Merville Reflections

Merville, reflected Merville, reflected. (It rained, nearly perpetually.) 

Ah Merville. I had mixed feelings as our coach departed. On the one hand, I was keen to return to normal life (with freely-chosen food, more friends, and consistent internet); but on the other, I was sad to leave a place that I’ve now spent 3 weeks of my life in. It seems St Mellitus will return to Merville next year (despite much room-sharing), but as a soon to be ordained ordinand, I will not be among them.

St Mellitus is virtually the only theological college in the Church of England to provide full-time ordination training in a non-residential context. It’s therefore slightly ironic that the highlight of the year for many students is the week we spend in a monastery, being as much like a residential college as is possible in rural France. Chapel every morning before breakfast and every evening before dinner; eating meals together; eating one meal in silence (while the sermons of St Augustine were read aloud); living alongside one another on corridors with fire doors that bang really loudly; awakening each morning to the sound of your neighbour’s footsteps echoing really loudly; and having the kind of fun in the evenings that only trainee vicars letting their hair down can have…

DeanoThis screen-grab is from the only video of my only appearance at St Mellitus open-mic night. It’s a private video so I can’t share it, plus it didn’t manage to capture the whole song. (I’m hoping we might repeat it at some point, so we can get the whole thing.) The above crew worked together to produce a parody of The Lumineers ‘Ho Hey’, that became a ballad of how our Assistant Dean was plotting to overthrow the Dean – who we affectionally call ‘Deano’, which would be the word we’re all singing at this particular moment. (Assistant Dean is now known as Ass. Dean, which is unfortunate.) 

In actual fact, our residential week is probably a lot more intense than a typical week in a residential college. For a start, there is next to no free time (apart from after dinner and one free afternoon), whereas you’d usually have time to do things like write essays, prepare sermons and visit churches. Secondly, even the married students are onsite. (This is a good thing, as otherwise all but two of my friends wouldn’t be around.) Thirdly, so are the tutors. (This is an especially good thing when one of your tutors brings with them an excellent card game that you become practically undefeated in.)

It’s a good job it only lasts a week! I wouldn’t miss it for the world, but it has got to be said that the level of exhaustion after 7 days of continuous vicar school is on another level. Not to mention just how peopled-out this introvert gets when the amount of time she can spend by herself is strictly limited. Although, one element of the exhaustion would be my own fault – given my commitment to rising at 6.30am (an hour before non-compulsory pre-morning prayer eucharist) in order to run; have early breakfast so that work could be completed; or walk to the boulangerie for croissants. I saw a lot of Merville in the dark and as dawn broke…

Before and during the dawn, Merville The church and civic hall before dawn (which finally broke at 7.30); the cemetery and canal as light began to appear.

Talking of the boulangerie, my reconnaissance mission to check its opening times and quality led me to have possibly the most appropriate pastry treat anyone at vicar school in a monastery could have:

Une Religiose GBBO fans will obviously recognise this as une religieuse – the pastry shaped like a nun. (Coffee flavour.) Recipe here.

Finally, I inadvertently began a Merville tradition in my first year. While out on a reflective prayer walk, I took a seat on a peculiar concrete manhole and started taking photos. Inevitably, I wound up doing a Liz. The next year, I found myself in the same spot wearing the same jumper and so took another. This year, I took the same jumper with me for the sole purpose of completing the trio. And thus, I now have proof of how much two years of vicar school has aged me:

Merville self-portraits 2011-13(2012 was clearly a little windy.) I think the answer is, I’ve not aged that much & I’ve certainly got happier! 

Une semaine à l’école vicaire en France

Apologies for the light posting of late – there have been deadlines for other writing projects, sermons, exciting weddings and general life-admin. [Tickets for Christmas have been purchased, the dentist has been visited, various cards have been renewed, grandparents have had a visitation – I’ve been on fire!] Now, I’ll be in an internet black hole for a week as vicar school decamps to an old monastery in France.


This is my third and final trip (in fact, the college has grown so much that it’s the final trip for everyone) and I’d like to think I know exactly what to expect. Thanks to my grandparents, I have a travel kettle with which to boil water for tea (3 varieties) or hot chocolate (myriad sachets) and my hot water bottle. I’m sure that I will be able to provide comfort for many! [My response, on receiving the kettle yesterday, was: “Yay! Now my room will be party central!” With one accord my mother and sister rolled their eyes and despaired.]

