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Real-life Vicars of Dibley: As Reverend Geraldine returns, JENNY JOHNSTON meets some female clergy

Just when we needed her most, the Vicar of Dibley is back — wi-fi and Zoom log-in details permitting.

This evening, the Rev Geraldine Granger, played by Dawn French, will address her virtual congregation, with some much-needed musings on coronavirus, community and, most likely, chocolate. Praise be!

While our favourite fictional vicar — who will be taking the knee in support of #BlackLivesMatter in the show — will no doubt share what it has been like to lead her church in a pandemic, there are plenty of Geraldines who are doing it for real, trying to minister amid the mayhem.

Here, five female vicars tell us about what this year has taught them about life, faith, FaceTime and keeping their flocks safe in the most challenging of times.

Rev Geraldine Granger, played by Dawn French, will address her virtual congregation on Monday evening…

PRAYERS INTERRUPTED BY BATHROOM TINKLE

The Reverend Kate Bottley, 45, lives with her husband Graham and two children in Nottinghamshire. She came to public attention through the TV show Gogglebox and now works as a broadcaster. She says:

What have I learned from the pandemic? Apart from never leave your knickers drying on the radiator behind you when you have a Zoom meeting with the bishop, you mean?

My vicar WhatsApp groups have been awash with such horror stories. Early in lockdown, there was a poor vicar who set himself on fire with the candle. One of my colleagues was having a virtual prayer meeting when her husband started weeing in the bathroom next door and the tinkle was too loud for comfort. She has never said The Lord’s Prayer in such a shouty manner.

The Reverend Kate Bottley, 45, lives with her husband Graham and two children in Nottinghamshire

The Reverend Kate Bottley, 45, lives with her husband Graham and two children in Nottinghamshire

There but for the grace of God . . .

I’ve loved being able to worship remotely and attend virtual church. It has made me laugh that none of us have left home but we’ve still been to Mass at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

I’m what they call a supply vicar, so I dip in and out of vicar-ing and don’t have my own parish. This means I have been spared some of the more stressful parts of ministering during a pandemic.

I don’t have to deal with the logistical nightmare of having two churches in different tiers, or have a nervous breakdown when the rules get changed on a Saturday night. But I know how much pressure my colleagues are under. Vicar work never was about just turning up on a Sunday — but at the moment it’s a 24/7 operation.

I have still been doing funerals. Roughly, one a week. They have nearly broken me. Perhaps the most surprising thing I have learned is how much of my ministry is about touch — particularly when you are dealing with people who are dying, and grieving. I hadn’t been entirely aware of how much of my job is non-verbal, about the little hand squeeze as the widow gets out of the car at the funeral.

We often bury people when we don’t know the family. Pre-Covid, the family visit was where you did the ground work. By the time you get to the actual day, you know the deceased. In lockdown, I did a funeral and realised — and it was awful — that I didn’t know which man in the black tie was the next of kin. I had to ask the funeral director. That’s not right.

I buried my own auntie in this pandemic. Tough. Most people when they attend funerals are looking at the coffin, and the vicar. But the vicar is looking at the congregation and to see ten people, where you would expect to see dozens, is shocking. To see them in masks, too. I saw my mum crying for her sister behind hers, and no one could give her a hug and that was heartbreaking.

I had a call asking if I’d go to see a dying man. I had buried his wife a few years ago, and he asked for me. At that point you have to decide what you are willing to defend, and for me I couldn’t see how anyone could begrudge a dying man his request to see a priest. I went.

We stayed apart, as much as we could. I put an apron on, like the carers do, I had a mask on, disposable gloves. We couldn’t share communion — the nature of communion is that it’s something you share — but I gave him a cross to hold. It needed to be sanitised. I anointed him, with me in rubber gloves. That’s all wrong, isn’t it? I would like to be able to vicar without rubber gloves on. That’s all.

THE DOG JOINED IN MY SERVICE

The Reverend Anna Alls, 42, lives with her husband John and two teenage daughters in Nottinghamshire. She is vicar of two parishes and six church buildings in Burton Joyce with Bulcote and Stoke Bardolph and Lowdham with Caythorpe and Gunthorpe, which were, for a time, in different tiers. She says:

I’ve only been the vicar here since November last year, which means I’ve been a lockdown vicar longer than I was a ‘normal’ one.

