Thursday, 8 December 2016

Prodigal Daughters

Debbie, our ordinand, now knows where she’s going to go to serve her curacy, and she and I had a meeting to catch up last week. She told me how she’d help to facilitate a meditation session with a group from Al-Anon, the network supporting people who care for those with alcohol problems, working with a secular facilitator. Obviously this wasn’t about religion in any way, but Debbie suggested they retell the story of the Prodigal Son using an all-female ‘cast’ to think about issues of betrayal and forgiveness. They’d agreed they would stop at the point the errant child comes home, but the other facilitator ran ahead and, not actually being aware of how the story was supposed to end, as the parent welcomed the child and offered forgiveness.

When Debbie asked her about it, she said she’d been overtaken by some phrases she’d remembered and couldn’t get out of her mind: ‘Love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things, suffers all things’. She couldn’t remember where she’d heard them (my guess is at a wedding). ‘It comes from the Bible,’ Debbie gently offered, beginning a conversation about the Bible, about Jesus and about forgiveness.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

This Wicked Tongue Says

Related imageThis probably follows on rather well from last time.

It only takes a moment to say something stupid. Last night it was nothing to do with church, but a Christmas card from someone I know whose bland message for some reason prompted a mean, snide comment from me I probably wouldn’t have made had Ms Formerly Aldgate not been there, but merely thought.

It seems as though somewhere in me is a spring of scorn and cruelty that isn’t directed against anyone in particular, but which can emerge at moments when my guard is down. It’s happened before, rarely but mortifyingly when I remember the occasions. A lot of the time I can forget that it’s there at all.

I sit down with the Bible this morning as usual and read in Psalm 106,

      They angered the Lord at the waters of Meribah,
      and it went ill with Moses on their account;
      for they made his spirit bitter,
      and he spoke words that were rash.

I don’t know what it may have been that made some part of my spirit bitter, a long while ago. But it hardly matters: every time that spirit pokes through to the surface I pour a little bit of evil into the world around me. I can only thank God that this time only Ms FA was there and she sees the worst of me anyway and that, perhaps, I’m prepared against it happening again, at least for a little while. But sometimes it seems that I am no kinder or calmer than I was thirty years ago. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

That Was a Lovely Sermon

Image result for applauseThis will probably come across as immensely ungrateful, but I’m thinking today about the business of a clergyperson being praised. A lot of the time you get thanked for doing nothing more than being there, and can mentally brush this off very easily as you know very well it’s nothing to do with you, really. You are God’s presence in that situation in the way anyone could be. But there are also compliments you get for something you have put some effort into and that feels more ambiguous. 

Today was the Family Service at Swanvale Halt, non-eucharistic and aimed at being more informal with elements of interaction and occasionally game-playing in the sermon slot. I had to arrange a projector and screen, discovered I’d left my notes at home with ten minutes to go, and was already feeling under-prepared and ill at ease. It all passed off OK, and people said very nice things, to which I reply as I always do, ‘I’m glad it all worked all right’. Anything which isn’t the Mass and involves unscripted speaking – Family Services, Messy Church, Church Club, school assemblies – I tend to find immensely stressful, even after ten years of leading them and even though nothing I do is really that demanding, and mostly I’m just relieved to have got through whatever it is.

I’m fairly indifferent to what people think of what I’ve done, as I know when it’s been good and when it hasn’t been. This morning, for instance, I covered ground I’m sure I’ve been over before and covered better, and it was far from cohesive. But what do I really want? Would it really feel better if nobody complimented me at all? Marion our curate usually gets a scathing and entirely unreasonable critique from her teenage son and that doesn’t sound comforting. What should I say in response, anyway? I remember advice from ages ago that when being complimented you should put the attention back onto Jesus, but it’s a challenge to do that without being weird. I have sometimes said ‘I just say what the Lord gives me to say’ but find myself putting a slightly sardonic edge on the statement because I don’t exactly receive my words by telepathy. Perhaps praise for the service as a whole is better, but that has an ambiguity about it too: what we ‘enjoy’ may not be what God wants us to take to heart at all.