Party central will probably be the poker players (yes, that’s what trainee vicars do for fun). On previous trips it was the Spoons collective, but so many of our number got ordained last year that it seems an insult to their memory to play it again (plus, there are pregnant people who can’t risk getting injured). So I may simply channel my inner Victoria Coren, forget my Methodist roots and put my efforts into finally understanding poker! I’m sure that’s a more worthwhile goal than understanding the books of Hosea & Amos?

It’s not all fun, the final year students will (in addition to studying the prophets) get some practical lessons in baptism, marriage, funerals, burn-out (well, not burning-out), preaching and the joys of the Anglican Communion. Personally, I’m hoping they need volunteers to wear a wedding dress.

I’ll be back in a week, no doubt with plenty of blog fodder. Until then, adieu!


More French vicar week posts here.

For the love of coffee stirrers

Over the weekend, I posted an album of photos on Facebook of our week in Merville. This turned out to be something of an error, as it resulted in several comments at church yesterday along the lines of:
“I saw your photos on Facebook – looks like you had a lot of fun!”
“I thought you’d gone away for a week’s intensive teaching? Looked like a great holiday”

Oops. Vicar School en France is intense to say the least. The day begins in chapel at 8am, there’s sessions all day till 6pm, stopping only for coffee, lunch, tea and a short post-lunch break. After dinner, we’re free – save for worship team planning sessions, or last minute sermon prep, or tutorials, or intense theological discussions… It was not a holiday.

But it was a lot of fun – especially in the evenings. As was the case last year, mature ordinands regressed to teenage-like behaviour. I’ve returned from France with knowledge of two more youth group games, and the discovery that a trumpet mouthpiece can turn a hosepipe & funnel into an instrument upon which Mozart’s trumpet concerto can be played. Plus, I now know that trainee vicars are very adept at lying, when the need arises. Around the ‘bar’ [meeting room atmospherically lit by tea lights], on any one evening, you could find ordinands playing Cheat, Mafia, or Poker – all of which require stealth and resolute poker faces. Oh, and most importantly, my fellowship group won the annual college pub quiz.

Most fun of all, our final night saw a return of the Merville Spoons Championship. This stupidly childish game was a highlight of last year, and Merville wasn’t quite Merville until the coffee stirrers came out; the circular table occupied; glasses of wine were moved to safety; and spectacles removed from faces. Spoons is violent, loud and totally pointless. We love it.

Some of us take it a little too seriously. Take my friend Alex, for example. Always an excitable person, he exists in a frenzied state of anticipation throughout Spoons. Here he is explaining the rules:

And this is what ensued in his efforts to ensure he had a ‘spoon’:

Extreme, no? It got worse. This round was so hotly disputed that the two men fighting over the last spoon (it wasn’t the last round, everyone else had already secured a spoon) ended up having a one on one spoons fight – usually how the overall winner is decided. Partly so I could stay safely out of the way, and partly so I could record it for posterity, I have both this and the final on video:

Check out my particularly deep voiced/croaky commentary on the final. There’s a BBC sports job out there for me somewhere…

The sad thing about all this fun was the realisation that most of the people around the Spoons table won’t be there next year. Lots of people in my year are on the two year stream, meaning that they’ll be getting ordained this summer – all the girls & one of the guys will be around and that’s it. It may only be just over a year since my vicar school career began, but already some of us are on the final strait.

The show must go on

The monastic sojourn has ended and I’m back in London with a new appreciation of myself and the amazing group of people I’m privileged to be training with. I also have a speaking voice that’s an octave lower than usual – not thanks to over zealous singing, chanting or Bible reading, but thanks to some kind of autumnal virus.

The dome of the rather lovely Merville chapel.

This virus emerged on our first day in Merville. By Monday morning I was croaking out the words of BCP morning prayer. Normally this would have been a mild inconvenience – I’m a person who does not appreciate their ability to talk being compromised. However, as I mentioned in my pre-Merville post, I was preaching my first ever college sermon on Tuesday morning. A lack of speaking voice would be a major issue.

