“Please sit down, John. My decision implies no criticism of your service to the Church and you know how much I appreciate your assistance in Parish matters.”
“But I don’t understand. I have always read the psalm on Easter Sunday, ever since… well… since my father passed away. It’s practically a family tradition!”
No-one could remember when the reading of the twenty third psalm first became a ritual part of the Easter morning service. Some said it was back in the days of the great Thomas Ellwood at the turn of the century and that the first reading had been by an Atkinson, but the true history if this now established custom was truly lost in the mists of time. John Atkinson had been in his early forties when the honour passed to him and that beautiful scripture had been well served by his deep, baritone voice for more than twenty years.
“I know, John. And I am not banishing you forever from the Easter reading, but I have a particular reason for suggesting a change this time.”
“So, who is to be favoured in my stead, Rector?”
“It is not a matter of favouring someone else, John. Since Will Fleming lost his dear wife at Christmas…”
“Will Fleming! You’re asking Will Fleming to read the psalm?” A faint smile broke on Atkinson’s lips, but he quickly brought his features under control.
“John, please! I just felt that Will would appreciate the…”
“Now look here, Rector. I understand what you’re trying to do for Will. And don’t get me wrong, Rector. Will is an excellent fellow and I was devastated when poor Ellen died, but you can’t really believe that he would want this. Can you?”
“John, I have already asked Will and he has accepted.”
The Verger backed away from the desk and slumped back into his chair, shaking his head. It was several seconds before he spoke again. “But Will can’t read!”
It was the Rector’s turn to look astonished. “But he said he would… Are you sure?”
“You didn’t know? I thought everyone knew it. Ellen used to do all the paperwork for the farm and now his grand-daughter, young Ellie, does it.”
“I had no idea.” The Rector also slumped back in his chair, rubbing his forehead and seeming dazed by the news. “But… Oh dear!”
“He was a farmers boy, Rector. Never managed a full day’s schooling in his young life with all the demands of the farm to keep him occupied. The poor man is illiterate!”
The Rector left his chair to secure a bottle of brandy and glasses from the sideboard, pouring generous measures for his guest and himself. “Well, that’s a fine kettle of fish. What am I to do? I can hardly tell him I’ve changed my mind now, can I? And he has accepted. He must feel that he can do it!”
“Has it not occurred to you, Rector, that he might have felt too ashamed to refuse?”
“Oh dear God! I never thought of that. What on earth are we to do?”
No solution presented itself and John Atkinson eventually made his excuses leaving the Rector to his troubles. The poor cleric, trapped within the consequences of his own goodness, would endure much torment as the Easter Day morning service approached.
The organ struck up with Vaughan Williams’ Down Ampney and the choir took up the melody, leading the congregation in Come down, O Love Divine. The Rector sang, but his heart was not in it as he glanced nervously towards the front pew. John Atkinson sang the words from memory as he watched his fellow Elder of St Luke’s, the sheep farmer and chosen reader of the ‘Shepherd’ psalm. And Will Fleming, dressed for Sunday in a well worn suit that had seen many better days, stared blindly, uncomprehendingly at his hymn book, making no sound as the moment of his calling came near.
“… for none can guess its grace, till Love create a place - wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.” The last chord of the organ faded away and the congregation clattered noisily back into the pews as Will Fleming stepped forward to stand behind the lectern. He looked down at the great King James Bible, ready opened at the twenty third psalm, though he had no way of knowing that it was so. After a moment he stepped out from behind the lectern and stood facing the people of his Parish. With his hands clasped before him, he began to recite: “The Lord’s moi shep’d; I shalln’t want. Ee makketh me t’loi doun in t’green pastures: Ee leadeth me ‘side th’ still watters. Ee restoreth moi soul…”
John Atkinson glanced quickly about him before lowering his eyes, shielding them behind a hand pressed to his brow. His head shook slowly back and forth as Will Fleming’s crude dialectic recitation proceeded, mangling the poet’s beautiful language into the rough discourse of the cattle market.
“Yea though I walks though the vale o’ th’ shadow o’ death, I will fear no evil: for tha’ art wi’ me; thoi starff…” a pause, “… thoi rod an’ thoi starff they comfit me…”
The Verger sank a little deeper into the pitch-pine pew. The distorted vowels grated on his ear and the stumble over the rod and staff made him cringe with embarrassment. But the farmer, staring over the heads of the congregation and, lost in the remembered text, gazed into the middle distance as he continued the ‘reading’ to the end. “Tha’ preparest a table afore me in t’presence o’ moine enemies: Tha’ ‘nointest moi ‘ead wi’ t’oil; moi cup runneth ov’r. Surely goodness an’ mercy shall foller me all th’ days o’ moi loife: an’ oi will dwell in th’ouse o’ th’ Lord f’rever.”
The aged shepherd stood quietly for a moment before moving to the lectern. He stared at the yellowed pages of the old King James, reaching out a hand to caress the delicate paper, worn by the thumbs of a thousand readers. Scanning the beautiful, mysterious writing, this hidden treasure, he withdrew the hand to brush a small tear from his eye, and his lips moved to a silent prayer. Was it sadness for the lost wife that so moved the humble farmer in the silence of the little Church, or a deep longing for the holy word denied him by his ignorance. Slowly, he returned from the communion of his thoughts and looked down upon the sea of faces before him. With a brief nod he returned to his pew and bowed his head in prayer.
The Rector was removing his surplice and cassock as the Verger entered the vestry. Neither spoke for a while as they settled in chairs to either side of the table. The Rector sat with his hands clasped before his face, apparently deep in thought, whilst Atkinson rested his elbows on his knees, burying his face completely in his hands.
“Well, what do you think now, Rector?”
“I think it went very well, John. I thought Will…”
“Oh, come along, Rector. Let’s face it, it was a disaster. The poor man made a complete fool of himself.”
“Do you really think so, John?”
“Of course he did. I don’t know what he thought he was reciting out there, but it certainly wasn’t the King James version. Will’s home-spun dialect might be all right for the sheep auction and the Kirk’us but it’s hardly appropriate for the Word of the Lord, I would have thought. And he didn’t even know the words!”
“Well, I think I would have to agree with you on that last point, John,” said the Rector, smiling. “He did stumble a little, but don’t you think you’re missing something?”
The Verger kept his silence, wondering what was coming.
The Rector stared away into the world of his thoughts, his eyes just a little misty and the clasped hands trembling very slightly. “Will Fleming may not have known all the words, John… but he seemed to know the Shepherd!”