Churches get together – but their linked effort has a bit of trouble drawing stadium-sized crowds.

A SUNLESS Sunday in Saltburn-by-the-Sea.

The pier, peerless, boasts that last year it was named Britain’s best.

Heads down and hooded, promenaders walk the dog, or seek the hair of the dog, or whatever.

Others wear long coats and woolly hats, lending to the old Victorian watering hole a faintly Bohemian air that it could do worse than to bottle, or to market. If Whitby can be almighty Goth, then Saltburn’s a Bohemian rhapsody.

There’s a queue outside the seafront fish shop, a listless flag outside the Conservative Club. A dozen or more diners occupy the patio outside Camfields’ beachside coffee bar, though there’s a warm embrace within.

Most look perished; one chap’s eating in gloves. A couple are enjoying ice creams. Perhaps Saltburn’s surreptitiously hosting the annual conference of the National Association of Masochists, a novel way of filling out-of-season beds.

Perhaps they are beds of nails.

It’s the culmination of the national Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an annual triumph of faith over reality. The closing service is to be at 3pm at the Roman Catholic church of Our Lady of Lourdes.

A notice in a shop window elsewhere advises that the inaugural meeting of Saltburn Civic Society is to take place at 2pm that very day, with refreshments and socialising afterwards.

Goodness knows how many may have wished to attend both, but it doesn’t say much for what the unifiers might call joined-up thinking.

THE Reverend Bob Fyffe, general secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, admits in the national service booklet to the perception that the ecumenical movement has become “becalmed”.

In truth, there sometimes seems more chance of Manchester City and Manchester United becoming one – or Newcastle United and Plymouth Argyle, and at least they admit to being 400 miles apart – than there is of Christians singing from the same hymn sheet.

There are Roman Catholics with an agenda of inalienable and exclusive righteousness. There are Anglicans – high and low, straight and gay – who can hardly bring themselves to speak to one another, much less to the other lot. There are Methodists who still regard themselves as Primitive or Wesleyan, notwithstanding that those two particular strands were tied in 1932.

Little wonder that they encounter so much difficulty in becoming a formal part of the union.

Our Lady of Lourdes is a lovely church not far from the seafront, built for £3,000 in 1928. Much of the decoration is said to have Belgian influences, outside there’s a grotto to Our Lady.

Lourdes day observed, we’d attended the 75th anniversary in 2003, the service led by the then Bishop of Middlesbrough, the Right Reverend John Crowley – “looking as pleased as an avid Arsenal fan might be after the midweek triumph in Milan”.

A sort of lower-case holy trinity, the Church of England is about 200 yards in one direction, the Methodists 200 yards in another.

About 25 are present. On the assumption that there are a canny few Catholics and the assurance that there’s a modicum of Methodists – Chris Eddy, the Methodist minister, is also present – there must be precious few of the third party.

The first hymn’s Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, of which the second line is “Forgive our foolish ways”.

The choice, says Monsignor John Heslin, seems rather appropriate.

KNOWN as Father John, possessed of a beard akin to that in Edward Lear’s familiar limerick, the affable Mgr Heslin is a former prison chaplain in the Midlands who happily retired to the North Yorkshire coast.

Canon Bill Madden, parish priest of Our Lady and of nearby Brotton, himself hopes to retire later this year.

Fr John has advised before the service that his homily might go on a bit – “If you’re passionately enamoured to print it in four volumes, I can give you a copy” – and warns his congregation accordingly.

“I hope you’ve brought a flask and sandwiches. You might get home for breakfast, but you certainly won’t for supper.”

He’s also noticed the disappointing turn-out. “Our Lord had 12 apostles, one dropped out and they still changed the world,” he says.

His homily’s about Fr Damien, a 19th Century Belgian monk who worked ceaselessly and selflessly in an Hawaiian leper colony – “an outpost of hell” – who himself died from leprosy and who was canonised only last October.

As they might say on Mastermind, St Damien the Leper is Fr John’s specialist subject. His homily lasts 53 minutes – severely pruned, he says, only one or two in what might be termed a state of advanced contemplation – and thus becomes the second longest in the 16 years of the At Your Service column.

The record’s held by one of those “new church” chaps, some of them blissfully forgetful of the advice to preachers that if you haven’t struck gold in ten minutes, it’s time to stop digging. This is wholly different.

Largely narrative, it’s a passionate, learned, compelling and occasionally light-hearted account of the life of a truly saintly man which makes listeners still want more.

Fr John’s rather glad of that. “If you want to me talk to your organisations about Damien, I can bring some slides,” he tells them.

Afterwards, he says that local churches work well together. But has formal unity come any closer in his 51 years a priest? “We do seem to have put it on the back burner,” says Fr John.

Canon Madden’s asked the same question. “It’s hard to tell, but I think it’s quite static at the moment. I think our business is not to put too many difficulties in the way.”