Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Thoughtful Gesture

If you happen to have friends who are clergy, or perhaps you may even be a Christian and therefore come into moderately regular contact with a priest or pastor, one way you can improve the quality of their life this Advent season, contribute to their well-being and elevate their spiritual state, is never, ever, to make any reference in your conversation to it being 'their busy time'. As usual with the first thing that pops into your head to say, you can be fairly certain that it's popped into the heads of lots and lots of other people too. The only way your clerical friend can respond to the statement is to affirm or deny it; for instance, I could say how yes, it is busy, but perhaps not as busy as it was once upon a time (I have only a handful of people to take communion to at home rather than about 30 like my predecessor in the late 1960s), and the really tiring thing is to sing the same carols and say the same prayers over and over again until their spiritual beauty and significance is hollowed out and you become dangerously desensitised to the whole Christmas event. And a clergyperson is very unlikely to say that, because it would come across as an ill-tempered rebuke, so they'll probably just use a vague non-committal sentiment of assent that doesn't really express very much at all. Besides, they're also unlikely to have the energy to get into much more of a discussion.
Actually, if you are a Christian, you probably won't be saying this kind of thing anyway, because you will almost certainly have some unspoken insight into the way your pastor actually feels about the festive season. 'It's your busy time', is usually a line spoken by people who don't have much connection with 'church'; I imagine it comes from not really having much idea what clergy do or the things they really deal with, and not really knowing what to say as a result. It's kindly meant, but it's hard to remember that it's kindly meant. At least I think it's kind: like many of the other clichés people use to clergy, it may be seen partly as a way of defusing their awkward presence, to hedge around the God whose demands they embody and assimilate them into something more domestic and controllable. I should think more creatively about how I respond to it - if I can summon up the will!

Thursday, 18 December 2014


Rose-pink is the liturgical colour only on a limited number of occasions in the year; the middle Sunday of Lent and the third Sunday of Advent, when it indicates a relaxation of the fast traditionally observed in those seasons of preparation for great feasts, and, arguably, the Feast of the Holy Innocents 'where local custom permits'.

My rose-pink vestments are still not in a fit state to be used with a straight face, but at the bottom of the oak chest which contains all our old liturgical kit (some of which is very welcome to remain there) I long ago discovered a serviceable pink altar frontal; at least, its main theme is pink, as you can see from the photo. It's a massive, Laudian-style over-all frontal, and is immensely heavy and difficult to manoeuvre around on your own, which may be why it's not appeared for decades. My use of it last Sunday aroused precisely one comment. 'It's good to see that out,' said Brenda, 'Harold and Freda Talbot gave it to the church years ago. We persuaded Fr Derek to use it once but that was about it.'

Friday, 12 December 2014

Mad Sunday

... which is not an official observance within the Church of England calendar, but Swanvale Halt seemed nevertheless to be observing it last week when two big milestones happened inadvertently on the same day. Our 10am Family Service became for the occasion a Family Communion in which we tried out a model of eucharist involving the children at every stage. There were about a couple of dozen children there - thankfully as it would have been even more difficult to do had there only been a handful - and they began by joining in with the procession up from the font where the penitential rite was said, took part in the Gospel procession armed with battery-powered candles which I didn't realise when I ordered them were all turned on magically by me with a remote control, adding another little bit of excitement, sat around me on the chancel step for the sermon, and then did all the business of getting the altar ready for communion. The real star here was Geoff, our head server, who marshalled the children and gave them all their jobs in such a way that it all moved pretty smoothly. There were a couple of hiatuses and awkward bits but for an experiment it worked remarkably well and, with the odd exception (which I may deal with on a separate occasion as it's interesting in its own right), was very well received. This is a bit off-the-wall for us, but similar sorts of service happen not very far away. I borrowed most of the ideas from All Hallows Twickenham, and discovered a couple of weeks ago that St James's Somerton whose former incumbent I know has been trying out something along the same lines.

