Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Changing Churches

The churches I visit are sometimes at their most interesting when I meet signs of a former Catholic identity in what is now an Evangelical parish. This has happened several times over recent months. 

I'd seen a photograph of the interior of St Paul's, Addlestone, but wasn't prepared for the reality until I managed to get inside during the summer. The building is undistinguished to put it at its kindest, but the east end, while not perhaps what one might describe as beautiful, is at least striking. It's another example of the way World War One advanced liturgical practice and church fittings, as it was reordered in 1919, a fact made very clear by the details of the rood screen. Old photos of the church show a curtained altar in the apse before the triptych of saints flanking the Virgin and Child was installed. There's a 'big six' set of candlesticks secreted below the altar to be brought out when required, and still a curtained aumbry, but it's not clear anything is kept in it any more: certainly there's no lamp burning in that candle-holder.

Not far away from Addlestone is St Peter's, Chertsey, a church now housing what is technically a joint Anglican-Methodist congregation. Some years ago, before I started at Lamford, I and Dr Bones attended a service there and were presented with a massive ring-bound booklet containing a host of liturgical variations covering all the various services. Up at the old high altar are the remains of a mid-Victorian tile frieze apparently showing the Wedding at Cana and now obscured by a later reredos, but more interesting is the side chapel. Yet again this was built as a World War One memorial, this time in memory of a specific person, Nathaniel Cook of Chertsey Abbey House. There's an aumbry built into the wall and a mysterious wooden thing which could be the remains of a hanging lamp which nobody has got around to throwing away. It's now a bit disorganised and doesn't look as though it's used for communion services.

Finally a clergy meeting at St Stephen's, Shottermill, gave me the chance to examine some of the fittings which I'd spotted on a previous visit. This is a fairly mainstream Evangelical church now, with a baptismal pool beneath the nave floor ('As far as I can tell it hasn't been used in ten years', the vicar told me) ...

... but while the building's interior has, like a number of Evangelical churches, been reorientated so that it faces south rather than east, the old chancel remains as a side chapel, still distinguished by yet another post-WWI screen. This one was not a war memorial - it was dedicated to a lady by a grieving husband - but it is dated 1919 and in fact an inscription records its dedication on All Souls' Day that year. In the chancel are signs of former hanging lamps and another aumbry - apparently empty.

Monday, 18 November 2019


The Anglican Church, not surprisingly, hasn't got a rite for the installation of an icon; I'm not sure anyone has, to be fair. But when Hazel, the widow of our retired priest Jim, decided after he died in 2014 that his memorial should be a pair of icons, I didn't want just to have them put up in the church without any fuss being made, so I had to make something up.

The icons show St Benedict and St Edmund; one was the patron of the last church Jim served as incumbent, and the other has a link with the Roman Catholic parish with whom we share our church building. Both have been painted by a member of the RC congregation. I wanted their 'unveiling' to be an occasion we could both share, so thought we could have a short ceremony in between our two normal services on a Sunday morning. St Benedict's Day is back in July; the closest Sunday to St Edmund's Day this year is November 17th, and the date just happens to be Jim's anniversary. 

I wasn't sure how many people would be around and if necessary the little rite was one I could do with one other person. In the end most of both our congregations were present, so it became a cast of thousands, including Fr Julian, the new priest of the RC parish, Marion our curate, Rick the verger, a server from each congregation, and Rob who carried the cross. The choir were augmented by some Catholics. We emerged from the vestry and made our way to the pillar where the icons had been placed while singing the old plainchant Office Hymn for All Saints: 'Father in whom thy saints are one ...'. I said a brief introduction and prayed for Jim's soul before reading a slightly odd but useful passage from 2 Esdras (most of the Apocrypha is a bit odd, if you ask me), then unveiled the icons which had been covered with a corporal. I anointed them, read the Collects for St Benedict and St Edmund: Rick handed me the lamp which I hung in front of the icons and then lit. I said a final prayer asking for God's blessing on the images, and we retreated while the choir sang Rutter's 'The Lord bless you and keep you'. Once in the vestry, it was off with the cope and on with the mass vestments.

I wasn't half shaky by the I got back! I suppose that's what comes from making it up as you go along.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Many Happy Returns

'I wish I could have my life over again,' said my mum when I went to Dorset yesterday for my early birthday celebrations. I am thankful I don't have to, but the splendid cake my elder niece baked for me conjures up the idea of travelling back in time to relive experiences. 'It's bigger on the inside,' she offered. 

Friday, 15 November 2019

Happy Interruptions

Not for the first time I am going through Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's School for Prayer in the hope that something might go in. The best spiritual writings have qualities of definiteness and simplicity and call me back to sense. As I sit in my living room with the book, I am feeling very spiritual for a change.

The doorbell rings. It's Ken, the churchwarden at an evangelical church not far away who occasionally comes to the Office at Swanvale Halt (in the process wearing down my goodwill a couple of Advents ago, through no fault of his!) and now and again even braves the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He's heard it's my birthday (actually it's a bit early yet) and has brought me a bottle of wine. I put away the bag, and settle down once more with Archbishop Anthony.

Moments later, the bell goes again. This time the postman has brought me a box - another bottle of wine, from Dr Bones as it turns out! She remembers that I am a couple of years her senior. My cellar is restocked with no effort on my part at all. I am no connoisseur, but the combined sweetness and astringency of red wine is a great joy I have come to be thankful for.

