Ysenda Maxtone-Graham

Brace yourself for the real experience of going to a rural parish service on Easter Sunday

Brace yourself for the real experience of going to a rural parish service on Easter Sunday
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‘And we extend a special welcome to all our visitors here today.’

That’s the vicar speaking; and this Sunday is one of the two days in the year when you are likely to be one of those visitors. You’re spending Easter with in-laws or friends who live in the country. Easter wouldn’t feel like Easter without Eucharist at the local C of E church after the first mini-egg of the day, so here you are, in tweed and wool, breathing in the timeless smell of damp and candle-wax as you try to prop up the paperback hymn book called Praise! on the pew shelf but it is too big and keeps flopping forward.

If you live in a city which has a cathedral as well as a large choice of churches with good choirs, and if you tune in to Choral Evensong on Radio 3 on Wednesday afternoons and are in the habit of switching the radio off as soon as Sunday Worship starts on Radio 4, you can get very out of touch with how things really are in rural parishes. Now you’ve committed to being at this Eucharist, and you’re going to have to get through it. You can’t (as with a theatrical show) check the running-time first.

The vicar is a rather exhausted-looking, prematurely grey woman in her fifties: you looked on the website when you were checking service times, and found out that she is the team vicar of six parishes, poor thing, so she has probably done two services already – found the stone rolled away from the empty tomb twice and it’s only mid-morning. And now she announces the first hymn. It is ‘Be still, for the presence of the Lord’.

Perhaps she has chosen this hymn to get the congregation into a prayerful frame of mind, but the effect is terrible. The tune is sagging and dreary, the struggling organist slows the pace, and the whole thing feels funereal. You look about you and see that the church is far from full, even on Easter Sunday, so what it must be like on an ordinary Sunday – the Ninth after Trinity, for example – does not bear thinking about.

‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden’… At last, you’re off, saying the words in bold aloud. Page three of the service booklet is done, and you’re on to page 4. Oh no, it’s the Gloria.

They’ve extended the warm welcome to visitors, but they have given the visitors no guidance in how to sing the parish setting of the Mass. It’s a chirpy setting, ‘Glory to God in the high-est, and peace to his people on earth!’ but there’s no music to read from so the congregation is divided into those who know it and those who don’t. The regulars look smug as they sing it by heart. They really make you feel like an outsider.

Then it’s ‘the Ministry of the Word’. First a reading from the Letter of Paul to the Colossians, read by an old chap who probably runs the local history society, and then the build-up to the Gospel, and you all turn to face the vicar in the centre of the church, who reads not from a Bible but from a red book of Sunday readings. And there you are, in the garden with Mary Magdalene at the moment when she spots the person she thinks must be the gardener. Always extremely moving, and makes you come out in goose-pimples; but the effect wears off at once when the vicar, having climbed into the pulpit, says, ‘May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen.’

You are now the captive audience for a sermon whose length only the vicar herself knows. You try to glean it by seeing how many pages she has paper-clipped together, but it’s hard to tell. ‘Let me start by telling you a story,’ she begins, and you think, ‘No, please don’t.’ But nothing will stop her. ‘A young girl asked her mother what the meaning of Easter might be…the mother replied…and this brings us very much to the heart of today’s Gospel reading…In a very real sense, that is what the empty tomb means…It’s about mission…And mission means three things…’

You’ve lost the thread. Five minutes in, your mind is wandering and you find yourself reaching for Praise! and checking the index to see whether it’s got ‘O Quanta Qualia’ in it, which it hasn’t. You look at the hassock hanging in front of you and try to imagine the woman who sewed its large stitches depicting a dove. You’re strongly tempted to check your phone for texts. And still the sermon goes on. It keeps having fake endings: small silences followed by, ‘And this brings us back to…’

At last it ends, but now you’ve got the prayers to get through. ‘Please sit or kneel’ – and almost everyone prefers to sit. Those poor hassocks are redundant. You lean forward and rest your head in your arms – a gesture of sleepiness and imminent boredom. A lay member of the parish has been asked to do today’s prayers at the microphone and it is her great moment to express her prayerfulness and her knowledge of current affairs. As she trawls through war zones and news stories of the week and prays for wisdom to all in authority, you are in a state of semi-slumber and can hardly rouse yourself to respond, ‘hear our prayer’.

You’re slightly dreading exchanging the sign of the Peace, because it can be so embarrassing, but actually it’s a cheering half-minute which does manage to lift the deathly mood. The woman in front of you with dandruff on the shoulders of her black coat gives you a lovely toothy smile.

‘Drink ye all of this. For this is my blood…’ The vicar is now reciting those important words and you are trying very hard to concentrate and actually be at the Last Supper, and trying very hard not to think about the vital space between ‘ye all’ and ‘of this’. As you shuffle forward towards the altar, salivating at the thought of the wafer and smidgen of sweet wine which will definitely give you a boost of energy, as well as bring you nearer to God, you pass the tiny choir of old ladies warbling their way through ‘Jesus Christ is ris’n today’, and wince. They’re trying their hardest, the poor dears.

And then, it really is nearly the end. The final hymn (thank goodness) is ‘Thine be the glory’, then the final blessing, and you’re free. ‘Send us out into the world to live and work to thy praise and glory.’

As you leave, you shake hands with the vicar in the porch. ‘Lovely service – thank you so much!’ You wish you were being sincere.