“And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell from the third loft, and was taken up dead.” There can be little comfort for the aspiring preacher in this passage from the Acts of the Apostles, which demonstrates that even St Paul – father of Christian sermonising – occasionally struggled to hold his congregation’s attention. The fact that he was able miraculously to revive Eutychus cannot really make up for having literally bored the poor boy to death.
The art of preaching has received a consistently bad press, from St Paul via the giggling Bennett sisters and poor Mr Collins’s Fordyce’s Sermons, to the cold churches of our own childhoods. This is a shame since, in the case of Jonathan Swift, Ronald Knox, Laurence Sterne and many others, there is much to be gleaned from its best practitioners. But it explains why Colin Heber-Percy’s delightful Tales of a Country Parish opens with the firm statement that it is a series of “Reflections”, not sermons – a compilation of the daily newsletters, filled with often very moving vignettes of parish life, which the vicar of Savernake Forest began in the spring 2020 for his parishioners, and quickly gained a vast online following.
Of course, they are sermons really, albeit ones in which God appears with typically Anglican discretion. It amounts to a diary of the year of Covid, from Easter 2020 to Easter 2021, and there is a great deal to be gained from the insight of a parish priest. Much will be familiar, from the struggle of running services online, “Mrs P chose to read the lesson with a budgie perched on her shoulder…”, to more personal observations on the psychological effects of lockdown; ‘“My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction and my neighbours stand far off…”
But there is a richness of insight here that comes not just from some very wide-ranging quotations (the book’s reading and listening list jumps neatly from Saint Irenaeus and Mahalia Jackson to Wittgenstein and Daniel Johnston), but from Heber-Percy’s own place within his community. Now distanced by time and our understanding of the disease, it is remarkable how sharply he is able to remind one of the sense of fear and wonder that characterised the first wave of Covid. At the start of Lent 2020 he is rung by the Wiltshire council, asking about his graveyards. “‘We may well need all that space… as overspill from larger conurbations.’ Overspill – the word haunts me.”
One of the things we have learnt over the last couple of years is that the culture of crisis tends towards the saccharine, and there are moments here that will elicit a slight wince from more cynical readers. The inevitable mention of “heroes”, though elegantly approached via Donatello’s St George and David Bowie, for instance.
But generally, Heber-Percy deserves admiration for unflinching honesty about rural life, with its flavour more of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem than the WI version (a little crime, a lot of insularity and some neighbourly snitching), and about his Christian faith, happily delving into awkward corners of scriptures where, as Kierkegaard put it, our traditional “silence is only a futile evasion”.
Moreover, and most importantly, it is at times immensely funny. One imagines that, as a vicar, one is not encouraged to laugh too much when one’s church warden sets fire to her hair while preparing for a funeral, particularly as the smell lingers throughout, “lending proceedings and unhelpful infernal quality”, but as a reader it is hard not to.
Perhaps the most appropriate praise for this collection can be taken from the words of James I, who told his friend, the jolly, corpulent prelate Martin Heaton, that ‘fat men are apt to make thin sermons; but yours are not lean but larded with good learning.’ Heber-Percy does not come close to the personal stature of Heaton, whose mighty alabaster figure lies in the South Aisle of Ely Cathedral, but his little book is certainly well larded, and serves as a reminder of the value of a sermon, and the importance of a good parish priest.
Tales of a Country Parish by Colin Heber-Percy is published by Short Books at £12.99. To order your copy, visit Telegraph Books or call 0844 871 1514