Then in the evening we had the opposite end of the liturgical scale. The church is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its agreement to share the building with the local Roman Catholic parish, and we decided to mark the event with a service.  I suggested Evensong & Benediction could be something we could both join in without arousing issues of conscience, and so I led Evensong, Fr Malcolm the Roman Catholic priest offered Benediction, our (female) curate did one of the readings and my predecessor-but-four, who started the arrangement in 1974 and is now in the Ordinariate, came to preach. At one or two points I wondered where he was going with it but he veered away from anything too controversial and was remarkably gracious. The RCs found a magnificent Gothic monstrance at the back of a cupboard in their church in Hornington ('most of our people have never seen this', said their assisting server), we had over 150 people there and a massive party afterwards. 

Originally the 40th anniversary service was supposed to be on November 23rd, the closest Sunday to the time when regular masses started at the church, but it turned out that was Fr Malcolm's 20th anniversary as parish priest. We couldn't do November 30th as we have our Service of Light that evening, and so ended up having it on the same day as the Family Communion. One of our churchwardens described the day as 'like being put into a paper bag, shaken very vigorously around and then gently tipped out'.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Wickers Man - Gothic Seminaring

A friend of mine became principal of an Oxford theological college (not the one I went to), and has begun a series of evening 'symposia' for students, not always on Christian subjects, to increase the general levels of gaiety and interest. He asked whether I would come to talk about Goths and Gothic. I could think of no better title for the talk than the one our lay reader arrived at for my seminar on Anglican Spirituality scheduled for this weekend - 'Fifty Shades of Black'. So last week I made my way through the incomprehensible corridors of the institution concerned and figured out how to get my Powerpoint presentation working for the benefit of the dozen or so students, and my friend, who were there. I'd been given the brief not to talk about 'Gothic and Christianity' on the grounds that the ordinands hear plenty about God and could do with a break, but the questions they wanted to ask me began, a bit predictably, with queries over how one reconciles being a Christian with expressing in what one does an instinctual itch in a morbid direction, before moving into far more interesting and challenging discussions about individuality and marginalisation. One student outed himself as a former Goth: he'd been at Sheffield University in the early '80s, the only Christian in a household of Goths trying to work out quite what if anything God wanted him to do there. His experience was not of a subculture with exclusive boundaries - a night out seeing a Goth band, for instance, might be followed by dressing completely differently to hear a reggae act in an entirely distinct milieu. 'Goth now seems completely different to how we were,' he said. 'We didn't feel self-consciously marginal; we felt we were doing and being something positive.'

'That was great, thank you,' said my friend afterwards. 'Let's go and copy your train ticket, and then we can reimburse you. It's the very least we can do', he went on, 'so naturally that's what we're doing.'

Monday, 1 December 2014


This 'news' is nearly a month old, but probably just about worth mentioning. On November 5th we went to the Guildford fireworks, not knowing quite what to expect. People gather in the High Street and are issued, for a charge, with a torch, namely a stick holding a tube of what seems to be sacking coated with red candlewax, the whole thing being about 18" long, which is then, at a signal, lit and held in procession along the streets behind a band to Stoke Park where the fireworks take place. Somewhat incongruously the reddish-pinkish wax seems to be scented with raspberry, or at least mine was. We weren't expecting something as highly organised - the park held some thousands of people milling around a glaring funfair to which we gave as wide a berth as we could. Fireworks celebrations now very commonly include a procession of some kind from a central point to the location of the fireworks, whether that includes a bonfire or not. I don't remember this happening when I was a child: the first time I came across it was when I was in High Wycombe and went to the Downley Bonfire, an event which one of my colleagues who'd lived in the area for over twenty years had never heard of and yet involved, when I eventually got there, a bonfire some thirty feet in circumference and about three thousand visitors. That had the sense of participating in something a bit occult and forbidden. The trouble with events such as the Guildford fireworks, with the funfair, wretched toilets, and inane commentary from local radio that you could very much live without, is that the sheer size means you sacrifice some of the charm. I think that if we're going to do this next year we'll go to one of the villages.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

