Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Happy Gardening

About a year after I moved in to Swanvale Halt rectory the cypress trees along my drive were cut back. Cypresses grow like nobody's business, however, and a couple of months ago my neighbours in the 1960s terrace adjoining the rectory asked nicely if I would consider restraining them again. They were certainly beyond me doing anything about them myself (the trees, not my neighbours) so I was given the name of a helpful tree surgeon by the Diocese and a little while ago he visited and did what was necessary. The difficulty presented by this horticultural exercise was that one of the trees had died and its removal has opened up the ugly and ragged gap you can see in the photograph. It's also opened up an unanticipated vista which allows me to sit on my sofa and regard my neighbour's kitchen, and them, uncomfortably, me. 

Last week I went to the garden centre and bought a conifer to plug this gap. What on earth possessed me simply to grab the first potted tree I saw on the unconscious assumption that they're all the same I can't imagine. They aren't. The one I bought will grow no more than about eight feet high, and I thought to look at the label, revealing this information, only once it was planted. So now I have a proper cypress to plant and will move the silly little conifer (which I can't exactly take back) to the site of a former tree in the back garden which died a year after I moved in. 

Clergy can claim against tax for their garden expenses, though I never have as mine have always been very modest. Other clergy I know have more justification in doing so: one of my former colleagues had a garden so big it could accommodate an entire Boy Scout jamboree and needed a sit-on petrol mower to deal with. But I think I will make a claim next year: not only has cutting back the cypresses cost nearly £600 but another neighbour has requested I cut back the big lime tree in the back garden, and the diocese says it only pays for tree works 'if it's a matter of health and safety'. 

This morning has already been enlivened by the visit of a cheeky bullfinch, and because such a visitor is a welcome one, here, albeit in a blurry photograph, he is.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Black Clouds and their Dispersal

That promised upbeat post isn't coming quite yet, I fear. S.D. likes the idea of there being clouds of melancholy which sort of hang around waiting for someone to encounter them, and that you can blunder into them unawares and take some time to re-emerge. 

As sometimes happens, I was in one of these over the weekend, and arrived in church on Sunday with my mind primed for misery. There weren’t very many people around and some of the most active people in the church are away for all sorts of different reasons. Anyone under 70 was in short supply. Debbie our ordinand (‘our ordinand’ no longer, but ordained) will now be reeling around the southern suburbs of Ipswich as she gets used to her training parish, removing another enthusiastic presence from Swanvale Halt. As I was on my way down the hill I was accosted from a car by another couple: ‘we won’t be in church this morning, our grandsons are with us’. Family as rival to faith rather than partner with it. Never have I got so close as I did yesterday just to walking out in despair at our ability to have any impact even on the lives of those who are the most faithful. ‘It’s hardly uplifting to suspect that you’re merely in the business of spiritual terminal care,’ S.D. had reflected when I saw him. Of course those people matter as much as anyone does, and our hearts should be set in heaven and not on earth and its vicissitudes. We know that; ‘It doesn’t really help, though, does it?’ S.D. concluded.

I was deacon at the 10am mass, so not presiding, and as it happened not preaching either. I sat and listened to Marion our curate talking about Jeremiah 20 and how in church life we tend to cover up what we really feel, worried that it’s not appropriate. I wondered how far I could share what I felt, how far it was real, how far it was merely neurotic, and how far it would be helpful or harmful for my grimmer emotions to be let free to lash around the church. Gradually it became easier to ignore my sloshing inward negativity. The adrenalin of doing a big christening service with lots of children kicked in: at one point I was leading some prayers and opened my eyes to see a little girl in the process of knocking over the Paschal Candle, just in time for me to reach out and catch it.

This morning I sat with Zechariah the prophet and read what he had to say. ‘When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and the seventh month for these seventy years, was it for me you fasted?’ the Lord asks the people. The answer is clearly no, which is why they end up driven out of their city and scattered abroad. But that’s not the end of the story: ‘old men and women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, and the streets shall be full of boys and girls playing. Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of my people, shall it seem impossible to me?’

