FATHER JAMES WOODROW CR

Bishops and archdeacons tend to disapprove of eccentric clergymen, especially in their own diocese.  I love them and, as A N Wilson has noted, there can be few professions which have contained a richer spread of eccentrics than that of the clergy. 

Eccentricity

He tells of an incumbent of the same church for forty years who, among many other eccentricities, became so addicted to watching television in his latter years, that his congregation would start the service without him... “The music of the opening hymn would vie with the strains of oriental music which came wafting down the corridor, at the end of which sat ‘Father’, fully vested, but unable to tear himself away from a program designed for oriental immigrants learning English.”

 

The most pleasing eccentric clergyman that ever I worked with was Fr James Woodrow CR.  He was a thin, grey and ascetic looking priest who had been a successful teacher of science at the great Anglican Mission Station in the west of Rhodesia called St Augustine's.  There, it was said, an unknown assailant had bashed him on the head, one of the more risky and extreme ways of achieving a quirky and eccentric sanctity.

 

He was very pious.  He would lope down to the Cathedral in Salisbury every morning in his white cassock, grey scapular, sandals and odd socks to say a couple of extra offices before anyone else got there.  He lived to celebrate the Eucharist.  When he did so the congregation was irrelevant to him and so, at significant moments he would become inaudible as he whispered quietly to God.  This annoyed the Dean beyond measure, he thrust microphones under Fr James' nose and remonstrated frequently, but to no effect, and for no reason either, because most members of the congregation mightily appreciated a priest as their celebrant who so obviously lost himself in God, even at the cost of him losing them as well!

 


He had very odd eating habits, snatching little meals between bouts of prayer and the saying of innumerable offices throughout the day.  You would come across a plate bearing a half eaten piece of bread or half an apple with a couple of bites taken from it, deposited on a pew or stained glass window's ledge and forgotten in his rush to be off to pray. If he was reading a book from the Cathedral library he would invariably write in it, In Usum J.W. CR.  I always half expected to find a part eaten boiled egg on a ledge somewhere in the cathedral with In Usum J.W. CR written on that.

 

It wasn't only around the cathedral that he left half finished meals. I once encountered him with a mouse trap in hand and murder in his eye.   He told me that he had fallen asleep the previous night while nibbling a biscuit only to wake at two in the morning to find a mouse sitting on his chest polishing off what he had left uneaten. 

 

 

 

Underpants and Misogyny

Outside his office there was a table upon which there stood a large and superfluous wooden crucifix.  One wet day, needing somewhere under‑cover to dry the only articles of clothes he seemed to own other than his cassock, a vest and underpants, he was other‑worldly enough to see  nothing at all incongruous or inappropriate about hanging them to dry on the crucifix.  I am sure our Lord would have smiled with amusement, the Dean did not!

 

Fr James was a thorough‑going misogynist, although much loved by the majority of women in the congregation.  When challenged by the Dean for insisting on washing his own purificators after the Eucharist, he looked up from the office he happened quietly to be saying while the staff meeting was in progress, and said "purificators are not to be washed by a mere woman!"    

 

He once was asked by the dean to take a wedding.  It was the wedding of an African couple, a modest affair held in the Lady Chapel.  Sensing that a wedding by such a misogynistic and eccentric celibate was likely to be unique, I watched from behind a pillar with interest.  All went well until Fr James asked the bride to pass her bouquet to her bridesmaid.  She did not understand.  He asked again, louder.  No response.  He asked once more, even louder.  Again no response.  He snatched the bouquet from her and threw it over her head, down the chapel!

 

Courage in the Confessional


I used to use him as my confessor and although eccentric he was a wise one.  I remember once blathering on a bit about my relationship with the Dean who, although in many ways a remarkably gifted priest, was also something of a bully‑boy.  Before absolving me old Fr James spoke for a few moments about the necessity for courage in the ordinary affairs and relationships of daily life.  At the next staff meeting, quite inadvertently, I am sure, he provided me with a perfect example of what he meant. The Dean asked the five of us on the staff what we thought of a new scheme of his... canned holy music in the Cathedral during certain hours of the day. Because we seemed less than enthusiastic collectively, he asked us for an opinion one by one.  “Fr Neaum, what do you think?”  “It seems a reasonable idea,” I tactfully replied, as similarly did all my colleagues, except for Fr Woodrow, who had his nose in his office book.  “And what do you think Fr Woodrow?” asked the Dean with some venom.  Fr James took his eyes from the book and his mind off God, looked the Dean in the eye and said, “Ghastly, Father, absolutely ghastly!”  And then went back to his devotions.  It was indeed courage, because the Dean was an insecure man, and eventually he got rid of Fr James.  He couldn't stand being stood up to by so courageously frail a priest and man.

 

I loved Fr James.  It was wonderful to have such an irascible old man, such a mixture of saint and curmudgeon, so devoted to the sacraments and to God, flitting eccentrically about that large and beautiful cathedral.  My favourite and most lasting memory of him is appropriately of him as alter Christus.  The Cathedral had a very fine choir, and on Palm Sunday we sang the Passion Narrative.  The Narrator stood right at the back of the Cathedral in the gallery.  Fr James took the part of Christ, standing in the pulpit.  There was a spotlight on him and he appeared grey, slight, ascetic and almost ethereal.  What a tremulous, quavering Christ he is going to be I thought.  Not at all.  He filled his lungs and the voice of Christ boomed forth great, strong, true and tuneful down the cathedral, as it has from a mere cross down through the ages ....  Strength perfect in weakness.