Sunday, 27 May 2018

This One Theatre of War

It’s already more than two years since I conducted the funeral of the two premature babies that got me thinking about where the line between life and not-life might be drawn, and who determines the status of a pregnancy. If I’d been an Irish citizen on Friday I would have voted for change, but when the result came through I wouldn’t have cheered: the issue of abortion is too fraught with sorrow to feel any joy about it.

As I said then, I can’t think of a blob of cells as a human being in the same sense I am, or you, reader, presumably are, nor does the Church behave as though that was the case, no matter what it says. It does not conduct funeral services for soiled sanitary products after a pregnancy has spontaneously miscarried in the very early stages, when, if it was being consistent, it surely should. Even when a foetus has all the structures which are going to turn into the organs and features of the finished being, even when some of them are functioning, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s 'alive'. What is life? We find it hard enough to determine the answer at life’s end; its beginning is no less obscure.

A pain-free abortion policy, whether liberal or restrictive, is as much a fantasy as a war in which nobody gets hurt. We dwell in the battleground of good and evil, and in this case women’s reproductive systems are one theatre of war; one in which, ultimately, women have to fight alone. To imagine that the moral war can be avoided by one sort of legislation or another is as unreal as pretending that it isn’t happening, and that there isn’t an issue. We must keep arguing that life is sacred, that every human being should be valued for something more than their social utility or their conformity to one particular model of worth. That can be done even while conceding to individuals the responsibility to decide whether to end it.

One aspect of the vote worth cheering, at least quietly, is the Roman Catholic Church’s decision to keep out of it publicly. It seems finally to have sunk in that its ability to comment constructively on any moral debate is so dreadfully compromised by its past that its only option is to stay silent. I would like to think that the Church of England might also have gone so far along the journey of purging itself of its desire for power and control, but being in a less extreme condition to start with, I’m not sure there is not some way to go yet.

Friday, 25 May 2018

(Inadvertent) Words of Wisdom

The private chapel of the Bishop of Guildford at his house, Willow Grange, has a nice selection of benches for folk to sit on, a couple of icons, and a solid oak table as an altar. It even has a holy-water stoup, a shallow ceramic basin held up by curlicued metalwork. It doesn't have a cross anywhere, curiously enough.

I made use of the holy-water stoup yesterday when the diocesan chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests met at the Bishop's house, for mass, lunch, and a discussion of the Society's aims and Rule of Life. Mass was unobjectionable, lunch was pleasant, and the talk mildly encouraging. We spoke quite a lot about the commitment in the Manual of the SCP to 'catholic evangelism', to using the tools of the Catholic tradition to communicate the Gospel. There were a number of interesting ideas, though the discussion made me reflect on my lack of focus and clarity in my own ministry. 

We got to the bit in the SCP Manual which commits the Society and its members to 'seeking the peace and unity of Christ's Church', a Church which - even the little bit of it called the Church of England - comprises trad-Catholics and modernisers as well as Evangelicals of various brands, who are increasingly dominant in the Diocese of Guildford. 'As liberal Catholics everyone hates us', said one of my colleagues. 'Everyone thinks everyone hates them' joked the Bishop, a throwaway remark which I thought was perhaps the most profound insight of the day. It's true: each grouping feels itself misunderstood and embattled, even the big Evangelical churches who have such a triumphalist tone to what they do. They have it precisely because they suspect it isn't true. In recognising each other's insecurity, perhaps, and forgiving its shrill and unwelcome consequences, lies the possibility of kindness and hope.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Data Day

Tick, tick, tick, runs the clock, to Friday when, as every fule no, the General Data Protection Regulation comes into force. Your inbox will almost certainly, like mine, be clogged with endless emails from various organisations asking you whether they can continue to use your data. I'm curious about the ones who haven't got in touch with me, ranging from Hedges Direct, from whom I bought some hawthorn saplings last year, to Gunner Faerber, the German mineral salesman who regularly sends me updates about which interesting stones he'll be peddling in Stuttgart in July or Vienna in October. I don't care, but the mere fact I've got on his mailing list is so bizarre it tickles me to see the emails arrive.

At Swanvale Halt church we have to comply, ultimately, along with everyone else. Our senior churchwarden to whom the task has been deputed is remarkably relaxed about the whole thing, remarking repeatedly at meetings that 'we need to demonstrate that we're doing something, but not have it all done by the 25th'. While this may be true, it appears to translate into not doing anything at all by the 25th, which strikes me as over-relaxed, so I've roughed out a Privacy Policy which we can use for now, based on the diocese's templates. 

