The Vicar’s Cautionary Tale

with Norman Longworth

(Taken from the one-day-to-be-published ‘Conflent Tales’)

 

Hi, my name’s Donald Blevins and Vicaring was my metier, as they say in France. Some (half)wit once called me Blev the Rev, and the name stuck, so, after throttling the fellow, I fell in and even put it onto my email address. (Yes , we spiritual types do indulge in modern-day technology, and No I am not going to give you the ultimate email address – that’s private).

The reason I’m writing this drivel is that some odd fellow approached me to write a piece for his Conflent Tales, and foolishly I agreed. Considering I live a 5 hours drive from the Conflent it’s a rum request , but it is true that have spent some time visiting here rather frequently of late, largely to bring the gospel to the district’s assorted Anglicans . And, though they take some ministering to, I have to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the sacred experience.

So the title of today’s sermon is ‘it was lost and is now fou…’ oops hold on, he distinctly said that this should not be a sermon . He said it in capital letters – NOT A SERMON!!! With multiple exclamation marks. So, sorry Mr whoever you are, I’ll start again.

I retired some years ago from my Parish in Lesser Wittering by the Sea and came to France to recover and regain my sanity.  In the last years it had suffered some buffeting from the winds of materialist change in the UK, and the average age of my parishioners was something over 80. That was partly because there were no young people in the Parish and, looking back on it now, possibly because of the length of my sermons.

Though Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, I did rather take great delight in ensuring that my flock was kept well informed about the totality of the scriptures and their significance for daily life. My record was 2 hours 7 minutes which I understand is also the record for running the marathon. One of the sheep, oops again,  I must stop calling them that – one of my congregation, a particularly objectionable type I seem to remember, told me that he would much have preferred to do the latter – he was one of the younger ones at 78 years old and suffered from heart murmur.  The others didn’t comment, but I could tell that they were concentrating very hard on the important lesson of what I was saying because their eyes were closed.

Church_Vernet_les_BainsBut now I’m reminiscing. I must move forward into this life. So how did all this come about? Well, I was holidaying in the area of Vernet les Bains, following in the footsteps of Kipling you understand. I had just come from the Casino, where I was blessing the sinners within I hasten to add, when I took an unaccustomed turning and found myself in front of a squarish building which looked uncommonly like a very English sort of church. On further examination, mostly by peering through the keyhole of the door at its western end, I discovered that it was indeed a church. I could see the vague shape of an altar and a few pews. I was so excited, I can tell you, but I didn’t rush into action immediately. After all it could have been a false vision sent by Satan to test me.  I am after all an ageing vicar – or rather ex-vicar – and a lifetime of speaking about miracles to my herd – er worshippers – has left me wary of the consequences of inappropriate action.

So the following day I took the same walk, and brought my wife with me. And there it was again, unused, unloved and unendowed.  The birds of the air and the fowl of the field ( I may have that quotation wrong – sounds more like a football metaphor)  could not have been happier than was I at that moment. Wiser counsel prevailed however. This is France, and this is a church. Not since before St Barthomelew’s night, have protestant churches been built in this benighted land. It is most likely to be a catholic look-alike built to entrap the unwary English who, according to some locals, infested this place a hundred years previously.

So I went to the Mairie and enquired about its provenance.   At first, they weren’t very helpful, I have to say, initially denying its existence and then reluctantly  informing me that an Anglican church had been built in the early 20th century, and that this was it. Imagine my joy on hearing this. A true revelation had been offered unto me. At the time it was Easter and I had a chance of a new resurrection – that of a truly Anglican church in a land of alien catholics. I must tell my friends, I must tell my colleagues, I must tell the world. My first thought was to inform the Headquarters of the Anglican church in the UK of my discovery.  It was not to be a stimulating series of conversations, as you will see.

DB: Hello , is that the Anglican Headquarters

Anglican Headquarters : Well sir. it depends  what you mean by Headquarters – we’re not a military establishment or a corporate business.

DB: I know that – Is that the place from which the Anglican Church is administered

AH: You could say that sir. Which department do you want?

DB: I don’t know really. I’m in France and I just found a church

AH: I imagine that there are many of those in France Sir. I understand that most of them are of the Catholic Faith.

DB: No, No this one  is the Anglican church

AH: Yes Sir the Anglican Church spreads far and wide

DB: No, no, you misunderstand this is a real church, Bricks and mortar, tower, big front door and so on

AH: You say this is made of brick, sir

DB: Well no not really it’s a stone church. The tower has crenellations and a little flag sticking out of the top.

