Sunday, 18 February 2018

Away Again with the PCC

It was two-and-a-bit years ago that the PCC of Swanvale Halt took an Away Day to consider the Mission Plan (we're not supposed to call them that now, apparently - they are Church Development Plans, not that it matters what you call them). Over that time my thinking about how to engage in this process has shifted, but it's still vital to bring the lay leadership of the church into the business of deciding its priorities, or it just won't work at all. We'd booked Peper Harow church, which is not far away from Swanvale Halt: a medieval church, decorated by the great Pugin, which dramatically caught fire on Christmas Eve 2007 and which underwent an incredibly expensive reconstruction resulting in an absolutely gorgeous fabric, like a medieval church but spanking new with pristine tiling and ceiling paintings. Half the pompous post-Reformation monuments were unsalvable, leaving only the odd bust and cherub, and a church which is strikingly clear of clutter. As the church is only occasionally used for services, it was always intended that it should be a 'diocesan resource' available for just such things as PCC Away Days.

One of the delights of Peper Harow's restoration, as well as its loo and kitchenette, is underfloor heating. I have felt this working, but it hasn't worked as reliably as one might hope. It wasn't working this Saturday; the churchwarden had helpfully put in heaters on Friday afternoon, but as I set out from my house the car thermometer dropped from 1 degree to freezing to minus-1. Oh dear.

In fact the chill outside made the environment within the building seem all the more palatable, and it's a beautiful setting, amid the Surrey fields. As the sun got going and the time came to 'break into small groups' various Swanvale Halt members decided they were more comfortable out in the churchyard in the increasingly warm late-winter sunshine than in the church itself.

Everyone expressed a great deal of satisfaction with the day. It was good that Rev Facilitator was able to be with us again as he was in 2015, guiding us with gentle encouragement (shame he's retiring). He thinks we've come quite a long way and seem more energised and forward-looking than in the past. I now have a sheaf of papers to batter into some kind of report so that we can take it forward. A job for tomorrow ...

Friday, 16 February 2018

Bright Winter from Corfe to Studland

Last year I passed through Corfe for the first time in many years, unreasonably moved by the grey Purbeck limestone of its cottages and the gaunt Castle looming above the village, but I hadn't gone on the road from there to Studland for a long, long while, and my Mum hadn't been out that way for longer than she could remember - possibly since my Dad was alive. We were there yesterday, for a bright, clear afternoon's drive through old haunts.

It's half-term week, so there were lots of families around though the village wasn't unbearably busy. I'd forgotten that the Museum in Corfe is just a single room!

On a whim we returned not via the way we came, through Wareham, but over the ferry that links Studland on the Purbeck side of Poole Harbour to Sandbanks on the northern side. I don't think I've ever actually taken my own car over the ferry, or at least I don't have a clear memory of having done so. The ferry was changed years ago from the exhilaratingly leaky, rusty vessel I remember from childhood journeys, with its great black spots on cables that shuttled up and down to indicate the direction the ferry was about to move in, but it's still fun. The chains clank and the engines grind into life to prepare you for the two-minute journey between the headlands, and there's still an exciting stink of fuel in the air.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Into the Desert

Last year our Ash Wednesday observances were exceptionally well attended: I wasn't anticipating a repeat performance this, given the wind and rain battering the walls of the church, and we didn't get one. The only not-quite-familiar face was a young man who works at a public school locally: 'You're the only church with a lunchtime mass on Ash Wednesday for, what, fifty miles!' he explained, exaggerating in a gratifying way.

My personal priorities for Lent are two, and both arose from the mini-conference about parish mission we held a couple of weeks ago. I want to be a more restful presence (having met a priest who I found wasn't) and will make an effort to cultivate stillness and stop fidgeting, especially when praying. I will also try to be more prayerful going about the parish, intentionally calling people and events to mind as I pass houses and locations. That's aside from simply getting through the whole thing without an unconscionable breakdown in temper, an aim in which I am sometimes successful.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Closer to Home

You hear of scandals and injustices far off, and momentarily you boggle and then move on with your everyday life, because everyone is busy, and most of the time you don’t think much about things you don’t absolutely have to: there isn’t the brain-room. Then, just occasionally, something comes closer to home, and the boggling doesn’t stop, and may develop into more definite and angry feelings.