These are not interruptions to prayer (or to reading about praying, which is only one step removed) which I can much complain about! In fact as Metropolitan Anthony's words were about gratitude, they seem to become part of the business of spiritual reflection when I come to actually praying. How good people are and how little I deserve it: if I can manage to pray for as much as a minute with any sense of God's presence it's a minor miracle, and these expressions of mindful kindness are small miracles too, tiny reflections of the divine grace which surrounds us and pours endlessly on us. How blessed my life has been to be touched by such mercies.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019


'It is Armistice Day, and, all across the land, clergy will be leading acts of remembrance at 11am', said Lucy Winkett on Thought for the Day yesterday. I and Marion looked awkwardly at each other when we met at church: we'd both heard it, and both thought the same thing: Yes, it's Armistice Day, but I thought we did all that yesterday. 

After I was finished at the Infants School, in shame, I came back to church, struck the bell at 11 and 11.02, and stood silently and solemnly while the toddler group caroused in the hall next door. At least I didn't have to go outside as our Swanvale Halt war memorial is in the Lady Chapel.

On Remembrance Sunday itself, I preached on how we live in a time of tumult and can't even be confident that our civilisation will survive the next century, but that God takes the smallest of our good acts and builds them into the Kingdom.

'I like that', smiled Sandra after the service. 'I'll be dead long before all this happens. I don't need to worry about anything, the world's going to end so there's no point!'

Which is comfort of a sort, but wasn't quite the take-home message I anticipated.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Amazement at The Bourne

I have built up something of a backlog of church interiors to share with you, but something brief for now. On Friday I managed to tick off a whole seven churches, all of which were open with the exception of Good Shepherd, Dockenfield, a lovely little Arts-and-Craftsy building of 1910 and possibly the most architecturally creative of the lot, but which I hadn't expected to be open anyway; in fact before seeing the name of the village on the road sign I'd forgotten it even existed. But the biggest surprise of the trip lay elsewhere. 

St Thomas on the Bourne on the edge of Farnham is somewhere I've been before, but have only been inside the meeting room and not ventured into the church. The building is stripped-down, whitewashed Gothic, begun in 1910 and not finished until the 1920s, World War One intervening. And opening the solid oak doors gave me a distant sight of the most spectacular English Gothic altar I've seen anywhere, let alone in Surrey. If you can hear a mysterious thump, it is the ghost of Percy Dearmer fainting and falling over.

I hadn't numbered St Thomas's mentally as a Catholic-end church, but clearly should have done. I had certainly never expected to find a gilded Virgin-and-Child over an altar anywhere in the Diocese of Guildford. This beautiful bit of kit I suspect incorporates, at the very least, some of the work of Christopher Webb, who was also responsible for a similar reredos at Shalford and who was a pupil of Sir Ninian Comper; Milford has the frame of another one.

At St Mary's, Frensham, as I groped around in the semi-dark unable to find a light switch, I found a card on the table reading 'This is a church where the Catholic Faith is taught'. The card looks like 1950s vintage and I wonder how accurate that statement actually is now. 

Friday, 8 November 2019

Much Study is a Weariness of the Flesh

... so it was just as well the Clergy Study Morning yesterday only went as far as lunch time before we were all released from Christ Church, Woking, to scarper in our various homeward directions. 'A study day like no other', the diocesan authorities had promised, apparently referring to the invitation we'd been asked to extend to laypeople to come along, because there was no other obvious difference from the usual format, and style. A pair of gentlemen from the musical team at Christ Church, armed with a guitar and a keyboard, assaulted 'Holy Holy Holy Lord God Almighty' until that noble hymn lay down and died, we had a sung version of the Creed that had me begging for it to end as one of said gentlemen led us in yet another repetition of part of it, and then we were ready for the speakers. A fellow called Nick spoke about how the Church of England had been issuing reports on how to integrate laypeople and clergy in evangelism, and working life and church life, since the 1940s and that 'if we're still talking about this in twenty years I shall scream'. I didn't think anything he came up with was particularly groundbreaking, though, but perhaps you can't after seventy years of Church of England reports. Then Paul Williams, the CEO of the Bible Society, outlined how the overarching narrative of the Scriptures could be used as 'a lens to interrogate the messages of contemporary culture': I quite liked this, but it was slightly depressing to hear him suggest that most Christians aren't aware there is an overarching narrative, as opposed to a succession of disconnected bits which they cherry-pick to justify their own ideological viewpoints. In between the two speakers, the Bishop pushed ahead of me (and several more people) in the queue for tea and asked me what I thought so far. I wasn't feeling all that well and couldn't help thinking of the scene in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the Vogon captain challenges the captive Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, catching their breath after the psychic and physical pain of listening to some of his verses, 'either die in the vacuum of space; or [CHORD] tell me how good you thought my poem was'. As I waffled, the Bishop sort of became aware that he'd ended up halfway along the queue and insisted on handing me a paper cup in recognition of the fact.

The point arrived for breaking into groups, as it inevitably does. As we were sat in close-serried ranks of linked steel-framed chairs with very little room to manoeuvre round each other, this proved more logistically challenging than usual. I had forgotten we were supposed to bring along a layperson: Marion was there in her capacity as a chaplain at HMP Send, so the laypeople she usually deals with are not easily able to attend external events, and we agreed that clergy are laypeople underneath, as we are so often told. In our small group we concluded that the 'thing we would take away' was Nick's very touching anecdote of the hairdresser whose way of integrating church and work life was to pray for her customers as she massaged shampoo into their hair. This was a better suggestion than my statement that what I would take away was my cup, to put into the compost.

Finally we were shown a short video about the reorganisation at Church House. Little stylised graphics of happy clergy, laypeople and central staff, and even the odd dog, bounced across the screens to describe how the diocese was being restructured around meeting the real needs of parishes, although the Suffragan Bishop's hairstyle seemed to have changed in her translation into digital form. Wondrously, the presentation concluded without at any point using the phrase 'we've sacked a cartload of people because we can't pay for them anymore'.