“Look at what ordinary people are up to in parishes, it’s really heartening..” writes Madeline Davies of The Church Times. Rachel Mann, Vicar of St Nicholas, Burnage, in response talked of the need for ‘reminders of the glory in the dust’.
As a small contribution to this discussion we offer a reflection by a dear friend, the late Fr Mark Dalby. Looking back, from retirement on his parish ministry he spoke of a faithful parishioner, Elsie Wilkes:
If you typed the name Elsie Wilkes into Google you’d not find a single entry. That’s not surprising. Elsie’s life was a simple one. She was born in inner city Birmingham in 1903, a proudly working-class area. She lived in the same house till she was 65. Then the area was redeveloped. She moved 200 yards to the fifth floor of a tower block. She remained there till she died in 1986.
Elsie never married. Her family wasn’t large, but she did have a brother Sid, a bus driver. She’d worked in a nearby factory as a packer.
Elsie never stood out in a crowd. In many respects she was a very ordinary woman living what nowadays we might think a very unexciting life. And yet she inspired me. Let me explain why.
First of all, she was a wondrously faithful Christian. Her parish church was St Peter, Spring Hill. She was baptised there, and she worshipped there all her adult life. When St Peter’s opened in 1902, it became a lively church, but then there was a change of vicar. The new vicar, Fr Stanbridge, was a round peg in a square hole. He was actually a conscientious man who visited his parishioners regularly. But wherever he went he put his foot in it. He’d visit a home and he’d say, ‘What a horrible table you’ve got there, you really ought to get rid of it’. I was vicar of that parish from 1968-75, and I remember a businessman telling me, ‘He was most rude. I’d give him a fiver to get rid of him…’
Poor old Fr Stanbridge was a widower and a tragically lonely man. The congregation went down and down. In ten years there wasn’t a single confirmation candidate. There were only four communicants even on Easter Sunday: a lovely churchwarden called Emmy Westwood, another churchwarden, an alcoholic lady called Blanche Smith – and Elsie Wilkes. When almost everyone had deserted the church, Elsie remained. She was a wonderfully faithful Christian.
St Peter’s, Spring Hill
Secondly, she was a wonderfully open Christian. When Fr Stanbridge died, a real livewire was appointed, Fr Ronald Gordon, who later became Bishop of Portsmouth. He put the church on the map again, and he drew in all manner of folk. The services became more modern, and the social life became rather boozy. Elsie was big enough to welcome all this. Just as she never criticised Fr Stanbridge, so she never criticised his successor. She never looked down on the newcomers, as some long-established church people tend to. She was thrilled that the parish was coming alive. She continued to worship faithfully week by week and on weekdays too.
Thirdly, she was a wonderfully humble Christian. We’d have discussion groups. Elsie would always attend. She’d sit on the back row and hope she wouldn’t be noticed. She’d listen carefully to everything that was said, but rarely said anything herself. She’d talk happily enough in private, but not in public. She’d never try to force her opinions on others.
Fourthly she was a very generous Christian. She gave of her money. We needed an aumbry in the church for the communion of the sick. It was going to cost about £250 – £2,500 in today’s money. Elsie came to me quietly, and said she’d like to give it. There was only condition – her gift had to remain anonymous. She gave of her time too. Elsie insisted on helping people locally if she could.
She was a wonderfully forgiving Christian. I remember one difficult Christmas. I’d slipped and fractured my arm. I had to have it in a sling for six weeks. I’d been badly let down by my curate. I was feeling sorry for myself. But I wasn’t the only person who was upset that Christmas. Elsie had been absent for a fortnight. We thought, ‘Oh, she must be staying with Sid in Kings Heath’. But she wasn’t. She was actually poorly. I’d been too preoccupied with my own troubles. Eventually I got the message that Elsie hadn’t been well, and I went to see her. ‘O vicar’, she said, ‘I must tell you, I have felt hurt. I haven’t been well, but you didn’t come to see me and nobody did. I thought someone might have missed me. But there it is. I’ve said it now. I’ve got it off my chest. That’s the end of it. Now let’s have a cup of tea’. She taught me a lot that day about Christian forgiveness.
If you happen to call on me about 10am on a Friday, you’ll find I’m almost an agnostic. I’ll have just finished reading the Church Times – and I get so fed up sometimes with all the ecclesiastical posturing and politicing. Can this really be the body of Christ? But then I think of Elsie, and of similar people I’ve been privileged to minister to, to learn from and to count as my friends in every parish I’ve been in. They are indeed the body of Christ, ordinary people filled with his spirit, and she, Elsie, and others like her, are a wonderful inspiration.
(Edited version of a sermon in At the Heart of our Faith a collection of sermons by Fr Mark Dalby, available from church)