The stories of sub-postmasters being, they say, ill-treated at the hands of Post Office Ltd have come across my radar occasionally over the last few years. I heard a couple of reports on Radio 4 and wondered what exactly was happening. It seemed bad but remote, a few hard cases of poor communication and official hardheartedness, and I gave it no more mental space.

Then, in the autumn, a sub-postmaster not far from here, whose children I’ve met at school, was suspended by Post Office Ltd. An accounts audit – the first since he took over the business some years ago – had allegedly brought to light a significant deficit in the branch accounts. He instantly paid some £57K to make up the shortfall and began a nail-biting process of submitting paperwork, being asked for more paperwork, attending meetings in Norwich, and then being asked for more paperwork. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide,’ he said. At first the target was to get the branch reopened before Christmas, and then it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. I went to the post office in Hornington and found queues out of the door; most of the customers appeared to be there because their own closest branch was closed. The sub-postmaster was sent a letter from Post Office Ltd in January saying the money had at last been accounted for and no legal action was being taken. A fortnight later he received another letter terminating his contract: ‘there is no appeal from this decision’, it stated. Even our local MP, a Government minister, commented ‘well, that’s clearly not true’ when shown the letter at a surgery.

You might well tut and say that a community, and its priest, is always likely to assume that someone it knows is honest and being hard-done-by; and so would I, did this local drama not happen within a wider context. The context is a decade-long controversy over the Post Office’s accounting software. The Major Government in the mid-90s, exercised by the issue of benefit fraud (an understandable thing to be exercised about, in itself), put the wheels in motion for a new accounting system for Post Office branches to be devised. This was all proceeding when the Blair Government withdrew from participation, leaving a subsidiary of IT company ICL, now part of Fujitsu, to develop the system on its own. We know that private companies do everything better than the public sector, don’t we? The Horizon program was finally ready for introduction in 1999, and the problems began almost as soon as it started being used. Gradually over the years more and more sub-postmasters found Post Office Counters (then renamed Consignia, then Post Office Ltd) accusing them of fraud having discovered discrepancies in their accounts. Most were adamant that the problem lay in the system; some alleged that Post Office officials had encouraged them to submit accounts in forms that they thought were not kosher, but were assured would smooth over the apparent problems, and having complied then found themselves accused of fraud. This has now happened to hundreds and hundreds of sub-postmasters, a significant proportion of the whole network. It would, if true, represent an astonishing level of fraud and call the Post Office’s own franchising procedures into question. But is it true? Why are so few sub-postmasters ever prosecuted, merely sacked? Why aren’t they given the opportunity to defend themselves in court? Why are so many, like our local example, told no action is going to be taken against them (no legal action, mind), and then find their contracts terminated with not a word of justification, only ‘there is no appeal from this decision’?

Post Office Ltd has proved solidly unwilling to countenance the suggestion that there may be something wrong with Horizon. In 2015 it was pressured by the Government to launch an investigation, undertaken by a forensic IT firm called Second Sight. In front of a Parliamentary Select Committee, POLtd stated that it was fully co-operating with the inquiry; the chief investigator then stated blankly that this was not true, and that the team were still waiting for paperwork that they had first requested 18 months before. The day before the report was due to be issued, POLtd informed Second Sight that the inquiry was being suspended, and that they were to destroy all the paperwork they had gathered. They then issued a statement that the investigation had exonerated Horizon. This was not the impression gained from a copy of the draft report obtained by the BBC which repeatedly stated it was not possible to rule out the conclusion that the accounting system was producing substantial inaccuracies. All of this can be found on or through the Alliance for Justice for Sub-Postmasters’ website. There is currently a class action being brought by nearly 600 sub-postmasters against POLtd, which comes before the High Court in November. The judge has ordered all the paperwork gathered by Second Sight (which was not destroyed) to be turned over to the court. Presumably at this stage the truth will begin to emerge, though it may be too late for the local sub-postmaster and his family to save their business.