AH: (Humouring me. Well Sir I do know that many churches are made of stone – we have a large number on our books and…

DB: Listen let me talk to someone in charge there. I’m a vicar

AH: A vicar you say , (aside to neighbour )– we have a right one here . This guy tells me he’s a French vicar and he’s found a church. Wants to speak to the boss – what should I do?

AH2: Put him through to the Janitor –That’ll sort him out.

AH: Hold on Sir I’m putting you through to another department

J: Hello sir, Janitor here, how can I help? Did you want your room cleaning?

DB: Who? No No, this must be a mistake I’m in France

J: My remit doesn’t extend to France I’m afraid sir, Its all I can do keep the people in this building clean and tidy.

DB: No listen carefully. I’m a vicar living in France and I’ve found a church. I want to speak to somebody about it.

J: (humouring me again) I see sir. And where would this church be?

DB: Well it’s in Vernet les Bains, you know Rudyard Kipling and all that.

J: I see, Are you Mr Kipling sir?

DB: No, No he’s been dead for 80 years. Listen can I speak to someone who knows about these things.

J: What things would they be sir?

DB: Well lost churches in France I suppose.

J: Well sir we don’t actually have a lost and found department here, This is an Anglican establishment. But I’ll do my best .(Puts down phone)

Act 2

DB: Hello hello is that Anglican headquarters

AH: (Oh God he’s back again) It is sir, I take it that you are the (loon..) er vicar who just rang.

DB: Yes I am – the Janitor couldn’t help. Please put me through to someone in authority.

AH: Well Sir they are all busy right now but if you could give me your email address  I’ll have  them contact you through the net.

DB: I don’t have an email address, I just came to France.

AH: Well sir i’m afraid that we can’t help.

DB: Alright I can tell that you think I’m three candles short of an altar but please believe me that this is a genuine call, I am a genuine vicar and the church is a reality in stone. I’m looking at it at this very moment.

AH: Well sir if you give me your name we can perhaps ring you back.

DB: My name is Blevin, I live in Pau and my parish was in Lesser Wittering by the Sea some years ago.

AH: Right Sir I’ll look that up and let you know.

Act 3 – 2 days later

DB: Hello Hello, is that Anglican HQ.

(Different telephonist) Well Sir it depends on what you mean by HQ, this isn’t a….

DB: I Know I know, a military establishment or a corporate business. I rang two days ago and your colleague said that someone would ring me back. No-one has

AH: Which colleague would that be sir.

DB: I don’t know he didn’t give me a name. But I gave him mine. It’s about a church I found in France.

AH: Ah I see (he’s back again.) Well sir this the Anglican Central Office. I can give you the number of  the office of our Catholic brethren if you wish.

DB: No No don’t do that. Let me repeat. My name is Blevins, I’m a retired vicar living in Pau and I have found a church in Vernet les Bains. An Anglican church. Please put me through to someone in authority.

AH: Alright sir, you can speak to the prebendary, he’s the duty cleric at present

DB: Thank you very much. Maybe I’ll get somewhere now

AH: Excuse me for disturbing you sir but I have a Mr Blevin on the phone. He says he has found a church,

P: Oh lord, one of those, Can’t you deal with it?

AH: Well sir he’s very insistent.

P: Oh well, I suppose I‘ll have to humour him. Put him through

Hello this is the prebendary speaking. How can I help you

DB: At last someone in charge. Listen I’m terribly sorry to bother you but I’ve found a church and I don’t know what to do with it.

P: I see, a church you say, and you have some difficulty in doing something with it.  Where is this church.

DB: It’s in France, a place called Vernet les Bains. You know  Princess Beatrice, Rudyard Kipling and all that.

P: OK Mr Kipling, Is Princess Beatrice there with you at this moment?

DB: No No, you’ve got it wrong.  Kipling and Princess Beatrice have been dead for more than 80 years

P: I thought so sir, so why are you impersonating Rudyard Kipling, who I understand you to say has been dead for more than 80 years?

DB: I’m not! My name is Blevin. I’m a retired vicar from Pau

P: I thought you said you live in Vernet les Bains

DB: No No I don’t. I’m just visiting and I’ve found a church – an Anglican church.

P: I see sir and how you know it’s a church and not a house built in the shape of a church

DB: Well it’s in stone. And it has a tower with a flagpole sticking out of the top and big wide door.

P: Many houses have something similar sir.