Of course anyone engaged in any creative activity faces this. Only this morning on the wireless Adam Gopnik was reflecting on Bob Dylan, ‘a man who has known nothing but unimaginable adulation since he was absurdly young [and yet] who adopts a tone of aggrieved ill-will in almost every circumstance’ and concluding that ‘to idolise the indifferent puts us in touch with the first springs of love and religion’ and that ‘charisma’ means not the ability to seduce others but rather not caring at all about what they think. You produce some work: unless it communicates it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to: but, if you craft it to what you think people will accept, it will eventually collapse into mental and spiritual comfort-food. Hence the conflicted relationship with praise.

This gives me an opportunity to talk about Polly Harvey again (not that I really need one), another artist famously indifferent to what anyone beyond her immediate circle of family and friends thinks about her output. When she started out back in the early 1990s interviews with her were a journalist’s dream as she gabbled the first thing she thought of. She soon realised how damaging that was and became equally uncooperative.  My favourite example is the 1995 one with an unsuspecting Swedish music journalist who wanted to tackle her about her noted scorn for feminism:

Journo: I’ve just been reading Liz Evans’s Women, Sex and Rock ‘n’ Roll [goes on about it for a while]. Don’t you think any of that is relevant to you?
PJH: I’ve never really felt like a woman, I haven’t had much sex, and I don’t play rock ‘n’ roll. Apart from that, yes.


Journo: Is it true that you never interact with your fans?
PJH: Never.
Journo: Not even to –
PJH: No.
Journo: You don’t like interviews, do you?
PJH: They mean nothing to me.
Journo: Don’t you even use them to –
PJH: No.
Journo: What’s that written on the back of your hand?
PJH: It says ‘serum’. I’m not going to tell you what that means, either.

Eventually journalists gave up trying to winkle stuff out of her, and she grew less prickly, so by the late 1990s interviews were conducted more along the lines of ‘Do you have any other message for a grateful nation?’ Now she doesn’t do them at all. But unlike Mr Dylan, PJ remains impeccably polite even under insufferable provocation (such as being seated next to David Cameron on Andrew Marr’s TV show), and gracious if reticent in accepting the accolades that come her way: she manages to combine ‘indifference’ to passing opinion with grace, and unsurprisingly that’s what has more influence with me.

Given that I’m very sensitive to the danger of playing to the gallery, are people responding favourably to what I serve up because I am, or because I’m not, due to the 'adulation of indifference'? Having people listen to you, and listen avidly, is somewhat intoxicating and therefore dangerous. I suppose all you can do is keep firmly directed somewhere else (in my case, towards God), in the same way that Polly keeps the focus rigidly on her work rather than on the way it’s received. You can do that without being rude, though, and perhaps what I need to take into account is that what people say to me is a reflection of where they are: of their own receptiveness and grace, more than of anything I have done.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Some Different Music

We celebrated St Catherine's Day last week by heading out to see The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing at the Star in Guildford. Having both seen them before some years ago we knew what we were getting and wondered why they were straying to Guildford to play in the back room of a pub (there couldn't have been more than 60 people there - was it really worth everyone's while?). Still, it had to be done. The said back room, helpfully called 'The Back', is a long, narrow and awkward space for a band, accessed by negotiating the staircases and mezzanines of the Star's appealingly maze-like interior, but it meant we could loiter at the back and still see something. I don't much enjoy stand-up comedy, so I found Andrew O'Neill's warm-up routine only intermittently effective, and neither of us was ever going to respond to all the silly encouragement to the audience to bounce around the limited space, but the set was fun. The Men's lead singer and saw-player Andy Heintz had a tussle with cancer last year and is only just recovered, and has swapped his pith helmet and red military jacket for a bowler and tattered Dickensian urchin coat with a touch of makeup that makes him look rather like the Tiger Lillies' Martyn Jacques after a very late night. The new album, Not Your Typical Victorians, has a more political edge than their previous stuff as well as being more musically interesting, and I rather liked pieces such as 'This House is not Haunted' and 'Third Class Coffin'. I felt like taking Mr O'Neill to task on his lyric insisting 'Jesus was a Cockney (even though he didn't exist)', but I'm glad someone is doing this kind of thing.

