In the first extract from his new book about life as the vicar of Helmsley, Bishop David Wilbourne remembers the day he was given the job by a member of the landed gentry sitting in a hospital bed.
May 1, 1997: I cycled down to the primary school-cum-polling station and voted, the bright May Day sunshine compounding the air of utter optimism. I hummed Things Can Only Get Better as I pedalled into York along the snaking River Ouse, past Terry’s chocolate factory belching out delicious aromas, a chocolate box in every breath.
I dodged numerous tourists as I rode through the city, Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate packed to the hyphens. I sped past the majestic Minster, where both my dad and I had been ordained decades back, parking my bike by Purey Cust’s stone wall, careful not to scratch the Mercs and Jaguars jammed into this private hospital’s car park.
The matron greeted me warmly. The last time I had seen her was when we had used the top floor of the hospital as a vestry for Archbishop David Hope’s enthronement. Peter Tatchell had threatened to disrupt proceedings, so Special Branch had singled out the hospital as a base whose security they could guarantee. Each of York Diocese’s bishops had been given a whole ward to robe in, and then had descended en masse in their coped and mitred splendour in the lift. They emerged opposite the operating theatre, only to terrify some poor soul who was just being wheeled out, who must have thought he was having the strangest glimpse of heaven. “We told him it was just the after-effects of the morphine,” Matron laughed as we recalled the event. “Now let me take you to Lord Feversham.”
A ruddy-faced Lord Feversham was sitting up in bed, a linen tent over his gammy leg.
“I’m sorry about your leg, sir,” I began. But my studied pastoral concern was dismissed by a wave of a hand which had all the chill of Henry VIII about it.
“Don’t worry about that, boy, it’ll heal like it’s healed before. But there’s been some rum goings on at Helmsley, what with our vicar and his mistress appearing in flagrante delicto in the News of the World on Easter Day of all days. Nor have we been helped by you lot at the Diocese fining us a couple o’ thousand for nailing a few Stations of the Cross to the wall. What are you going to do about it?”
“Well, I’d like to come and be your vicar, get things running smoothly again,” I replied, my brusque matching his.
‘You mean like Martin Bell’s going to sort out Tatton after the Hamiltons – providing of course, he gets elected? Have you voted yet?” “Yes.”
“Who did you vote for?” Clearly this guy wasn’t afraid of straight-talking.
“I voted New Labour,” I admitted shyly, “although I’m actually a Bennite”.
“Good for you. They screened Brassed Off at Helmsley’s little cinema last night – I heard there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, so Labour’ll romp home for sure. But Tony Benn’s a queer old stick, yet talks a lot of good sense. Though why he gave up his seat in the House of Lords defeats me. But enough of politics, you want me to vote you in as our new vicar?”
“Well, as patron yours is the only vote that counts.”
He suddenly winced with pain.
“No need to flatter me,” he said gruffly. “So what have you got to offer us? What’s your manifesto?” Lord Feversham chuckled at his own election day joke, a fiendish chuckle worthy of a Henry VIII-cum-Herod.
“I know the Church of England, the Diocese of York, Helmsley like the back of my hand. I’d get you running on the right tracks again, but with a bit of oomph thrown in.”
“What do you think of the Book of Common Prayer?” The questions were coming staccato fashion.
“I’ve known it since I was a boy. It’s a book with some beautiful words, but useless as a tool for evangelism and mission.”
“I’m not sure the folk of Helmsley will agree with you about the last bit.”
“Well, read the BCP Epistle for Trinity 13 out to them, with all that seed and not seeds stuff and ask any of them listening to make any sense of it whatsoever!”
“I couldn’t agree more, some bits of it are total gobbledegook. But the last bloke promised to use nothing but the BCP and then hardly ever used the thing. What do you promise?”
“That I will use only the forms of worship permitted by Canon.”
The ward filled with gales of lordly laughter.
“You’re a slippery sod – ever thought of a career in politics? No, don’t answer that. What’s your view of Remembrance Sunday? Last bloke upset ‘em all.”
“I think there’s still a lot of wounds, a lot of hurt memories around, and our job is to heal them an move people on.”
“Fair enough. And what about all this high church business? I think we’ve gone too extreme at Helmsley – all these bells and smells are putting folk off.”
“I think a lot of Catholic ritual brings drama and colour to worship, but I can’t be doing with all the excesses, which seem nonsense.”
“Could agree more. Lady Feversham is Roman Catholic and she claims our church faffs around over the ritual more more than hers.” Suddenly Lord Feversham looked at his watch. “Right, I’ll ring you for lunch. You can pedal back to Bishopthorpe and tell the Archbishop you’ll do.” I was summarily dismissed and appointed in one fell swoop.
As I cycled home, I recalled the advert Lord Feversham had placed in the Church Times, when the parish was vacant three years before, following the death of the elderly incumbent. The blurb accompanying the advert bizarrely included the following comment: “How wise of the previous vicar not to shake hands at the church door following a service. Of shaking hands inside the church, we will not speak.” It reminded me of the fiercely conservative Wolds parish, where the churchwarden had angrily scored through each section in the modern communion service where the peace is shared, writing in red, “THERE IS NO PEACE HERE!” I suspected bringing peace to Helmsley wasn’t going to be the easiest of jobs. But surely, things could only get better...
David Wilbourne spent 12 years as vicar of the North Yorkshire market town before being appointed Assistant Bishop of Llandaff in Wales.
The Helmsley Chronicles by David Wilbourne is published by Darton Longman Todd priced £10.99. To order through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk