.
“1.2 metres” said Dan, opening his binder.
“2 metres” said the Vicar, waving the clergy directive.
“Next question” said Albie Duncan. “Which of us can get down on the floor?”
“I can” said Edith, surprisingly. “It’s getting up again I have the trouble with”.
The Cleaning Team met to reconfigure the Church on Friday.
The churchyard was covered with frost, picking out in sharp relief each blade of grass, each moment, each headstone white, each part of the clear blue sky feelable. Our chilled breath stood out, mine muffled by my red scarf.
Moira brought an alarmingly yellow caftan, and some anti-bacterial scented oils that smelt vaguely of lavender, with an acid undertone, something like cat pee.
Dan brought the binder, and some coloured tabs.
Edith brought the Dettol, and a bunch of soft cloths cheerily embroidered with “I’m a holy duster” in an orange even time could not forgive.
Ben the Builder brought 20 chairs, builder’s tape, and a truck.
The Vicar brought the sanitiser and headache medication.
Simon brought his brother Jim, two of the 15 year old youth, and his pint sized girlfriend Katy, who is the most positive person I’ve ever met. This should be irritating, but she means it. I find her warm on a cold morning, and full of zap. Her eyes are blue.
Together we clustered in the church porch, facing the massive red doors, curled around with heavy iron hinges, the lock and keyhole chained with its modern padlock suddenly looking impregnable. It had last been open 7 weeks ago.
“I don’t know why we can’t have an ordinary door” grumbled Ben the Builder, wrestling with the iron work.
“It’s the House of the Lord” said Edith, simply. “Did you expect it to be small?”
The Vicar let loose a ghost of a smile, and unlocked the padlock.
“Tollite portas!” he said. “Lift up your heads O gates! And the King of Glory shall come in!”
I have a fairly clear notion that Edith is powered not by food (this is the fuel of ordinary people) but she is rejuvenated instead by that strangely Anglican smell: the one made of dust, light, furniture polish and mothballs. One does not think of faithfulness as having a smell, but alongside the worn mahogany pews, the slight clutter, and the startlingly red, blue, green and yellow of the stained glass window, the thing that screams “Holy” to me is that slightly ridiculous old lady in her bobble hat and pink puffer jacket, busy about her clutter.
Chrysanthemums, in red and orange.
The brass eagle on the lectern, polished up with tsking and clucking.
The Vicar’s cassock alb, picked clean of lint while he is not looking.
The too-heavy old piano, thumped back into life.
Hopeful disinfected hymn books.
And dust, catching fire in the light.
Ben the builder sets out the chairs. Precisely. He has formed Simon, Katy, Jim and Katy’s brother Mark into a bucket chain. He is a practical man, one with no room for nonsense or abstractions. He believes in Jesus, good rope, Skellerup gumboots and very very good meat pies. Even the AB’s will let you down, but there are other things eternal.
The pews around the wall are taped with builder’s tape at one metre intervals, and they are metre intervals for Ben has measured them.
Because Ben the Builder is a softy, they have been bedewed with Moira’s home remedied concoction, although I’m pretty sure I busted the Vicar saying a prayer over the bottle while Moira wasn’t looking. “Just in case!” he said.
The chairs have been moved in, and measured, and distanced properly. We persuade Dan to abandon his face mask eventually, but only because, as he concedes, we’d probably have given him COVID already if he was going to catch it. Simon and his brother spend quite a long time coming up to Dan and greeting and re-greeting him, with fist pumps and elbow collisions, and finally with the foot slide. They are interrupted by Ben the Builder, who demands their help with the screen, and prevents them getting out their skate boards to try the foot slide on the fly. A relieved Dan comes out of the corner.
The first fight happens quite soon after that, something to do with whether the youth leader has returned the screws, and how many there ought to be. The Vicar mediates, Katy brings me a cup of tea in a handleless mug. “Sorry” she said. “We took all the mugs away for some reason”. We sit in the front pew, the one that’s usually empty, and sip. The Powerpoint screen is half up, accompanied by a cracked soprano underneath the noise. Edith is singing her own tuneless version of “Fight the Good Fight”. If I didn’t know better, I’d call that a joke.
The parish of St Simon, Southdown, resumed Divine Service on a Sunday.
The sun blinked down on moss, and stone, and dripping water. The bell rope pulled, the pulley creaked, and for the first time in seven weeks, the bell clanged its raucous call. Church. Tin-tan-be-bo-de-tan. Church, Church finally, Church Church, Church now.
Ben the Builder brought his good heartedness, and tried to pretend he hadn’t missed everyone.
Moira brought her colour and verve, and matched the stained glass window, flaming out of lockdown like a firebird.
Dan sat precisely in a corner, and found the correct page.
Simon and Jim and Mark brought their guitar, and energy, and the occasional swear word, and sat bleary eyed in the back, clutching coffee like the Holy Grail.
Albie Duncan brought Lara the German Shepherd, who curled under the pew and went to sleep. He has worn the same squashed hat and gumboots to church since 1974.
The Vicar stood in the pulpit, the light in colours dancing red and turquoise and yellow and blue on the rice pages of the Bible, on the white priest’s alb, and announced the first hymn.
Edith thumped the piano, Mark chimed in on the guitar, and Jim on the apologetic snare drum. Bah-dum tish tish tish—and we bawled in ragged unison:
Built on the Rock, the church shall stand
even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land;
bells still are chiming and calling,
calling the young and old to rest,
calling the souls of those distressed,
longing for life everlasting.
Not in our temples made with hands
God the Almighty is dwelling;
high in the heav’ns His temple stands,
all earthly temples excelling.
Yet He who dwells in heaven above,
deigns to abide with us in love,
making our bodies His temple.
We are God’s house of living stones,
built for His own habitation;
He fills our hearts, His humble thrones,
granting us life and salvation.
Yet in this House, an earthly frame,
hither we come to praise His name;
Faith in our Saviour Confessing.
Jesus to us His spirit sent,
making with us His covenant,
granting His children the Kingdom.
I will leave to those who want them the big trophies, the important victories of the corona virus. Evil and wrong and death is stultifying in its sameness, shrinking into itself, savage in its rage. But among the little and the flawed, the flat and the young and the over-careful, the old and the broken, we have great treasure—treasure in clay pots, courage flowering forth like shook foil.
Today, we have an open door.
A lit-up Turkish caftan in the thousand colours of a firebird.
A roll of builder’s tape.
And Edith’s bobble hat, thumping up and down to a flat piano.
The Body of Jesus Christ keep you in eternal life.
(Image: “Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church”, by Lyn Gurney ca. 1950)