Saturday, 17 August 2019

Crossing a Line

It was raining heavily again yesterday afternoon as I called in at the church to warn Rick the verger that I'd probably be late for Evening Prayer. He was there with Andy who was preparing for the Village Show today, setting out tables and labels, and young Jerzy who was practising on the organ. The church porch was occupied with a collection of youngsters, and a variety of litter which, with wearisome inevitability, they maintained was nothing to do with them. 

When I came back, Rick was wiping down the glass doors inside the porch. As well as the litter, the teenagers had abused Andy when he told them to be quiet and a visitor to the church, and managed to muster a surprising quantity of spit to mark the doors. They all disappeared when the police arrived, and went somewhere else (they seem to know the time of day the police are going to show up). I put up with litter, and I largely never manage to identify anyone responsible for particular incidents. But this little outburst shows such contempt for actual, definite people that I think I will bar everyone from the porch, no matter what the weather, until the school holidays are over. 

The current wave of misbehaviour around the village is the third I can remember since I arrived in Swanvale Halt. There was a troublesome group of young people in about 2012-13, some of whom came from the other side of Hornington; then another episode in 2016, I think, which was particularly knotty to deal with as the three (three!) teenage boys at the centre of it had not only been expelled from school but also from their Pupil Referral Units and for a few months the County Council seemed to have no idea what to do next, as though teachers at the PRUs had never had kids swear at them before. I don't know the present crowd of miscreants; there seems to be quite a disparate group, or number of groups. This cycle will probably develop in the same way as the previous ones, as the youngsters concerned go back to school, or get bored, or work out that their lives will actually be better and more worthwhile if they toe the social line rather than defy it. But it's a pain while it lasts. 

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Counting the Cost

As the rain pounded Swanvale Halt yesterday morning and an unfortunate glass restorer removed the damaged panels from the east window to repair them, someone else had come to visit our humble place of worship. In all my nearly ten years here, Ecclesiastical Insurance have never done a proper site visit. Now here was Jerry, with folder, calculator and bag of surveying equipment, come to measure the building, and draw up a report on what we are not doing, and should. I copied the electrical survey and the report on the lightning conductor, and discovered he didn't actually need the paperwork itself. I showed him the vestries ('Does the church have any specially elaborate or valuable vestments? I mean apart from any that may belong to you'), the kitchen, and the cupboard which houses the fuse box. Here he winced. 'You're not really supposed to have cleaning materials in this area,' he said, meaning clearly that there was no question of them remaining, 'the cupboard is supposed to isolate the fusebox ...' He also suggested that our bins should ideally be kept in a locked enclosure in case anyone decides to set them alight. 'That might not be very easy to do, but think about moving them away from where a fire might cause damage.' 

Sally our office manager arrived and made me and Jerry a cup of tea. We went back into the office to check whether the photocopier was covered by the insurance of the company we lease it from, or whether we should include it in our own policy. Jerry described how Ecclesiastical was changing the way it calculates the value of a church building.

'Up till now we've used the standard estimates produced by professional architectural bodies for replacing fire-damaged buildings,' he explained, 'but that doesn't take into account the fact that when churches catch fire, you tend to lose the roof and interior, but not the walls, and of course when rebuilding a church you want to retain those. Reconstructing a church from scratch hardly ever happens, and the old methods of calculating replacement value were too dependent on the ups and downs of the building market. Our new estimates will take into account the real circumstances involved in rebuilding a church.'

'Well, just so long as our premiums don't go up,' said Sally brightly.

Jerry regarded her almost with pity.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

St Andrew's, Grafham

My church crawling has taken me to a variety of places since I last wrote about it, but the latest and one of the most interesting has been the little church at Grafham. It's not usually open outside service times, so one of the wardens had to unlock it for me. I didn't know what to expect, and what a surprise it was.