St Catherine's Day 2015

A small group of people gather in a ruined chapel on a hilltop near Guildford, having gained entry (perfectly legitimately) with WD40 and a few heavy kicks as well as the use of a key, to hold a short service of Mid-day Prayer. I didn't realise that the parish concerned did this at St Catherine's Chapel on her feast day until a couple of days ago, and happily was able to pop along the road to take part. 'That's not fair, there's three vicars here now,' said one gentleman, 'We're outnumbered.' Actually the laypeople weren't, just about. 'Where's the Pilgrim's Stone gone?' one lady asked as we were on our way in, hunting about in the long grass. The Pilgrim's Stone - I envisaged some ancient rock sat here for aeons on the numinous site, gathering folklore and legends. Actually, once I'd located it, it turned out to be a footpath marker put here in 2001.

Friday, 21 November 2014

More Gothic Than You Could Wish For

My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of no fewer than four books published over the last couple of months about Goth and Gothic. Terror and Wonder is linked to the British Library exhibition celebrating the 250th anniversary of The Castle of Otranto, but it's less clear why the others have all emerged at the same time. Here they are, anyway, in preparation for me doing longer reviews on Amazon.

Terror and Wonder (ed. Dale Townshend, British Library) is of course the 'official' volume in this collection, the assembly of essays accompanying the blockbuster BL exhibition tracing the development of the Gothic imagination over two and a half centuries. It is by no means a catalogue of the exhibition, as such, although a great deal of what was on show also appears in these pages. The scheme is basically chronological, with some attempt to distinguish different concerns addressed by the Gothic at different historical epochs. I found some of Lucie Armitt's contentions in her chapter on 20th-century Gothic a bit contentious, but the book is clearly written and very attractive despite the bit wodges of text.
Gothic: Evolution of a dark subculture (C. Roberts and contributors, Goodman) is a bit odd. It's a very glossy hardback (in fact quite a bit of the cover is silver, although my copy isn't as elaborate as the one in this picture seems to be) and is gorgeously illustrated, but although there is a very welcome (because unusual) chapter on medieval Gothic, the subjects it covers seem to be organised around the enthusiasms of the contributors rather than following a considered scheme. I'd describe the style as would-be weighty, dealing with matters which are normally the preserve of the academy in a not-quite-academic manner. I'm still trying to work out how this book came into being and what the thinking was behind it.
I had to wait a bit for my copy of Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace (A. Harriman & M Bontje, Intellect Books) because the first modest print run of about 700 apparently ran out within a week or so of publication, despite the hefty cover price of £25 for what is a modestly-sized paperback. The text's author clearly doesn't have English as their first language, but get past that and you have a rather wonderful evocation of the early years of postpunk and Goth - a movement which, the book believes very emphatically, was dead by 1992 or so (I need to do some thinking about that). The many people who have contributed memories and photographs clearly have a drive to have this unique moment in their lives and in popular culture recorded, and these missives from a less self-conscious age to ours - in which the selfie is the great cultural expression - show brave young people trying to be different. It has a haunting quality.

The biggest and glossiest book of all is The Art of Gothic (N. Scharf, Omnibus Press). It's also the most ambitious, in a sense: an attempt to delineate and record the artistic output of the Goth world as one of the means by which Goths explore and express themselves. Whereas the chapter on Art in Gothic: Evolution ... is about high art you find in galleries, here you get applied art, which is in some ways far more interesting: there are a lot of record sleeves, but other forms from fashion to furniture, often bolstered by fascinating interviews with the people who actually make these things. Ms Scharf has a very good stab at trying to separate the various streams of influence on modern Goth which affect the way it looks, and even when the categories make you scratch your head a bit you can see what she's driving at. I think this book is an absolute triumph.