It’s pathetic, the way one grasps at connection with celebrity: I caught myself the other day referring to “my footballer”. The fact is that we baptized the child of a professional footballer a couple of years ago, and he (the footballer, not the child) is now playing in the Premier League, and scored a spectacular goal a few weeks ago. Now the interesting thing is that he isn’t famous, and has only started appearing in his team’s starting eleven in the past few weeks, but has been with them for years, hardly playing, but constantly being injured. I had supposed he must be pretty good, or they wouldn’t have persevered with him for all this time, and it seems I was right. I felt a ridiculous glow of pride when he scored, and now watch out for him on Match of the Day.
I remember when I was a country parson in Cornwall the great excitement when a footballer moved into one of my villages. Of course he played for Plymouth Argyle (the Green Slime or the Scum, for the Exonians amongst us) which made sense, as their ground was an easy twenty-minute drive away. The point nobody made at the time was that he was the only black man for at least five miles around, but then in Cornwall that wasn’t a cause for particular comment, since all incomers (like me) were expected to be strange in some way or another. Our footballer here in W2 does not stand out in that way, but his residence makes less sense; he must spend a lot of time in his car, but I suppose the Westway helps.
At another, more recent, baptism, one of my churchwardens said to me, “There’s a great-grandfather here.” The old gent was frankly easy to pick out, since he was obviously elderly and in a suit. He was also monoglot Portuguese, so after “Bom dia” I didn’t have much chance of conversation. This set me to thinking, though, because my churchwarden clearly thought this was special, but I’m not sure that it was, round here. Because I still do a fair number of baptisms for couples in their early twenties, whose parents are only in their mid-forties, and I can assure you that nothing makes you feel more ancient than discovering that you are older than the grandparents. I’m quite sure that we’ve had a great-grandparent or two present on some of those occasions, but it was perhaps less obvious because they weren’t amazingly old, and so didn’t stand out. Young women are having babies generally older, but it remains the case that if your mother was young when she had you, you are much more likely to have a baby at a young age yourself.
Successive governments have orchestrated moral panic about “teenage pregnancy” (at one point when I was in Reading, my parish was supposed to have had the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe) but the fact remains that the late teens is the time when women are most physiologically suited to giving birth, and for some young women having babies is what they actually want to do with their lives. Yes, that makes them economically unproductive, but does that therefore make it an illegitimate choice? I desperately want people to fulfil their potential, but even I have to recognise that for some people that does not involve going to university; being a good parent and building stable families seems like a worthy aim as well.
You Can’t Afford to Die
One of the strange things about ministry in central London is how few funerals we do. Partly that’s down to the totally atypical religious and ethnic diversity of the population, but also to its youthfulness. If you remember the song, “Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad” (by Don Black from Lloyd Webber’s “Tell me on a Sunday”) you may remember the lines, “The cost of land’s so high/ you can’t afford to die./ If you feel bad there/ you dial a prayer” which was about 1980s Beverley Hills, but you can say the same for modern London. There are few retirement homes, because, like pubs, they are relatively unprofitable ways of using land. Meanwhile, older people often move out of London to be near their families (who cannot afford to live here, or don’t want to bring up children in the metropolis). So the result is that we don’t do many funerals.
There is also the slight suspicion that some funeral directors have their favourite clergy, who are undemanding, always available and sometimes allegedly from the same Lodge. I am constantly amazed at how little effort many undertakers seem to make to even find out the correct clergy to approach; you can discover anyone’s Anglican parish at the click of your mouse these days, but funeral directors are, as an industry, quite oddly resistant to computers. Meanwhile, the cost of a funeral continues to go up, and it’s not pushed by our fees, which are fixed by Order in Council and go up very modestly (and which go to the diocese to help pay our salary). The cost of burial plots in municipal graveyards is increasing exponentially, as the authorities run out of space (as we won't do as our forefathers did and simply go back to the beginning and start again, and we've got headstones), and cremation does have a genuine cost, which increases with the price of fuel. The fact is, though, that it is an industry with very limited competition, and a customer base who are not generally in the mood to shop around or argue the toss about prices. I should say that I know that I have got good deals from the undertakers I have dealt with, for which I am very grateful, but then I do know a bit more about the business than the average customer.