Monday, 1 September 2014

You Wait For Ages

It took a while to start taking funeral services after I was ordained: in Lamford in summer 2005 we went for weeks without any at all. Once I got going, though, I probably took 20 or so over the course of the year and Il Rettore did the same. That wasn't particularly impressive compared to the way it would have been once upon a time, nor to other places elsewhere: any time I spoke to my old vicar in his new Yorkshire parish he ended the conversation with 'I've got to go and get ready for a funeral, that's five this week', making one wonder how many people were actually left in the town.

How different all that is now. A few short years later and most clergy find they're doing a paltry number of funerals. I've taken only a couple this year, and even though it's true that I try to channel those that do come up towards our curate so she can have the practice, nevertheless even with hers added to the total I don't think we're into double figures since July last year. The local undertakers are quite apologetic about it, but the fact is that most people choose secular celebrants to take their services, even if those celebrants apparently quite often find themselves asked to incorporate the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm into the services they assemble. The generation that automatically assumed the local vicar is the right person to see you out of this world has passed and the consumer mentality has affected this aspect of human life as much as others.

And all of a sudden I have three funerals to do in the course of ten days, one of which is a burial - I haven't buried anyone for three or four years. I sat with a family going through the details of their mum's service the other day and had to struggle to remember what I usually say in such circumstances, which once upon a time tripped off my tongue with smooth facility. None of the deceased people are members of the Swanvale Halt congregation and only one attended church anywhere at all.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Praying Positions

There was a time when I found it impossible to pray indoors. I don't mean reading or reciting prayers, but longer-scale, silent, sitting-alone-and-concentrating kind of prayer. I think the noises and sensations of the outdoors made it easier to forget all the various chatter that clutters up one's mind and silencing which is part of the point of prayer. So when I was in Lamford I tended to go and sit in a shelter in the garden, and here I have done the same - although until recently when I built the Grotto there wasn't really anywhere to escape from rain when there was rain.

Gradually I found myself more and more reluctant to go outside for my early-morning prayers. This was mainly because there was a spell of bad weather a couple of years ago when the meteorological conditions would have provided somewhat too much of a distraction from my own thoughts, and encouraged me to stay indoors instead. But eventually I would look out at the garden and take a slight breeze shaking the upper branches of the oak tree as a good enough reason not to venture out.

This was clearly little more than laziness linked to a reluctance to pray generally. As part of my discipline I aim at having a second short prayer session between noon and 1pm, if I happen to be at home to do it; my resistance to complying with this observance shocks even me, and I am at something of a loss to account for it. It should not be the case that concerted contact with God is something I subconsciously try to avoid, yet it seems to be at the root of my hesitancy.

I now try to go outside and stay indoors to pray roughly on alternate days, though I'm not completely sure, these days, what effect either has.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Choose Your Change

I mentioned in my last post about Swanvale Halt’s ecumenical history, and the Swanvale Sisters’ role in that. By accident the other day I came across the website of Revd Murdoch Mackenzie, who had connections with the Sisters and the organisations that succeeded to their work after the community itself came to an end in 1989: he had worked in India with Sister Caroline who had founded the Sisterhood. On the website is the text of a lecture from 2002 given by Revd Mackenzie headed ‘Christianity Must Change or Die’, which is the sort of title that makes you scan an eye over a bit of text if nothing else.

As the author points out, changing, in spiritual language dying to self and rising to something new, is what Christianity is about, figuratively and very literally in terms of what happens to Jesus. No individual Christian or Christian institution can avoid engaging with dying-that-we-may-live. But it’s abundantly easy to tell yourself that at the same time as shying away from thinking about those actual, concrete things to which we must die, the ways in which we must change: working that out is far harder.

The answers proponents of Change give to that question are revealing. Murdoch Mackenzie reveals a rage at the encasing of Christians within dogmatic denominational boundaries which he struggled against for decades, and wants to see them disappear: they are all reflections, he argues, of how human beings have re-created the ‘religion’ which Christ abolished on the Cross. I have a great deal of sympathy with that. But then he starts to discuss the Eucharist as a prime example of how ‘religion’ has crept back into the humble, simple faith of Jesus. ‘It began just as a meal around a breakfast table’ he says (actually there is quite some debate about that) and it’s that to which we should essentially return. It’s clear that when Revd Mackenzie talks about the Church ‘changing’, the kind of change he envisages is in the direction of a purified Protestantism, a shape of Christian life which he equally clearly favours for strongly-held ideological reasons.