As well as the fairly obvious details such as email addresses for various contact lists and sub-groups within the church, we hold a bewildering variety of data. I have some pastoral notes about people, for instance - and remember, we are told to write down accounts of conversations we have with people in difficult pastoral situations - and copies of material used by wedding couples and those seeking marriage licences from the Bishop's Registry to prove their identity, all of which are potentially very sensitive. Then there's more superficial stuff such as lists of who's attended Toddler Group, Church Club at the Infants School, or Messy Church over the years, whether they regularly come to church or not, and so on. None of it is a patch on the notebook I found when looking through the archives of the church I used to worship at in High Wycombe. It was Fr McManus's personal register of all the families in the area in about 1955, with details of names, schools, occupations, addresses, and helpful comments alongside the entries such as 'Bad family' or 'No hope'. Anyway, there's no way all of our data storage can possibly be compliant by Friday ...

In this connection I was thinking today about what constitutes a 'member' of an Anglican church. People on the Electoral Roll are certainly members, but what about those who come along to church yet aren't on the Roll? The ambiguity is that legally everyone in a parish is assumed to be a 'member' of their Anglican parish church. Anyone in a parish has the absolute, undeniable right - with certain protected exceptions - to marry in their parish church. They cannot be absolutely denied other sacramentals, either, although churches have the right to set certain conditions such as requiring attendance at worship or preparation classes before children are baptised. Anyone in the parish, literally anyone, can vote in the election for churchwardens, and being on the Electoral Roll merely indicates that a person wishes to take part in the governance of the church. Article 9 of the GDPR mentions that data can be held without explicit consent for people who are 'members or former members (or those who have regular contact with [the organisation] in connection with [its] purposes; and [where] there is no disclosure to a third party without consent'. Now, as I read it, for an Anglican church that could essentially mean everyone within the parish boundary, covering our pastoral and general evangelistic work. At any rate, we won't be sending out any of those emails asking people to hit 'YES' before the end of the week. 

Monday, 21 May 2018

Giant Felling

As I write the saws of the tree surgeons are buzzing through the air of the back garden, bringing down the great eucalyptus. I knew this was going to happen, and indeed it had to - look how rotten the base of the tree is - but it's a sad day.

As I've said before, Shinto is my third favourite religion, and I have enough Shinto sensibility in me to go out first thing this morning to apologise to the tree and the untold thousands of creatures that make it their home. There are tons and tons of wood to be laid down, and I know it its life will find its way into a new form; I may even try to move an ash sapling which is currently somewhere it will never thrive, to take the eucalyptus's place. The earth is robust. But such an act of huge destruction is never anything other than dreadful. Worse, I am told the rowan tree to the side of the house must go as well: its bark is splitting and it isn't in a healthy state. I wasn't expecting that. On bright spring days I've marvelled at the rowan's beauty against a clear blue sky, and now it must fall victim to exigency. 

The last time I looked, the gaunt stump of the eucalyptus trunk was standing out against the clouds, an emblem of ruin. 

Strangely there was also a eucalyptus at Lamford and my successor as curate asked for that to be felled before he moved in. I came back from a visit to find the work in progress, and that was more of a shock. I suppose I have to be grateful, too, that because the perilous state of the tree made felling it a health-and-safety issue, I won't have to pick up the doubtless rather substantial bill. 

Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Bride Wore Red

The Bride of Christ, that is, whatever else may have been going on today in the world beyond Swanvale Halt. It's Pentecost tomorrow, so I've managed to photograph the balloons bedecking the church ready for the great festival. I would like to go even more over the top than a couple of lines of balloons between the pillars and some random ones scattered about elsewhere, but it's a lot to organise. Anyway, photograph them close enough and they look really very impressive.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Strong Meat

Cal has only been to Swanvale Halt church once since the death of his grandfather, which hit him so hard: he did make it for the Midnight Mass although the church building, with which he's been familiar since small childhood, now causes a sort of religious numbness. A longstanding friend wants Cal to be godfather to her daughter and invited him to her church recently, and that being so very different from ours seems to have done him good, which I don't mind that at all (as a member of the congregation commented, 'Whether it's white bread or brown bread matters less than whether you're getting something to eat').