I couldn’t fathom live-streaming a service in my own house, so I opened the church and had a trial run there. I made the mistake of taking Martha, our dog. She started to bark, and my phone started to buzz. I quickly learned that it was OK to broadcast from home, and to embrace the fact that the postman was likely to arrive mid-prayer.

The Reverend Anna Alls, 42, lives with her husband John and two teenage daughters in Nottinghamshire

The Reverend Anna Alls, 42, lives with her husband John and two teenage daughters in Nottinghamshire

We got better at the technology. I tried out different rooms, moving the debris as I went. You look at how other vicars do it and some have lovely bookcases and religious icons and candles. But I think it’s OK for the congregation to see cereal packets and your daughter doing her homework at the table. Vicars are human, too.

I admit I was panic-stricken. I remember thinking, ‘How can I be a vicar when I can’t leave the house?’ We were shielding because my husband has a chronic illness, and that was a terrible worry.

Some days I would cry. I’m an extrovert by nature. I love people, chatting, contact. Without it, I felt my lifeline had been cut off.

In a way, having to minister saved me. If the vicar is sitting crying, it’s no use, is it? Yet, in a way, I had to work out how to be the vicar, how to be Anna, how to be a mum, a wife. I hadn’t seen my own mum. My granny was on her own.

Saying no to people is difficult. No, you can’t get married. No, you can’t come into the church. People have to ring and book a seat for a service now. There are green stickers where they can sit.

It’s freezing in church because we have to have all the doors open. People are bringing blankets. I tend to take the service in a big cardigan with my thermals on.

You also learn that helping others helps you, too. The sense of togetherness here is awesome, and I’ve felt quite teary as the community has swung into action, keeping people fed and clothed. People have lost jobs, lost lives, but we still connect, although sometimes in odd ways.

I was in the queue at the Co-op and there was a man who caught my eye. I didn’t recognise him. He said: ‘Did you just do Joan’s funeral?’ I had. I had come straight from it. He said: ‘I just watched it on the weblink.’

ANGEL GABRIEL STUCK IN TURRET

The Reverend Becky Lumley, 44, is vicar of St Mary’s Church in Beverley, East Yorkshire. She lives with her husband Tom and her 12-year-old son. She says:

Our biggest service of the year is always Christingle. We have 1,200 or 1,300 people, and the church is packed. The children love it.

Every child gets a part in the Nativity, and I learn a magic trick (I’ve perfected suddenly-appearing sweets).

The Reverend Becky Lumley, 44, is vicar of St Mary’s Church in Beverley, East Yorkshire. She lives with her husband Tom and her 12-year-old son

The Reverend Becky Lumley, 44, is vicar of St Mary’s Church in Beverley, East Yorkshire. She lives with her husband Tom and her 12-year-old son

This year, all that is out of the question, so we’ve filmed our own Nativity, using professional actors. We have a beautiful medieval church and we thought it would lift everyone, so we had the idea of getting the Angel Gabriel up on the balcony at the West Window, to deliver her lines.

She got stuck in the turret because of the oversized wings, so we had to put her in the pulpit instead.

I’ve had my fair share of howlers editing videos. I put out one where my husband was doing the Bible reading and I was yelling at him, ‘Oh, for goodness sake, read the right bit!’

Our spaniel has caused a few issues, too. He let out a huge yawn when I was in a Zoom meeting with senior church people but because he was on my lap no one knew it was him.

I’ve encouraged the kids to come to Sunday school — the virtual version — and be relaxed. One week there was a guinea pig called Elsie who got involved and was quite a hit.

I said ‘pets welcome’, so the next week it was carnage with children disappearing off seats to get the cat or chase after the gerbil.

The funerals are particularly hard. I had a double one, husband and wife. The grief is hard to witness when you can’t offer your normal comfort.

Has my faith been tested? No, I don’t think so. We lost a baby towards the end of my second pregnancy, and afterwards a friend said to me, ‘How can you still believe in God?’ My answer then was, ‘I don’t know how I could not believe in God, because God gives hope and if we have no hope left, what do we have?’