DB: No No, listen, I’ve looked inside. It’s got pews and an altar

P: Are you sure this isn’t another Catholic church I understand that there are many of those in France. They also have pews and altars.

DB: No I’m sure it’s an Anglican one. For a start it’s called St Georges

P: Vernet is in Catalonia isn’t it sir? I visited it once. I’m told that the patron saint of that catholic part of the world is also St George

DB: Yes he is, but the mayor has told me that it is Anglican and was built on a subscription run by Princess Beatrice and Rudyard Kipling in 1913.

P: I see, like the 100th sheep it was lost and has been found.

DB: Indeed so. So what do you suggest I do with it.

P: Er well there are several possibilities, but let me look it up in the Anglican records and come back to you. You said that your name is Beatrice Kipling didn’t you? I’ll look you up too.

B: No No My name is Blevin, Donald Blevin; Round here they call me Blev the rev . My old Parish was in Lesser Wittering by the Sea .  Ring me back quickly because I’ll be leaving in a couple of days time. My mobile number is xxx

P: Well Mr Blevtherev, I will try but these things take time and I have to find out where the records are – they could be anywhere.

DB: Thank you for believing me. (puts phone down)

P: I’m not sure I did. Lost and found church indeed and in France. It’s probably more a lost soul affected by the cheap wine. Which reminds me.  After such a trying phone call I badly need a large drink of that lovely communion wine we bought last week.

Act 4 – 2 days later

DB: Hello hello is that Anglican HQ

AH: Well we are not……

DB: I know, I know – a military establisnment or a corporate business. I rang 2 days ago. My name is Blevin.  Can I speak to the prebendary.

AH: Which prebendary would you like to speak to sir

DB: I don’t know he didn’t give me a name – the one who was on duty on Wednesday

AH: Can I say what it is about sir.

DB: It’s about a church I found in France.

AH: I see sir, and your name?

DB It’s Blevin, Donald Blevin.

AH: Thank you sir. (looks up notes -reads ‘on no account put this person through to me again!’) I’m afraid that the person you spoke to last time isn’t there sir – is there anyone else you would like to speak to.

DB: I don’t know – the bishop perhaps.

AH: I’m afraid that the bishop is at a convention in Brazil sir but I can put you through to his secretary.

DB: I’m not sure if that will help but at least it’s a try.

BS: Hello I am the bishop’s secretary . How can I help?

DB: You don’t know how relieved I am to hear a female voice. Maybe I’ll get some sense. My name is Donald Blevin, and I have found a church in France

BS: I’m sure Mr Evans that ther e are….

DB: Yes I know many churches in France and most of them Catholic, but this the third telephone call I have made and it’s getting very expensive for a retired vicar.

BS: A retired vicar – what did you say your name was

DB: Donald Blevin and my Parish was Lesser Wittering by the Sea

BS: OK. So about this church. Who have you talked to before

BS: The Janitor and the duty  prebendary last Wednesday.

BS: Janitor? That’s strange. So why aren’t you talking to him now?

DB: Because he wasn’t able to help, being the janitor and all.

BS: So why not the prebendary?

DB: He promised to ring me back and didn’t and I am told that he isn’t there today.

BS: Just hold on a minute while call another line

Hello – I have this man about a lost church on the line.

P: He’s a nutcase – says he’s a vicar called Blevtherev – so I looked it up and there’s no such name. And neither is there an Anglican church in a place called Vernet les Bains.

BS: I see, so I must humour him then.

P: Do what you think is right.

BS: Hello Mr Blevin, I understand that you have found a church. Does it have big windy spire on it?

DB: No it doesn’t and please don’t patronise me. Give me your mobile number and I’ll send you a picture of it from where I’m standing.

BS: I don’t give my mobile number to strangers but if it has email you can send it to Doris at anglican.com

DB: OK here goes

BS: Wait a minute while I switch my computer on (pause). It’s a very pretty church. Why do you think it’s Anglican?

DB: Because I now see that there is a notice outside it that says St Georges Anglican Church. It was built by subscription from Princess Beatrice and Rudyard Kipling.

BS: Well that sounds convincing. Can you ask those two people to give me a ring to confirm your story.

DB: No I cannot – they’re  dead,  deceased,  under the sod and have been for more than 80 years.

BS: Oh dear that does create a problem. I should tell you that we have no record of a church in a place called Vernet-les Bains, but you could call the Bishop of Europe. He’s somewhere in Italy. I’ll give you the number right now .