I often find that people who demand that Christianity changes have already decided firmly what that change should look like; but this is to demand really that other Christians change, not themselves. Not to specify in advance what the change should be, but to wait to see what arises from discussion, interaction, thought, and necessity – the ways in which the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church – is far more risky. I am happy, basically, with the way we do things at Swanvale Halt: I like Catholic Anglican worship and if there were to be a ‘change’ to my taste it would be more in the Catholic direction than less. But that’s not good enough. Standstill is no good to the Spirit, and nor is reshaping a church community simply according to my own predilections: it may be them to which I must inwardly die. When we do change, it will be driven by a reassessment of our basic purposes, and contact with new situations and new people, and it’s likely not to look completely like anything we envisage before we begin.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Rubbing Along

Swanvale Halt parish has a history of involvement with ecumenism, the effort to foster positive relations between Christian denominations. For some years the parish housed the Swanvale Sisters, a group of women dedicated to praying for inter-church unity which had been established by a former deaconess of the Church of South India, and the sisters often came to address the congregation. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of our sharing the church building with the local Roman Catholic congregation who squeeze their Sunday mass in between our two.

A little while ago we hosted the local King’s Church for a couple of events, and out of this came a suggestion to our curate that it might be a good thing to get together to pray for the village and its concerns. And that’s what she’s done. The group has been meeting for a couple of months and last week I went along for the first time.

The composition for that event was four members of local Charismatic congregations, four Anglicans, and one Roman Catholic. The experience is not entirely an uncomplicated one as the Charismatics tend to be vocal in their prayers and the Anglicans tend to incorporate more silence. I can let it wash over me to a certain degree, and doing some thinking about it came to see the sort of torrent of words you get with Charismatic prayer as being in some sense a groping after the same suspension of ego and the seeking of God that absolute silence aims for – a different kind of silence. Not everyone can manage that, though. We’ve had a couple of members of our church who’ve tried this group and have decided not to come back. You have to be very robust and settled in your own prayer life not to be disconcerted by a different style. For me the only very hard moment was when a member of the local Free Evangelical church who our curate didn’t know and who had never been to the group before began praying about the Eastern European care assistants on the staff of a local home where she works – ‘They’re often staunch Roman Catholics, Lord, and we just pray that you will enable them to be released from their darkness’ – unaware there was a Roman Catholic sat yards away from her. There will have to be some ground rules set down (such as no praying against other Christian Churches), and some minimal structure placed on the proceedings so that silent silence doesn’t get squeezed out.

That said, our two lay Anglican attenders were entirely comfortable with the way things went. One, Mary, is a former Companion of the Swanvale Sisters and commented later ‘while I have previously experienced the Charismatic Movement from time to time, nevertheless it was not in conjunction with other Christian Groups, so this is a very unique venture that we’re fostering, and we will stick with it!’ Plus it’s worth remembering what a journey into the unknown our Charismatic colleagues are taking – walking past a statue of the Blessed Virgin with a candle next to it and praying in a chapel beside an altar surrounded by Gothic arches and with the Sacrament reserved in an aumbry in the wall. 

Monday, 18 August 2014

Catechism Complete

As you may remember I’ve been trying for a couple of years to collect all the volumes of the Haggerston Catechism at a not-completely-eyewatering price, and a couple of weeks ago finally achieved this ambition, as the last volume – no.IV, The Lord’s Prayer – wended its way to me from a bookseller in the United States. It prompted me to read through Fr Trevor Jones’s short biography of Fr Herbert Wilson, the man responsible for the Haggerston Catechism, A Life Simply Offered. It’s a loving picture not only of the priest but also of the culture of the Anglo-Catholic East End which no longer really exists (except, in a shrunken form, around Fr Jones’s own church of St Peter London Docks, and a scattering of other such churches). That culture was destroyed by World War Two, by slum clearance and depopulation, by immigration and by economic devastation, quite apart from the depredations meted out on Church life generally by social change. Anglo-Catholicism is still there, but, notwithstanding the vigour of some churches, in shreds and pieces compared to what it was in Fr Wilson’s day.

Reading the book, you see what a different world it was. The lack of opportunity, the deference, the willingness to defer delight and pleasure in the interest of duty – which was, perhaps, a gloss of virtue painted over the ugly truth of people having no choice in the matter. Perhaps it was the Church itself, by teaching people, as Fr Wilson himself said, to raise their eyes from their sins and look upward to heaven, that gave them the very sort of aspiration which, converted to material and secular forms, undermined their allegiance to Christianity. St Augustine’s Haggerston could rely on its organisations and structures supplying a stream of new Christians for Fr Wilson and his curates to drill and order in sports clubs, servers’ teams, and of course the Catechism Class itself – Scouts, Guides, Boys Brigades. None of that now. I have to beg the uniformed organisations to come anywhere near the church no more than twice a year – not that I do beg, as what’s the point of that? The parish had Mother Kate and the Sisters round the corner from the church, from the order founded by JM Neale 80 years before: a nun or two to do the linens and play the piano for the Catechism Class. That’s what you need, more nuns.