While there have been incredibly difficult moments, there have also been wonderful ones, such as the moment where I was editing a service we’d recorded and a little boy had done the prayer reading. It was quite sombre and he did it very well but at the end he just let out this enormous giggle.

It was the most beautiful giggle you’ve ever heard.

DODGY WI-FI DROVE US MAD

The Reverend Yvonne Callaghan, 61, is vicar to the parish of Easby, Skeeby, Brompton-on-Swale and Bolton-on-Swale in North Yorkshire, with responsibility for four churches. She lives with her husband Neil and their two teenage sons. She says:

The pandemic hit in Holy Week, so we spent it in a flurry, trying to get everything online. With terrible wi-fi, I might add, so it meant mostly leaning out of a window, hoping to get a signal and frantically ordering 4G boxes.

I love technology but that side has been a challenge. I know all about trying to record a sermon then realising you’ve cut your own head off. We had a disaster live-streaming one day when someone came to the patio doors and was banging to get in.

The Reverend Yvonne Callaghan, 61, is vicar to the parish of Easby, Skeeby, Brompton-on-Swale and Bolton-on-Swale in North Yorkshire. She lives with husband Neil and their two sons

The Reverend Yvonne Callaghan, 61, is vicar to the parish of Easby, Skeeby, Brompton-on-Swale and Bolton-on-Swale in North Yorkshire. She lives with husband Neil and their two sons

My husband went off to sort it out while I just tried to focus in on a candle and prayed.

I have four churches, and that continues to be a logistical challenge. Which ones can be open when? The rules have changed so many times, that keeping up is almost impossible.

Our churches, like others, have mainly had to close and it has caused huge anguish. In Skeeby, for instance, the church is the only thing left. The pub is gone. The shop is gone. Even the tattoo man is gone.

Parishioners know services have to be limited but they often find it hard to understand why they can’t go into the empty church and have some time for reflection.

The ripple effect is immense. People think this is an affluent area but that’s not the case.

In all our churches we have a food pantry — an unofficial food bank, basically — where people can quietly take what they need. We can’t have those now, so where are those people getting help?

I’ve done a lot of graveside funerals because they are safer than trying to do them inside. One young man had lost his dad. His mother and sister were already gone. I couldn’t give him a hug and to watch him sobbing into his mask was terrible.

After a difficult day like this, I try to go home and give my family a hug but sometimes, I confess, I do shout at God in the car.

‘OK, God, this is unfair, you need to support these people now. You need to support me.’

I think it’s OK to shout at God, though. He can take it, as we saw with many people in The Bible. Chocolate and wine have helped enormously, too, as have our bishops, to whom I give thanks for their immense support.

CAT GETS IN ON ADVENT ACTION

The Reverend Jody Stowell, 45, is vicar of St Michael and All Angels Church in Harrow, North-West London. She lives with her husband Quinton and their children, aged 19 and 17. She says:

My husband has a complex heart condition so early on, he moved into our daughter’s bedroom — she is away at university — and we social distance even inside the house, wearing masks.

When I was able to take services in church, I had to be extra careful. I wore a visor for the first one. Disaster. It got so hot and sweaty, I couldn’t see the tablet that I read the liturgy from.

The Reverend Jody Stowell, 45, is vicar of St Michael and All Angels Church in Harrow, North-West London

The Reverend Jody Stowell, 45, is vicar of St Michael and All Angels Church in Harrow, North-West London

Then I tried a lovely burgundy mask — a lot of clergy have been matching their masks to their robes — but that was too heavy and I was gasping for air. Now, I use the medical-grade paper ones. Boring but effective.

Last Sunday was Advent and I asked the lady who does the wreaths to deliver it to the vicarage because I wanted everyone to share it, even if it had to be online. It was a lovely frosty morning so I took it outside to film myself lighting the Advent candle and saying the confessional prayer.

As I was pointing my phone, though, the cat jumped up and the table juddered. That footage included the cat’s tail poking in —but I knew that the congregation would love that.

n The Reverend Kate Bottley is on Good Morning Christmas, BBC Radio 2, Christmas Day, 8-10am.The Vicar Of Dibley In Lockdown starts tonight on BBC One at 8.50pm.


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