Caught up in our own particular circumstances, it’s hard to see beyond them. This time of the purging of the Church, which still has to give up its desire for power and success, means it’s a surprise anyone still wants to come to church at all. We have fasted for entirely the wrong things. But this is the long story of God’s people, and this oscillation, this wave, moves through the narrative again and again. The remnant turns again to God, and things change. Our call is, as it always is, to persist.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Mutual Enrichment

The SCP was in something of a glum mood the other day (a splendid and very widely-applicable word, ‘glum’, I don’t use it enough), contemplating the depredations of evangelicalism across the diocese (and I hadn’t even raised the matter of the proposed parish share system).

The very first post I made on this blog, eight years ago, concerned a tall tale told in the parish of Elmham near Lamford, which I strongly suspect was put about by the then incumbent of that church, a man of some peculiarities himself. Fr Donald looks after Elmham now, and is in rather better favour with the powers-that-be than his predecessor. Because Donald is thought of as a safe pair of Anglo-Catholic hands he occasionally has ordinands or curates from evangelical parishes sent to him to get a dose of an alternative way of doing things, and has lately been working with one of these, a curate who’s been ordained for two years now. ‘He said that before he came to us he’d been warned that he should on no account receive communion from me, because I was gay and he’d go to hell,’ Donald told us. He’d go to hell! I related this to Ms Formerly Aldgate who commented ‘it’s like the idea people had in the ‘80s that you could catch gayness’.

That kind of prejudice is one thing, and Donald said the curate had admitted that ‘the idea seemed completely unsustainable within two days of me getting here’. More concerning, perhaps, was what Donald had also found out about this new priest’s experience: two years into his curacy and he’d only done one funeral service; he’d never led a school assembly; never taken part in a meeting of a community body. That’s not what his church does. Any kind of community-based, pastoral ministry isn’t on the agenda there. Clergy there are preachers and ‘mission leaders’, not pastors. The assembled SCP members fulminated and huffed about how pastoral ministry was the core of being a proper priest. ‘That’s what I got ordained to do’, said one.

When a church gets bigger, and more laypeople get involved with the work of the Body of Christ (which is exactly what you want to happen), it’s all too easy for a clergyperson to think that their role of leadership and strategy means that they should always delegate pastoral, community stuff to laypeople. The temptation is to create a hierarchy of church activity in which taking communion to an old lady who can’t get to church, or visiting a family with a poorly child, or helping distraught next-of-kin with a funeral service even if they’ve never been anywhere near the church, or speaking to a group of fidgety six-year-olds, or – God help me – going through with schizophrenic Trevor for the tenth time in a week why he isn’t being persecuted and needn’t be afraid, is fundamentally less important than writing a sermon or reorganising church committees. Perhaps I see this temptation more acutely because I’m not much of a pastor and am bad at it, and heading out to the hospital to see a member of the congregation is something I have to grit my teeth a bit to do. I didn’t get ordained for the sake of this aspect of the work, but it’s vital – it is, in metaphorical terms, washing the feet of Christ’s poor.

To miss it out or downgrade its importance is to miss what being an ordained person is, not just because it’s part of what you’re supposed to do, but because it’s part of what the Body of Christ is supposed to do and you are in yourself a sacrament of the Body of Christ. That is why you’re ordained, set aside from the laos as a whole. You represent what the whole of the Church is intended to do, and if you didn't do it, eventually nobody would. The pastoral ministry would wither from the heart of the Church first, and then from the whole of it.

Of course most evangelical churches are rooted in their local communities and do exactly the same kind of pastoral work as Anglo-Catholic ones. Also the training of curates in this diocese does insist that they should have experience of pastoral stuff, which may be exactly why they get sent to places like Elmham, not merely so they can learn what a thurible is and which way round you wear a chasuble. What a placement will find harder to do is to combat the instrumental, technocratic concept of priesthood which seems to be creeping across the Church – and that’s the deeper issue.

