Tales of a Country Parish
A memoir of lockdown does not sound very appealing. Many of us surely want to forget the twelve months between March 2020 and March 2021.
Colin Heber-Percy’s book is, however, a delight, radiating humanity, holiness, and humility. Its genesis lies in a daily email of reflections that he wrote for the parishioners of the Pewsey Deanery in Wiltshire. Unsurprisingly he starts with the legally enforced closure, and then the locking of his churches. He continues to write over a year, and the book is divided into four sections, one for each season. He is part of the Savernake Team Ministry that caters for eleven rural parishes and Heber-Percy has four medieval churches under his care. He is an unusual country parson, possessing a PhD in medieval metaphysics. Although raised as a Christian, he was ordained in middle age following a career as a successful screenwriter.
His book contains much theology, prayers, and scripture, but for the non-religious, there is just as much philosophy, poetry, and music. He is neither preachy nor pompously pious, and there is much humour in his reflections. I particularly enjoyed the anecdote that the white cardboard inserts in Bounty bars are useful as makeshift dog collars; he once took a funeral wearing one. When his churches re-open for private prayer, three young boys run amok inside one and film themselves and post the video on social media. He is conscious of himself being a boy once and prays that he retains a sense of fun and playfulness. He also has the capacity to turn everyday mundane events – his daughter acquiring her first boyfriend for example – into a most interesting exposition on the subject of change. His erudition is plain; and at one point he muses, perhaps tellingly, about the decline in the importance of knowledge in modern-day Christianity and its replacement emphasis on being loving - rather than being right.
He also reminds us of the benefits of lockdown; the stillness, the absence of aeroplane vapour trails, the enhanced pleasure derived from pets (in his case a cat which adopts him) and having the time for long walks in the glorious Savernake countryside, observing the seasonal changes in wildflowers and birdlife.
While plainly struggling, like many of us, with the logic and wisdom of the Covid rules and regulations (and that was before recent news of those who made the rules disobeying them) he obeys them ‘because I love my neighbour’. On Remembrance Sunday 2020 he notes the rules permit members of the public ‘to stop and watch the event as spectators’ but he records, with pride, his packed churchyard and that no one there is a mere ‘spectator’. On Christmas Day, as his reflections are nearing an end, he celebrates communion outside around the lychgate. He uses a makeshift altar, and carols are sung heartily while unaccompanied. If only there were more of this ‘can-do’ spirit within the current Church of England hierarchy.
Heber-Percy listened to music as he wrote his daily e-mails so it’s a pity that details of the music are buried in the footnotes.