Cal came for a long talk with me this week. He described the most off-putting religious experience he could recall, which took place in a church in Bruges while the family was on holiday. Behind the altar was an enormous painting of the crucified Christ with angels collecting his blood in chalices, an image he found entirely weird and inappropriate. A relic of a saint was brought in, 'some bloodstained bit of cloth ... and two ladies in the congregation fainted'. 

Curiously I have to work hard to remember that this kind of extreme Catholic devotion is very bizarre and uncomfortable for a lot of people, I suspect particularly English people, who tend to the undemonstrative and sceptical no matter what their beliefs and opinions may be. Making that very graphic connection between the sacraments of the Church and the sacrifice of Jesus is something that causes me not a tremor, although I might feel differently if it was presented to me six feet high and in oil paint rather than in a little black-and-white old-style Missal print. I thought, too, of my relationship with St Catherine, and that time when I almost burst into tears in Pickering church when confronted by nothing more fleshly than a churchful of tarted-up wall-paintings. That kind of intense concern with any intangible figure is alien to most people, and to be frank that includes Jesus himself. It takes a lot of preparation before you're ready for this kind of gamey spiritual fare, and the great majority of English Christians haven't even begun the journey.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Hidden Figures (2016)

Of course I enjoyed the film, uplifting, superficial and exceedingly well-made as it is, but my purpose here is less to talk about the movie than to think about the nature of storytelling. In common with many films that take their inspiration from historical events, Hidden Figures manipulates time, personalities and circumstances in order to build a more compelling narrative. The characters in it who voice racial prejudice are, in the main, capable of having their minds changed, which makes us feel better about ourselves, and the problems the main characters faced in professional advancement against the fact of their race worked out completely differently in reality. It is not just that storyline which is bent to fit a more heroic and comforting pattern, but the business of the launching of John Glenn’s rocket, too: it is true, for instance, that Katherine Johnson was called on to recalculate the landing co-ordinates for the flight, but she had three days to do it rather than the tense half-hour or so the film gives her.

There is no sense in complaining about any of this, of course, because storytelling is not life. Film, in particular, is such an exciting medium precisely because the constraints of the form force the messiness of actuality into a shape it doesn’t have in life. Cinematic accounts of the life of an individual are often very unsatisfying, because they must either sacrifice truth or narrative energy; movies that focus on one particular episode in a person’s life have a better chance of producing something memorable. I enjoy reading biographies, but such books, too, often have a strange sense either of anti-climax, or unease as you can see the author interpreting the whole of their subject’s life through the lens of a particular part of it in order to create a coherent narrative structure which isn’t always there. The latest examples were Anthony Holden’s The Wit in the Dungeon (about the writer Leigh Hunt) and Anne Sebba’s The Exiled Collector, an account of Dorset landowner and art connoisseur William Bankes. Leigh Hunt’s life frankly went very quiet after the excitement and drama of his trial and incarceration for seditious libel, and its last few decades were marked by universal respect coupled with gentle and uneventful penury, about which there is very little to say, although Holden has a good go. Ms Sebba’s book is more impressive because she focuses very little on the most dramatic event in her subject’s life – his arrest for gross indecency and consequent flight to the Continent – instead concentrating on his lifelong work of filling the great house of Kingston Lacy with artworks: nevertheless, there’s very little known about what Bankes was up to during his exile, and so verisimilitude demands that the story sort of tails away and concludes in a cloud of unknowing.

Most people’s lives, even those of well-known people, don’t follow the narrative arc that we want from them. Hidden Figures’s story is one of good, quietly heroic human beings achieving things against the odds, and even if the historical truth was blunter and less colourful, that’s a myth we need eternally to tell and re-tell; if we don’t believe goodness and quiet heroism are at least possible we’ll never achieve anything at all beyond bare survival. But conducting funeral services for a great variety of human beings teaches you, if nothing else, that everyone’s life is messy, contradictory, and ends in one of a limited number of variations on the same theme, and that’s not something we very much want to have relayed to us in the narratives we compose.

Why we itch to compose narratives at all is a deeper and stranger matter. I imagine at root it’s an unlooked-for function of the redundantly-developed human brain: the ability to perceive patterns and structures in events confers some evolutionary advantage, and storytelling is a consequence of that ability. Some stories perform the social good of encouraging development and change; some stories, even, may be transfiguring, like that of a God born and dying as human, and that human death being conquered as a tomb is found empty.