And at some point I will post something vaguely cheerful.

Thursday, 22 June 2017


On Sunday the priest in charge of St Clement’s, North Kensington, was interviewed on the radio, describing the lack of contact his church, and other places of worship, had from the local authority while caring for those affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower over the previous few days. When a disastrous event occurs, places of worship have an assumed place in helping to deal with the aftermath. They provide space, shelter, and ready-to-hand networks of people to channel effort. What they lack is strategic oversight of whatever the event is: that needs to come from elsewhere, from a statutory body.

In 1968 we had floods in this part of Surrey. The then new-ish incumbent of Swanvale Halt church, Father Barlow, took to a dinghy to pluck residents out of their homes and take them to safety, and this did public perception of him no harm at all – he’d previously been viewed as a slightly dangerous Anglo-Catholic extremist who wanted to make the services at the church invisible with incense-smoke. People remembered it for a long time: I wish there’d been photographs taken. When we had (somewhat less serious) floods a few years ago, as a church we had no direct involvement, although one of our pastoral assistants worked very closely with groups of local residents campaigning about the painfully slow refurbishment of their flooded homes. Nevertheless we recalled the story of Fr Barlow and wondered what we should do as a church to respond more directly to any such event in the future. We discovered that almost every public space in the vicinity is registered with the local Council as a ‘designated place of assembly’ and there are also emergency generators round about too, so that puts any effort we might provide into perspective.

The point is that the local authority has, as it’s supposed to have, a plan to manage emergencies and in this part of Surrey that certainly includes interaction with the voluntary bodies in the area, such as churches. It happens here: why not in a western district of central London?

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Getting Together

There’s a new cherry tree in the church garden, with a new brass plaque next to it, provided by one of our local firms of undertakers. In years to come, I wonder whether people will think that Jo Cox, who the plaque mentions, was our MP. Will anyone long remember what happened to her in the summer of 2016, in the hot days before the UK voted to leave the European Union?

The series of events in commemoration of Ms Cox went under the title of the Great Get Together and the branding was a work of genius. The Gill Sans lettering subconsciously recalls Keep Calm and Carry On and any number of wartime propaganda posters, and is laid out against a red-and-white chequer tablecloth. You can find endless photographs online from the weekend of communities up and down the land taking part in the event, usually with a lady or two in a hijab to make the point that this includes everyone: the whole of England, united by what else but tea and cake, that alchemical universal solvent that takes different races, cultures and background and makes a nation of them. I strike a slightly ironic tone, but don’t mean to inject any note of cynicism: I know it’s about aspiration, about saying (as Jo Cox did, blandly but unchallengeably) ‘Far more unites us than divides us’; even when what divides us is actually very important indeed.

We are not quite so multicultural in Swanvale Halt. The event here was driven by a couple of members of the congregation with a long involvement in local politics from the liberal-leftward direction, so I didn’t have much to do with its planning. We had tea, dedicated the tree (for which I had to devise a tiny liturgy as there doesn’t seem to be anything available even in the Rituale Romanum), and went into the church for some apposite readings and hymns. The local choral society sang FaurĂ©’s ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’. A church member in his early 90s talked about why he’d chosen ‘Father I give into your hands’ as his hymn: ‘I thought, We all have to rely on someone else, and this hymn is about that, in a way’.

It is of course true, all the community-togetherness stuff, and true too that ‘more unites us than divides us’. But I thought about the business round the corner, run by a young mum whose children go to the infants school, that recently had to close down after getting going with such aspiration and optimism, because the landlord lost patience with not receiving the full rent – and had a better offer for the site from a property developer. The landlord also lives in the area, is part of exactly the same ‘community’ as the people involved in the business. Sometimes what unites us only goes so far when you’re up against the facts of economics and of power.