DB: Listen,  I’m leaving this place today and I can’t afford any more long telephone calls . Can you ask him to ring me.

BS: Oh dear I don’t think he would do that, but his secretary might. What’s your number.

Act 5 2 days later in Pau

ES: Hello, I’m looking for a man called Blevthrev, Is that you?

DB: Yes and No. My name is Blevin and people call me Blevtherev because I’m a retired vicar.

ES: Oh that might explain why no-one has ever heard of you. Sounds pretty irreverent to me (Bm BM) I’m the Bishop of Europe’s secretary and I understand that you have found an Anglican church.

DB: Yes it’s in Vernet les Bains – you know Kipling and Prince…- Oh forget that bit.

ES: That’s very interesting. You should know that we lose churches all the time out here.  Why only the other someone called in – said he had found one in San Remo – That’s only 20 miles from here and we didn’t know about it.  Strange thing to lose I know but there you are.

DB: So you believe me then. Hallelujah. I was beginning to think that I was looking at a mirage of a church in Vernet. You know that Kipling and Princess Beatrice organised the subscription in 1913?

ES: Didn’t know the company had been going that long. Yes we believe you. You wouldn’t credit the  number of lost churches there are in Europe of which we know nothing.  It’s all very comforting to know that Anglicanism had such a wide reach.

DB: Yes it is –  compared to these godless times. OK So what do you intend to do with it?

ES: What do you mean do with it?

DB: Well we can resurrect the Anglican Faith in the town. There are loads of Brits in the area and I’m sure we can get a decent congregation going. Only thing is, it’s in a bad state of disrepair and needs money spending to bring it up to habitable standards.

ES: Oh dear. I’m afraid that we don’t have any money for that sort of thing in Europe.

DB: Hm. That’s disappointing. So where do you think we might get the money from?

ES: Well you could try the Archbishop of Canterbury in the UK, but I don’t hold out much hope. He’s always saying that he’s stony broke. Best thing to do is to donate it to the local council for a small fee and hope that they’ll do something to help.

DB: But they’re all catholic round here. They’re not going to fork out for an Anglican restoration.

ES: Well you could try the Anglican Headquarters in London but I doubt they’ll do much.

DB: You’re right. They’ll tell me that this isn’t a military establishment or a corporate business  and pass it to the Janitor to pay.  Thank you for your advice and, above all, thank you for believing me. I was thinking of sending for the men from the Alzheimers Unit.  Can we count on the Bish to be present when we ordain a new chaplain?

ES: Not sure about that. He’s got a big area to cover. But you never know. Bonne Chance

As you will have seen, my ministrations had fallen upon mostly stony ground. But I remembered the words of our Lord on the mount. Particularly blessed are the pure in heart, and blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. And believe me, though it may have been yet another deadly sin, it was the earth around that church that I was determined to inherit, by all means possible. So I  extended my holiday, made a few decisions and sought to have an interview with monsieur le maire of Vernet les Bains.

Act 6 – 4 weeks later

DB: Thank you for seeing me M le Maire. You will know that your town contains one of the most significant heritage sights in Europe. I refer to St Georges Church near the Casino.

M: Hein? – Q’est-ce qu’il dit? (What did he say)

Mayor’s secretary : Il a dit que St Georges est une superbe exemple de la Patrimoine europeenne dans notre ville.  (He said that St Georges is an excellent example of European heritage and it’s in our town.

M: Aha. Qu’est-ce St Georges? (What’s St Georges)

MS : C’est une ‘glise pres du casino. Construit par Rudyard Kipling. (It’s a church near the casino constructed by Rudyard Kipling)

M : Ah Oui? Je n’en ai jamais entendu. parler  L’entreprise a dû faire faillite. (Never heard of it or him The company must have gone into liquidation). Il veut de l’argent comme tous les autres  n’est-ce pas ? ( He wants money like all the others doesn’t he?)

DB: Yes M le maire, with a small matter of 120,000 euros it can be made into a superb working church  for all the Anglican residents in the Conflent and beyond.

M: Combien il a dit? (How much did he say?)

MS : 120,000 euros M le maire.

M : Ridicule. On pourraitt acheter la Banque d’Angleterre pour ca. Qu’est qu’il y a pour nous dans cette affaire. (Ridiculous , we could buy the Bank of England for that. What’s in it for us?)

DB: Ah yes M le maire, I was coming to that. We propose to make it available as an exhibition centre for the town during the week when we don’t need it.

M: Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit?

MS : Il a dit, m le maire que l’eglise ferait un beau centre d’exposition  (He said the church would make a good exhibition centre.

