by Robert Ferguson
He had not frightened me at first: one of those older priests, with the young face of a man who has enjoyed a placid life, not uncommon among those of his calling who had spent their lives in quiet rural parishes of the Church of England. But a firmness of faith and purpose was evident in the penetration of his glance, and in the occasional crystal hardness of his eyes. He was a tall man, imposing in the clerical collar and full-length black cassock that he always wore around the village. “What does he wear on holiday?” my classroom assistant Jane asked in a giggling whisper, when he came over to the primary school to take assembly every Friday. “Does he have a light-weight one to sleep in?”
But the children soon came to love and trust him, and he them, apparently. His assemblies were not formal. He simply took a chair from the side of the hall, placed it in the centre, and called the children to sit on the floor around him while he told them stories. Often it was a story of something Jesus had said or done, the meaning of which he explained to them with unfailing clarity, in language they could understand. Sometimes, on or near a Saint’s Day, he would tell them about the Saint, and why what he or she had done was an important example for their own lives. And they loved it. My colleague Jane, not a church-person, found his faith irritating, and would never call him Father, as he encouraged – gradually successfully – the village to call him whenever they met him in the streets and shops, and even in the pub on Thursday evenings, when he always popped in about eight o’clock, “To make sure you’re all still here and well,” as he said to the assembled company of regulars.
He was a very thoughtful man. He had thought long and hard about the issues with which people characteristically have difficulty with the Church and its teachings, and it showed in his refusal to judge or to preach outside the pulpit. But he wasn’t soft. Oh, my goodness no! In any village, there are always things going on, things the participants believe no-one else has noticed and everyone knows, but no-one mentions other than behind their hands. Ours was just the same, of course, and it soon became known that you could go to Father for guidance if you couldn’t handle life on your own. “Love your neighbour” was very much at the centre of his belief, and he demonstrated very effectively to those who needed it that the important thing about sin was how it hurt someone else. “How would you feel if they did that to you?” he’d ask the children, and presumably their parents when necessary. “Would you want them to be so deeply hurt in that way?”
He made changes in the church, of course. Every new parish priest does that. They make it “home”, which it is for them, they spend so much time there, so often on their own because, as he said, “Other people have to earn their living in their own ways.” Just as we hang a picture, or cover the sofa, in our own way to make the house our home, so he hardened the inside of our little parish church, taking out the carpets to expose the ancient stone floors, and introducing more candles beside tiny statues of his beloved exemplar saints. “Life is hard,” he’d say, when diehard ‘change is blasphemy’ people complained; “we need always to be reminded of that; and, as for the candles, remember that fire is the great cleanser, the one ultimate cleanser.” That was more difficult to understand, until the day of the Dreadful Event.
Despite there always being gossip in a village, there are some things which go on that remain secret for years and years. Ours was black magic. Our witches and warlocks had been pilfering candles from the church for ever, it seems, and Father knew about them and was watching them, but one day they went too far
and stole the Cross from the altar, and that was too much for him. The following week, he spent a lot of time and energy, not just encouraging but begging, pleading, more or less threatening, the whole village to come to Sunday’s service, which wasn’t a service so much as his denunciation of a dozen of our neighbours by name as occultists. “Do you not realise what you are doing to your souls?” he thundered out, “Do you have no fear of God’s judgement?”
But they didn’t, apparently. Within the few days it took them to get over their outing, they had begun to minimise their activities as no more than a hobby, and to gather support in the village against him. Protests were made to the Bishop, and the village turned against their vicar, or rather away from him. Few continued to speak to him. Few trusted him not to out them in their little scams and affairs. He was effectively ostracized, as the village went to Hell. So he went there for them.
The postman saw the flames first, glowing in the windows of the church, and called the fire brigade. The rest of us were woken by the sirens on the fire engines and police cars as they tore through the village to the church. The building was saved, and in fact not that much damaged. But none of the experts could explain how the fire had started in the centre of the stone floor of the Sanctuary which Father had extended, far away from any candlestick or stand. Or what had started it. No sign of accelerant, let alone matches, lighters, discarded candle-ends. Just that terribly consumed body, kneeling in the middle of the bare, bare floor, because his people would no longer kneel.