PS: I forgot to mention that the audience included remarkably few visibly identifiable Steampunks. 'I thought all that business of sticking goggles on a cheap fancy-dress top hat had finished', opined Ms Formerly Aldgate.  Truth be told, the few folk dressed up looked more like Morris dancers than Steampunks, but it can be a fine line, I suppose.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

What Happens When Priests Get Together

It's like an episode of Father Ted, of course.

- Were you ordained in Guildford diocese?
- No, I used to be at Wantage.
- Ah, were you there when Frank Frinton was there?
- No, he'd already gone to Birmingham by my time. My rector was Fr Bendybus.
- Is that the same Fr Bendybus who was at St Frottage-by-the-Gasworks with old Doddy Manhole?'
- No, there was a curate who looked like him though. But you can tell Fr Bendybus because he's got the, y'now, the thing.
- Of course, the thing, I'd forgotten.
- How could you forget the thing?

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Playing Host

Before 2013 it had been back in the 1990s that Swanvale Halt had hosted a confirmation service. Apparently the 2013 gig went so well that our Area Dean asked us to do it again last Sunday. It was a somewhat smaller affair because the whole Deanery could only rustle up four candidates as opposed to the 16 we had last time, but our new suffragan bishop was happy to come for that many, or few (she is 'keen to get out and about' according to the diocesan newspaper) and apart from asking to change one of the readings acceded to everything we would normally do here. That meant a touch of smoke and wearing my old gold Roman set to preside.

Bp: What do you want me to wear? I've bought my cope.
Me: Well, we'd normally use a chasuble.
Bp: Ah good, wearing a cope at the eucharist is really hard work. Have you got everything?
Me (opening drawer): Yes, it's all here.
Bp: What's that?
Me: It's a chasuble.
Bp: I've never seen one like that!

Considering the bishop is married to a prominent incumbent in the City of London this is quite a surprise, but doubtless when she does the New Bishops Course they'll explain the differences between Roman and Gothic. If anyone running it knows. I didn't mind at all, as our former diocesan positively blanched when I showed him the Old Gold Set whereas our new suffragan was blithely unconcerned. 

St Rita of Cascia made her presence felt during the proceedings only in the fact that our visitors from other churches of course had no idea what to do at communion (next time I will prime everyone what to expect), and that I, acting as thurifer, and the bishop had great fun with the business of passing the thurible to one another. She'd told me she was left-handed, so I tried to pass it the opposite way round to usual, but we got so confused we both ended up crossing our arms over in all sorts of bizarre ways, biting our lower lips to stop ourselves giggling. Jesus would have done the same. 

As ever Swanvale Halt did itself proud and provided a wonderful spread after the service. The bishop and everyone else who expressed an opinion were fulsome in their praise of the building, the service, the food, and the general ambience. It was a lovely party to celebrate four people's faithfulness. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

Ainete Ekaterini

The good folk of St Nicolas Parish in Guildford once more gathered at mid-day to mark St Catherine's Day at the ruined chapel on the hilltop and, unlike last year, I was able to join them. The air was pellucidly clear and blue - the few wispy clouds you can see in this photo were gone by the time we started. We were joined for the first time by a dog, and by the youngest-ever attendant at the service, Dora, who looked to me as though she was between 2 and 3. She was fascinated particularly by the turret on the corner of the chapel: 'I'm in the castle', I think she stated.

Earlier on I'd introduced the Swanvale Halt Toddler Group to St Catherine at Toddler Praise. One little girl fixated on the holy martyr's identity as a princess and her mum ruefully commented that she'd be having that conversation for the rest of the day.