St Andrew's was consecrated in 1860, the personal church, really, of Henry Woodyer; it was in some ways a memorial to his deceased wife Elizabeth, and its architect took advantage of the law that stated that anyone could build a new Anglican church if they could get the agreement of the bishop and surrounding incumbents, and fund it. Woodyer was a gentleman architect and I am becoming aware of how important he was to the Anglican Catholic revival in Victorian Surrey. His masterpiece was St Martin's, Dorking, which we've already explored, but he had a hand in the building or restoration of dozens of churches across the county. Woodyer had become a convinced Tractarian while at Oxford University and put his principles into practice whenever he could, in a remarkably advanced form when he got the chance. Externally, St Andrew's looks like a quintessential little English church, with a tiny lych gate and a rambling churchyard: the only clue to anything unusual is the figure of the patron saint over the west door (which you can't normally go through):


But if the interior reminds the visitor a little of St Peter's, Hascombe, this is because Woodyer was also the architect of that amazing church. Grafham is a bit less lavish than Hascombe, but resembles it very strongly, and used to more so before someone whitewashed over the wall-paintings some time after World War Two. The story goes that Bishop Sumner, the Bishop of Winchester at the time and a firm Low Churchman, made it very clear that he disapproved of the use of chancel screens in churches, deeming them 'Popish'. Woodyer got around this by making his screen out of the beam that supports the roof of the church, and mounting the cross above it in the wall. Bishop Sumner turned up to consecrate the church and had no choice but to grit his teeth and get on with it. The amazing reredos, again fitted into the east wall, is just straining to burst out into a canopy over the altar, and one of the unusual features of the church is a series of Victorian banners on theological themes (now heavily restored and mounted in glass cases on the walls) which were supposedly made by 'the females of the Woodyer household' in Grafham Grange next door.






As you can see there is now a little statue of the BVM very discreetly in a niche, and a variety of statuary and stained glass about the place, but surprisingly the Blessed Sacrament isn't reserved at Grafham. It is linked now with Bramley which has also had a Catholic tradition so there is another story to be told there.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

The Fire of the Spirit and its Diversions


It was a circuitous route that got me round to buying Janet Duin’s history of the church of Redeemer, Houston, Days of Fire and Glory. I know someone who had links with the Jesus Fellowship – what most people knew colloquially as the Jesus Army – and who is involved with the mopping-up after the collapse of that group, and in reading up about the JF I was struck by its links with Redeemer. That church was an unremarkable US Episcopal parish, struck from the mid-1960s by a charismatic revival and which until its precipitous fall sat at the centre of the global charismatic movement. The book is sometimes bewildering as its writer insists on mostly using people’s forenames, and in late ‘60s and early-‘70s Texas there seem to have been an awful lot of Bills, Jeffs, and Georges around; there are non sequiturs, and whatever are the opposite of non sequiturs, when a future event is signalled but not followed up, as in ‘there was nothing Jeff felt he had done wrong, or he felt forgiven for it. Not for another 12 years would Jeff realize the depths of his sin’, yet we never hear anything more about this particular Jeff’s sins, which makes you wonder why they were worth mentioning. Possibly Ms Duin felt she had to do justice to the nearly-200 interviews she conducted researching the book, and so included everything she could fit in. But Days is compelling, certainly, if this is a topic that you have any investment in.

At the heart of the story of Redeemer is Revd Graham Pulkingham, who arrived as its parish priest in 1963, ‘a blond-haired 37-year-old clergyman with … fashionable liberal views and a confident air of authority that people either hated or found irresistible’, determined to make a difference to the poor East End of Houston. He made no difference at all, and after about a year he was in despair. He took time out of a holiday to drive to New York to visit an independent pastor called David Wilkerson, whose biography, The Cross and the Switchblade, had described his work among the city’s young drug addicts and the power of ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ to transform the lives of even the most degraded souls. Baptism in the Holy Spirit was – is – an ecstatic breakdown accompanied by ‘charismatic’ phenomena such as speaking in tongues, and which Wilkerson had lifted from the experience of the Pentecostal Churches: a sort of second conversion in an established Christian, and a first if you weren’t.