So, I did the sensible thing of taking to my bed for Monday afternoon; not talking too much; drinking sloe gin to ease my throat; and asking Twitter (& the St George’s faithful) to pray. [Actually, my fellow ordinands prayed lots too. I was stunned that so many of them – when they heard my voice – immediately prayed for me. I’m not sure why this surprised me.] Twitter did pray, but it also suggested a back-up plan:

If my voice completely failed me, I could always do my sermon via mime or, even better, interpretative dance. Hmmm. [As it happens, someone in my year at college is a mime artiste – I think I’ll leave miming sermons up to him…]

On Tuesday morning, I awoke early and tested my voice. There was noise, it was crackly and croaky, but it was something to work with. I got through the sermon, it received positive feedback, and with the pressure over, I took to my bed for most of the rest of the day.

As I commented to a fellow ordinand & fellow child of clergy, it was a valuable lesson in the show must go on. Sometimes, no matter how rubbish you feel, or how little voice you have left, you have to get on with what you’re called to do. Services need to be conducted, sermons have to be preached and pastoral care needs to be provided. Not that I’m suggesting that vicars never get a break, it’s just that sick days aren’t always as easy to take as they might be in an office job.

Also, sometimes you’ll discover two days before you preach that someone else had the same passage as you, and was going to use your main theme just 36 hours prior to your own sermon. By some ridiculous quirk of the worship rota, Daniel 2 was the Old Testament reading for Sunday night’s service, as well as being the designated lectionary reading for both Tuesday (verses 1 – 24) and Wednesday’s (25 – end) morning worship. That’s three sermons on Daniel interpreting Nubuchadnezzar’s dream. Needless to say, the ordinands are now very au fait with Daniel…

But in such circumstances, one cannot simply get up and say “sorry, I had a sermon when we got here on Saturday, but unfortunately Ashley made most of my points on Sunday night”. One has to instead re-write one’s sermon, trying not to think about the poor person who’s preaching 24 hours later. [That person was slightly miffed that I’d used her Brueggemann quote, but she made a good joke out of it.] Fortunately, it seems that there is a lot to be said regarding the interpretation of dreams – which makes me wonder if interpretative dance/mime would have been a good way to go had my voice escaped me entirely.

The vaulted ceiling of the chapel gives it a marvellous acoustic.
This makes singing sound wonderful, but makes coughs highly conspicuous.

Returning to Merville

Today, passengers on the mid-morning Eurostar service from London to Brussels via Lille will be sharing their journey with 100 trainee vicars. Yes, it’s time for vicar school’s annual week in a French monastery.

Last year was fun, but at times traumatic. This year, I’m travelling with people who in the last 12 months have become great friends – even more potential for fun. I know the pitfalls of the monastery (bad tea & plastic cups mean that I have my own tea & a decent mug), and its eccentricities. I’ve located the local supermarket for French provisions, and I know people who know where an excellent patisserie is…

Plus, I have gin. Yesterday, while contemplating my packing, I asked Twitter & Facebook what they would pack for a week in a French monastery with 100 trainee vicars. Overwhelmingly, the responses were alcohol related – which is quite logical, thinking about it. (Though actually unnecessary  as beer & wine are served at both lunch and dinner.) But it’s good to know that the vicar stereotypes persist! [Also, hipflasks were mentioned several times – I don’t have one, but perhaps this would be a useful ordination gift come 2014?] In fact, the bottle in my bag isn’t just gin, it’s M&S sloe gin – escapes the need for lugging tonic water around.

The other essentials? Slippers, dried fruit, granola bars, Percy Pigs, satsumas and chocolate. After all, this is the place who greeted us with Shark Curry on our first night last year. (Please note, the slippers will not be munched upon unless there is a dire food-related emergency.)

Some of the delights of Merville in 2011
This post is more a means of explaining my imminent blog silence, more than anything. If you’re a praying type, do think of us all. The 2nd years are doing leadership training, which can be a bit of a struggle. Plus, I get to do my first ever college sermon on Tuesday morning – an 8am service before breakfast to be precise. If that’s not a tough crowd, I don’t what is. The biggest challenge will be keeping it to 5mins (given that I usually have to preach for 25mins), but go on longer and I’m likely to be lynched by starving ordinands… 
I’ll be back in a week. Stay safe people, and Americans, don’t go and elect a moron while I’m away!