M : Nous en avons déjà. Qu-est-ce qu’il y a d’autre pour nous. (we have one already, What else is in in it for us.)

DB: I was coming to that too. As a sign of our goodwill we propose to donate  the whole building to the town for a small fee.

M: Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit.

MS : Il veut nous donner l’eglise pour une petite quelque chose (He wants to give us the whole building for a little something)

M: Combien (how much?)

DB: 1 euro

MS: 1 euro?

M : Incroyable. Nous pouvons presque afforder 1 euro.  (Unbelievable – we can almost afford 1 euro)

DB: But of course you would be responsible for bringing the church up to exhibition and worshipping standard

M : Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit.

MS : Nous serions les responsables  pour sa restoration.  (We would be responsible for restoring it. )

M: Ah! Mais ca nous apartiennerait? (but we would own it?)

(aside if its ours we can do what we want)

DB: And there are many heritage associations in France who would donate funds to pay for that restoration.

M : Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit?

MS : Il a dit que nous pouvons utiliser les fonds des association patrimoines. (he said we can use heritage funds)

M: Ah, maintenant vous parlez. .(Now you’re talking )

DB: And we would undertake to pay 20,000 euros as a sign of our goodwill

M: 20000 euros? C’est une affaire–( its a deal). (Aside – that should pay for my new patio)

And so the dirty deed was done. A contract agreeing the responsibilities of each partner was drawn up. The Anglican church would be sold to the town for 1 euro and it would apply for funding to the various heritage associations who have money for this sort of thing.We would hand over 2000 of our loot.

Church_Vernet_les_BainsThe lost church had been found and disposed of. Now the small matter of raising a congregation with a vicar (me) who lives a 5 hours drive away in Pau  and a scattered community of Brits, some of whom, I knew not which, were practising Anglicans.  So, as is the way of these things, I called a meeting, and those who were present formed the committee, chairperson (me again), treasurer, secretary, churchwardens, sidespeople and we went to work. All of this on the basis that no-one would need to fork out a penny for church restoration. The congregation grew slowly, rather too slowly for my taste, though

probably faster than that at Lesser Wittering. Services were held on every other Sunday when I would

risk life and limb, and that of the other drivers, on the French Motorways in order to administer the offices.

Thus, progress was made on all English fronts but then, in the 2008 elections, the composition of town council took on a harder, less cooperative, edge. The town was put under restriction for over-spending its budget. The years passed by with nothing done to carry out its part of the bargain. After a few futile attempts to appeal to the better instincts of the Vernet Council, I am convinced that the blighters never intended to fulfil their sacred obligations. It was at that time that I decided to reduce the stress and retire definitively. No-one was interested in my carefully drafted sermons and the fight to restore the glory of  St George of Vernet les Bains was increasingly frustrated by the dragon of French indifference. It was affecting my health, which has never been good since I moved into the Parish house of Lesser Wittering by the Sea.

Luckily for me and for the church I had succoured into life, another ex-Vicar moved into the area and willingly took on the labour of love, preferring it to the head-banging oblivion of French television. Though his French is as good, or rather as non-existent, as mine, he’s a much younger chap with a constitution and energy to match. Unlike mine which has been church-centred throughout my life since Higher Education, his background is from the university of life. He can’t help being a Yorkshireman ,since that is where fate caused him to be born , but I am sure that the gentle life of la France Profonde, and dedicated adherence to the task of marketing the true faith in an environment populated by so many of the opposition, will take away those harder edges.

The good news is that last month, progress has been made. The heritage fund has coughed up, the Mayor is onside and the holy work is promised to start in September, though experience tells me that the year has also yet to be agreed.

Postscript

At one point, wondering how I had become so gullible as to write this piece, I asked the chap who commissioned it to become a member of my new congregation – the ymmygrant I believe he calls himself in another part of this book, how pretentious can one get! Any way it turns out he’s one those damned (in every way) dissenters. Says he was brought up in the Unitarian church, whatever that means. So I asked him – he says the meaning lies in the word Unitarian, as opposed to Trinitarian. Didn’t the blighter ever hear of the decision of the Council of Nycaea in 425AD? The second council, not the first in 415 – that’s when they got it all wrong , before the Emperor Constantine asked the bishops to change their minds.  The Nicene creed has been the bee’s knees ever since. I could have delivered a 3 hour sermon on that if I were back in Lesser Wittering by the sea.  That would have got them rocking in the aisles!

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