What has shocked me in all this is that it’s possible for a public corporation – POLtd is still, officially, owned by the taxpayer – to behave in such an extra-legal fashion. It’s as though the organisation is accountable to no one – not to natural justice, not to the Government, not to the law. How did this happen? Now, I loathe most of the works of Mrs Thatcher, but one positive result of those years was a degree of increased responsiveness by public bodies to their users, increased transparency and accountability. That new world seems not to have come very near Finsbury Dials. Not yet. 

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Devil's Jumps

The Devil’s Jumps are not far from the Devil’s Punchbowl: the Adversary was particularly active around this bit of southwest Surrey, it seems, but having had a recommendation of the Jumps as a place to go for a walk I set out there. There are three small, steep hills, the Jumps, but only one is publicly accessible. I’ve never had cause to venture west of Thursley before: the narrow lanes of stone- and brick-built cottages and farms give way to straight, pine-lined roads of modern houses, and a footpath leads off one of these which eventually takes you up to the Stony Jump. The heathy ground rises steeply, and in front of the great mound, to either side of the toiling path, are colossal fallen pines, long-dead and bleached: there’s a sort of apocalyptic feel to the landscape, as though you're ascending towards the abode of some ogre. Your reward for the long climb is a patch of grass, a plank bench, and an outcrop of rust-coloured sandstone, worn by the wind into layers and whorls. You can see quite a distance.

The sun was striving against the clouds as I headed back along the footpaths to the road. I found myself so very grateful for the fact that I was there, able to walk there and see, hear, feel, smell. And how astonishing a thing is a human being, able to process the landscape with all these senses and reflect on them. Nothing else can do this: blunt, in comparison to those of animals, though our senses are, we alone can say to ourselves, I am feeling this, others can feel something of this, this is, perhaps, what it means. This is what the language of ‘having a soul’ is maybe about.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Sorry to Break It To You, but Not All of the Bible is That Edifying

It was a long session with the Air Cadets on Tuesday: I led a group through their session on Integrity (which is one of the ATC's four Core Values), took another for Padré's Hour (which turned out to be about half an hour as other things needed to be done) and enrolled three new cadets. It was very cold outside the HQ building, which must be why the O/C forgot that I usually say a prayer after the enrolment, and led us all back inside as soon as possible. Yes, that must have been it.

I try to finish sessions with a relevant Bible story if I can, as plenty of the cadets will only have the vaguest idea what's in it. For Integrity, I summarised the story of David and Bathsheba, as it's quite long, and then read the bit where Nathan the Prophet confronts David with the truth about his bad behaviour. Five teenage boys sat with their mouths open. 'That's not much of a example to set,' offered one, which is quite true. I got the impression that their shock was as much that the Bible might contain such gritty realism as a comment on the narrative itself. 

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Pirate Maths

Part of the responsibility of being a Governor at the Infants School is, occasionally, to visit officially to examine an aspect of the school’s work. I haven’t done one for a long while and have not pressed to do so as I never feel entirely in command of the facts, struggling even to remember the names of the Teaching Assistants (I think I’ve memorised most of the teachers). But I was in school yesterday to look at how it was managing maths. I had an initial discussion with the headteacher who handed me a sheaf of background paperwork which she knew full well I should have in a file anyway but also that I wouldn’t be able to find, and then went touring around the classrooms watching what they were doing. The children, as well as the teachers, were obviously expecting that I might turn up and chatted with me about their work. Apart from a group in one class who were working on their standard tests, most children were embroiled in the start of (breathe in) Pirate Maths Week, an in-house initiative intended to make maths more attractive to pupils who might not feel very enthusiastic about it. There was a range of pirate-themed maths tasks which will produce a series of numbers that, at the end of the week, will allow a treasure chest to be ceremoniously opened in Assembly and the treasure distributed.

What actually struck me most was moving from one class which contains mostly Reception children with a smattering of Year 1’s and which was bedlam (‘Ethan, you’re not on-task, are you?’ hollered the class teacher more than once) to the top Year 2 class which was a silent oasis of 7-year-olds completing their Science projects (not Pirate Maths). ‘It happens with every group and every time we marvel at it’, the headteacher told me. ‘It’s as though over those two years they become completely different creatures’.

Pirate-themed school activities lend themselves to ribald comment. As a parishioner said to me, ‘It’s good to know that the children are getting a grounding in the Three Aaarrrgghs’ …