Pulkingham talked to Wilkerson about his sense of desolation and failure, and then admitted something else: his persistent homosexual feelings, despite being thirteen years married and the father of four children. When he had first discussed his vocation to the priesthood, he had talked about just this with Bishop of Texas Clinton Quin, who’d sent him for counselling. They both considered it dealt with, but it wasn’t. Now, after a couple of days shadowing Wilkerson in his work, Pulkingham knelt in front of him and the director of a local mission, and as they laid their hands on him he felt he could hear angelic voices, and ‘the most majestic presence and power he had ever known … the degradation was gone.’ ‘We can go now, the Baptizer is here’, announced Wilkerson, and they left the priest on his own to recover. Once again, his inner problem was dealt with. But, predictably, once again it really wasn’t: it had just been pushed below the surface.

Pulkingham returned to Houston filled with excitement and energy. All at once, where everything had been bare, stale and unprofitable, his ministry caught fire. He began to experience the gift of tongues and healings took place. He attracted a small core group of middle-aged men of a variety of backgrounds who would become the five ‘elders’ of Redeemer, and out of their experience came the church’s key contribution to the world of charismatic Christianity: the intentional community. One by one, the elders began to invite troubled souls, of various sorts, to come and live with their families, and as often as not the charismatic experience led to them escaping their difficulties. It was like the Book of Acts come to life: this was how Christianity was supposed to work. The idea of communal living fitted in neatly with Pulkingham’s liberal-left biases, and gradually the ‘households’ became the major institution of the church. People attracted by Redeemer’s ideals and work sold homes in nicer parts of the city to move nearby and establish their own ‘households’, living an intense communal existence, pooling their resources, ministering to each other, getting by on very little sleep between the prayer, ministry and meetings. By 1971, the church numbered 1400 members of whom a third lived in community, and total weekly attendance was more than half as much again. Christians from all across the Western world, including Cardinal Suenens, came to Houston to see how it was done, and tried to transplant the ideas elsewhere. Strikingly, remember, this was still an Episcopal church, and its worship was liturgical, structured by the calendar, and Eucharistic (though the music was very distinctive).

We don’t need to trace the following years in any detail. Suffice it to say that things went off the boil at Redeemer. Pulkingham left in 1972 to pursue different sorts of Christian community living, first in Coventry, then Scotland, and lastly in Pittsburgh, but Redeemer never managed to let go of him, nor he, it, and he kept popping back to lead, preach, or teach. Gradually the ideal of community was emphasised and charismatic gifts downplayed until they seemed relatively unimportant. However rather than look at itself honestly, the church continually attempted to reheat the same formula from the late 1960s, until it had too few people to make that work. Its leadership took refuge in authoritarianism and the beautiful worship papered over the cracks. It endlessly talked about what had gone wrong but seemed to have no idea what to do: it should have renewed itself as an ordinary Episcopal parish but couldn’t mentally let go of its glorious past. There is chapter after weary chapter of church members delivering prophetic 'words from the Lord' about the future of Redeemer, but nothing happens. Pulkingham’s other experiments in Christian community were never anything more than dysfunctional and unsatisfactory, either. Finally, Duin relates how in 1992 the now retired Pulkingham was suspended from the ministry after admitting seducing a church member on the pretext of ‘healing’ his homosexual inclinations, and then palming him off in a hopeless marriage with a woman in the congregation, among other transgressions. The dénouement was bizarre, sad, and very American: Graham Pulkingham died from a heart attack (not his first) after witnessing a shooting at a grocery store in Burlington, North Carolina, in 1993. Redeemer continued to judder downwards, and eventually closed.

