I have no wish to swim with dolphins. That seems too contrived an animal encounter – a tourist experience with a massive carbon footprint. I prefer to swim with the swallows. I can’t arrange this because it comes as an act of grace. The first time was out of a clear blue sky one early September morning. I was enjoying the solitude of Swanage Bay, fantasising that I was a creature that belonged in the water and expecting the company of a passing herring gull or cormorant, and hoping for a tern to dive for fish nearby, when my myopic eyes sensed something fast just above the water line. The blur arranged itself into a swallow, and then another. Hundreds passed by in a few minutes, barely above the skin of the sea, some almost brushing my head with their wings. All darting towards Ballard Down from the direction of Peveril Point.
The birds hardly noticed me. It is doubtful that they registered my existence as anything but a bobbing object to be avoided in their dash to their next feeding ground, in search of the precious insects that would help sustain them on their autumn migration. The stole that I wear on many Sunday mornings, which includes an image of a swallow, came to me similarly unexpectedly, although far less dramatically. It was all Bob’s idea.
Bob lives in a grand house, so old that it once featured in a documentary about Lord Byron; in those days Bob even had a cricket pitch in his garden. When I lived in the village – I left sixteen years ago – he hosted an annual cricket match with members of the local British Asian community, having befriended a shopkeeper from nearby Hitchin and invented an unusual local tradition. Bob also kept long horned cattle, which also feature on the stole, known for wandering free and occasionally blocking public footpaths, and Jacob sheep which could be encountered in local fields, or, occasionally out of them – I was once summoned by Bob and his wife to help round up part of their flock which had decided to exercise their right to roam. But Bob also loved tapestry work and had created a replica of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico and gifted it to the church for display in its side chapel.
‘Ian, I would like to make you a stole.’ I cautiously asked ‘what kind of stole?’ His reply was sketchy, ‘one that tells the story of the parish, but has animals on it, ones that live in the parish, and ones that have symbolic meaning’ . That is how it began, but its story is not yet finished.
A stole is sometimes described, perfectly understandably, as ‘that scarf thing that you wear on Sunday’. There are various post hoc explanations of a stole’s significance . As a token of Jesus invitation to wear his yoke, which he promised would not be burdensome, or as reminder of the call to service inspired by him washing the disciples’ feet and drying them with a towel on the evening of his arrest. But the origin of stole wearing seems to have been the adoption by the church of Roman conventions of wearing a long, coloured piece of cloth as a sign of social status. Fundamentally a stole says ‘here is a priest, doing what priests do’. I always wear a stole when presiding at a service of Holy Communion, or taking a funeral or a wedding. But this stole is green and is not suitable for a funeral, where a purple one is usually worn, or a wedding, where white is used. Green is the colour most often worn by clergy when taking a Sunday Service because it represents what is misleadingly called ‘ ordinary’ time. Ordinary meaning here, as far as the church is concerned , not mundane or unimportant, but all the weeks of the year that are not prominent seasons like Lent or Christmas, or Saint’s days. Green is the colour for most of the year, and this stole comes into its own especially at times, like harvest and rogation, when creation and nature are being marked. Many clergy now personalise their stoles, as a way to integrate their vocation in the church with their own personal history and identity.
This green stole has a collaborative design, as further conversations led to Bob asking me to choose my two favourite animals for inclusion. He added images that he felt represented the function of the stole and the life of our village. Eventually it featured a corbel from our medieval church and the flag of St George, which flew daily from the tower. On reflection the great omission was the absence of any horses, as the church was one of only two in England dedicated to St Hippolytus, the patron saint of horses. Local riders came to the church on his feast day to have their animals blessed.
The stole also carries the sun, the ancient symbol of God as the source of light and a griffon, and a dove. There are grapes and wheat – which not only represent the wine and the bread at the centre of a communion service, but the agricultural nature of the parish, and the thriving muscat vine that grew up the back of the vicarage. One of the most vital properties of these symbols, I believe, is that they don’t just represent an idea, theological or otherwise, but have a life of their own; they shape shift with time and experience.
The swallow was included because it has a very old association with Easter, due to the timing of the bird’s annual reappearance in Europe. In the days before migration was fully understood the legends that swallows hibernated under water or in caves reinforced the impression that there was something near miraculous about their annual reappearance – or resurrection. But the swallow on my stole has gained personal significance over the decades. Not only due to the epiphany I began with, but also to the days when I shared a mean Spanish breakfast in Andalucía with my wife as the swallow parents nesting in the same room dashed around our heads, to and fro, to feed their endlessly hungry young. And one year, the birds arrived before spring and I watched as, one by one, the exhausted birds reached the Dorset coast to find nothing but cold and mist.
The goldfinch on the stole is a token of a bird that had revelatory power for me long before I had any idea of the bird’s symbolic or theological meaning. When I was ten, I unexpectedly received a pair of binoculars for Christmas from an aunt. On Christmas morning I savoured the unfamiliar scent and texture of their calfskin case and in the afternoon, I was squinting through them at a distant hedge, experiencing the full impact of a goldfinch’s technicolour red and gold. I discovered much later that the goldfinch is a symbol of Christ’s passion and kingship; red for blood and gold for royalty, an association with thistles and thorns.
I chose two animals just because I like them, the snow leopard and the red panda. The first had a literary inspiration, from Peter Mattheissen’s famous account of his Tibetan pilgrimage and the panda for the unremarkable reason that it is irresistibly charming. Bob and I joked that we might need specious justifications for their inclusion if challenged, and we settled on the legend that the leopard represented evil and the panda innocence. Unsurprisingly no one who knows me has ever been convinced.
An extra benefit of the stole is that I can use it when talking to children about what I do as a priest and the life and beliefs of the Christian faith, but I doubt there ever will be a time when doing so that I don’t get one child who puts up a hand, points at the red panda and asks ‘Why is there a fox on it?’ The stole then provides a perfect opportunity for explaining that the fox is not the only orange mammal. Not only is it good for religious studies, but for natural history too.
There are many reasons this stole is important to me. Most churches have sets of vestments which every priest serving that community merely borrows when taking the services, and many priests will buy or commission their own for personal use. This one came to me haphazardly, over twenty years ago, thanks to a creative whim of Bob. It reminds me of people, and a place and a time, but it also picks up meaning along the way. The church, as an institution, has belatedly started connecting with the environment and I have become increasingly involved in conservation and writing about nature. Every time I put it over my shoulders the unsophisticated symbols on it do remind me of the vision of St Francis, who saw all creation as a source of wonder and blessing.
Ian Tattum is the Vicar of St Barnabas, Southfields, in south-west London. He has written numerous articles for the Church Times on themes of nature and science – two of which have been anthologised, poetry and creative non-fiction for Spelt Magazine and various pieces on the writing of BB – Denys Watkins-Pitchford.