It’s not that such conflicts of interest illegitimate events like the Great Get Together: they are liturgies of what we want to be. It’s just that it isn’t that simple: community needs hard work, if only the hard work of mutual interaction and listening; it needs people, structures, and sometimes sacrifice. It needs the diligent, careful cultivation of hope and trust. We all have to look after the cherry trees.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Father's Day

We never went in much for Father's Day in our family: my dad dismissed it as American nonsense (which it isn't really). I didn't think anyone much did but now I find people mentioning it more and more.

Outside church times (of which there have been a lot), my dad has come into my mind more than usual. This is his old sovereign ring, which I can't wear, not that I like rings a lot anyway: if it were to slip over the weir of the knuckle of my ring finger it probably wouldn't go back. But it's the object that reminds me most of him.

Even five years after he died, my feelings about my dad remain ambiguous. I never talked to him as much as I should have, and by the time I felt I really wanted to, Alzheimer's disease was taking its hold on him and there was little he could say. He appears in my dreams now and again, and he is never ill in those, but that restoration seems to bring with it no sense of pleasure - instead there's a vague apprehension, a subterranean awareness that something isn't right. Even in my waking recollection, there's a distance which isn't just the separation of memory, but something which I find hard to fathom. I was too different from him, probably. For the most part, I keep coming back to the unkindness of his death and the life he led for some time before it. He was a good man who should have got better for it. 

Friday, 16 June 2017

No Smooth Faith

Usually I go to visit my spiritual director in the afternoon, but our date yesterday was fixed for 11 so from Mattins I had to tear across the rail bridge from the church to catch the train, panting and gasping after my recent bug (on Wednesday I could barely drag myself out of bed, and Ms Formerly Aldgate has had three days off work this week - we share these things, you see). S.D. is fine and we actually discussed some vaguely spiritual matters as well as the discomfiture of the Government, the unsustainability of the Church's position on same-sex relationships, and the Grunewald Altarpiece, which he has just seen. We didn't touch on the Kensington fire and its aftermath, but the site is two bare miles from where we were sitting - even though London miles seem longer than miles anywhere else because they have so much crammed into them, I felt oddly aware of that smoking ruin.

On the train I'd been reading Dame Felicitas Corrigan's biography of Helen Waddell, someone I will be talking about here quite soon. Dame Felicitas deals with the generally ecstatic reception given to Waddell's 1933 novel Peter Abelard. One passage of the book, where Abelard the theologian finally learns the nature of the Atonement through a dying rabbit caught in a trap, has found its way into Christian spiritual writing. But that's by-the-by for now. One of the most perceptive critics of the book, says Dame Felicitas, was the German Catholic writer Ida Gorres, of whom I had never heard and whose work I'm now going to have to find out more about. Gorres had an extraordinary background: her father was an Austro-Hungarian count and her mother the daughter of an antiques dealer in Tokyo, and they met after Count Heinrich, then on the Austrian diplomatic mission in Japan, fell off his horse outside the shop and Mitsuko came to help him (Helen Waddell had grown up in Japan where her father was a missionary). 

In the 1950s Gorres was railing against the prevailing style of Catholic apologetics, which attempted at every point to tie all truth together, to pretend that everything was done and dusted, to deny all ambiguities, contradictions and lacunae:

The corpus of Catholic opinion mustn't be like a sack full of balls and glass marbles, all smoothly rounded, for these just roll away in all directions and get lost: it must rather consist of sharp-edged bits, which can be fitted together to form a mosaic ... [no art work need be] a compendium of every truth in the catechism. All the difference between false completeness and true wholeness.

Years ago, when I had to do my little personal profile for the LGMG, I said that 'the jagged edges of things' were what interested me most. God is perfect and whole, but as we are limited we can never comprehend all of him: instead, as far as we are concerned, we find him most in the jagged lines, the broken fragments, the sharp-edged bits of things.