The Haggerston Catechism creaks with age and the weight of its times, the devastation of the odd flying bomb and the occasion spot of casual unthinking anti-Semitism. You couldn’t do it now – 150 sessions taking three years to complete, with never much thought that the children copying Fr Wilson’s words and pictures from the blackboard would stray very far from the little network of grubby streets that formed their East End world. Of course they would – already were – and the most moving aspect of these six little books is Herbert Wilson’s introductions with stories of evacuated children kneeling to pray in country churches where they’ve been sent (‘Which church do you come from?’ asks the vicar; ‘St Orgerstin’s ‘Aggerston’, they reply), or airmen who scribble their old parish priest a few lines while waiting for the next mission: ‘Thanks for everything we learned, Father, I don’t know how I’d manage otherwise’.

No, you can’t do the Catechism now; but you need to do something, I feel more and more, and not just for children but for grown-ups too. The vague motions of the heart and mind don’t coalesce into rocks to hold onto when the nearer waters roll and tempest still is high. You need to learn the stuff that tells you God is real, that Jesus is what God is like; that there is hope. We don’t do enough of that, and rely too much on our own weak resolution and recollection. Fr Wilson knew better.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Festival Going

Following on from my post a while ago about the vicissitudes of Reptile, the start of this month saw another shock to the Goth fraternity with the sudden cancellation, with a fortnight to go, of AltFest. AltFest was a new, and vastly ambitious festival intended to take place near Northampton and which was supposed to bring together Goth, Metal and general alternative music in a wide-ranging event the type of which had never been attempted before. When news of its cancellation emerged there was a lot of sympathy for the organisers who are, after all, themselves part of the alternative community, and who insisted they faced personal bankruptcy as a result of the failure of the event. They blamed the cut-throat state of the festival market which ensures that suppliers and agents demand so much of their fees upfront that ticket sales must reach a certain volume long before the event actually happens in order for the whole thing to work: and, if it doesn’t, promoters have to take a decision at a certain point whether to proceed or not. The event might still have worked; it doesn’t matter. It has to have proved its workability before it begins, which is a great burden to place on a new event; and AltFest didn’t make it.
Now it seems as though this isn’t an isolated occurrence. Another festival, Jabberwocky, which described itself as ‘alternative’ but was distinctly more mainstream than AltFest, has joined it in its fate – this time with a mere three days to go. It seems that some more blame may in this case attach to the promoters who have something of a track record in cancelling events, but that aside there is the same pattern; and the same scramble among many of the acts to secure another place to play to avoid wasting their time completely. There is something of a perverse mechanism operating here: such caution over making a loss that making a loss becomes more likely. 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Reigate Fakery

A couple of weeks ago we had an hour or two in Reigate. In the middle of Reigate, should you ever decide for some bizarre reason to make a trip there, you will find the Castle Gardens. Unlike Guildford, whose Castle Gardens surround an actual castle, there is no castle in Reigate. There used to be, until a group of recalcitrant Royalists used it as a base in the Civil War, hastening its demolition lest it shelter similar sedition in the future. In 1777 one of the town dignitaries decided to rebuild a bit of it as a sort of memorial to Earl William de Warenne, the magnate who founded the town in the 1150s and who, according to the inscription, was 'a loyal champion of our liberties'.

The 'Castle' is a delightful bit of Georgian nonsense which looks about as much like a genuine medieval castle gateway as the pyramid in the middle of the gardens,which we will come to in a minute, resembles its Egyptian forebears. It's quite fun, as it has two levels, an arched gateway you can walk through and an upper storey from which you can survey the visitors traipsing up the path, through the cross-slit windows.

Of course William de Warenne didn't give two hoots, or even one, about the ancient liberties of the town, which gives this memorial a level of fakery even beyond its physical shape. Towns such as Reigate were set up at the gates of castles and abbeys to take advantage of the opportunities for the control of trade that would result. You could argue, were you feeling generously disposed, that Reigate wouldn't exist otherwise, but it was a result of de Warenne being entrepreneurial rather than altruistic.

Ah now, the Pyramid. You can see that in the second photo. It sits atop the entrance to what is now known as the Baron's Cave, a network of underground passages which have nothing to do with the barons who compelled King John to sign Magna Carta (as the old story went) or even the fabric of the medieval castle. You can, however, book to go on a tour of these chambers, whose purpose remains mysterious. A delight which still awaits me ...