I hadn’t realised how crucial a role Redeemer played in the growth of Christian attempts at communal living framed around the charismatic experience. It was Redeemer which shaped the development of the Jesus Fellowship; the JF’s founder, Noel Stanton, had his Baptism in the Spirit in 1969 after 12 years as lay pastor of little and unremarkable Bugbrooke Baptist Church in Northamptonshire, and four years later founded New Creation, an intentional community in an old Anglican rectory, along the lines Redeemer had suggested (Graham Pulkingham was living in Coventry at this time, so perhaps Stanton met him). We know how all that ended. I also remembered the Church of England’s own scandal from the 1990s, the Nine O’Clock Service fiasco centring on the dramatic figure of disgraced priest and ‘techno-shaman’ Chris Brain; Brain’s network had begun with a Christian rock band, Candescence (strange echoes there of Evanescence, whose religious-themed Goth rock enjoyed success in the mid-2000s), whose members and supporters moved into a house in Nairn Street in Sheffield in 1978: they were linked to the charismatic-evangelical church St Thomas Crookes in the city. Now, these experiments were all different, but the progression towards authoritarianism and abuse was the same, rooted in sexual dysfunction. Pulkingham was a deeply repressed homosexual; Brain seems to have escalated very quickly from sincerity into abusive sexual relationships with women members of the community; Stanton was supposedly celibate, definitely misogynistic, and what he did isn’t yet quite clear. Even in Brain’s case, the communities seem to have started with the best of Christian intentions, but however they began (and we can see that in Redeemer, Houston’s case they started up by accident), the way they developed was shaped by their founders’ hangups. In all three cases marriage and family relationships were denigrated in favour of the life of the community as a whole – which meant, effectively, the demands and sometimes desires of the leadership. Expectations that all community members pool their incomes removed individual independence in financial matters and, as so often, money led the way for other things: psychological, emotional and spiritual independence went with it (Janet Duin refers to one Redeemer household member who had her dog put down because Pulkingham told her it was getting in the way of her spiritual development).

This is all obvious enough, perhaps, but from a Christian viewpoint, what does it say about such experiments in community? Janet Duin’s book is littered with references to others, not just Redeemer’s, which followed the same pattern of institutionalisation, authoritarian abuse, and collapse, even when they weren’t marked by sexual misconduct. Duin herself had spent two years in a setup in Portland, Oregon, called Bethlehem, divided into a number of households. By the end of the book, she still believes that ‘community had provided the natural cradle to nurture the riskier gifts’ and even though her diaries from that time were ‘full of longings for escape’, she ‘stayed, hoping for a change in the core of my being, so I could be a more powerful, Spirit-filled Christian’. Don’t we all. But for her, the change didn’t come. She interprets the collapse of so many attempts at Christian community living as an aspect of spiritual warfare, of the attack by malign spiritual forces on anything Christians try to do to advance the Kingdom. But in fact, shorn of the extra stress that comes from validating personal worth by charismatic experience, some communities get by very happily, from traditional religious orders to, remarkably enough, the Community of Celebration: that emerged from Graham Pulkingham’s efforts in the 1970s, and it still survives in Aliquippa, Pittsburgh and Post Green, Dorset. They are much quieter and less ambitious now, and try to work with the grain of natural human relationships and not against it. They are marked – so far as I can tell – by kindness and not judgement, and they don’t elevate personal experience over the Bible or the tradition of the Church, and so allow much less scope for individual hangups to shape their development. They are perhaps less exciting, but more sane.

And what is the nature of the charismatic experience? Janet Duin is a convinced believer, but she reports honestly and even cynically her encounter with the man behind the 1994 ‘Toronto Blessing’, South African evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne. At a meeting in Orlando, she went up for prayer: ‘I had been around long enough to know that lifting one’s hands can put you off balance enough for someone to smack you on the forehead to make sure you got ‘slain’ [in the Spirit] … I folded my hands near my waist … I felt nothing … the three men asked me to pray [in tongues] louder. What, I thought, am I praying to them? … This was becoming a farce. “Sorry”, I said, and walked away.’

So when Graham Pulkingham, or Noel Stanton got baptised in the Spirit (it doesn’t seem to have happened to Brain in the same way), what happened? What was that sudden outpouring of joy and the sense of presence and power? Did they genuinely receive some special kind of supernatural grace, which they then abused? If it really was the Spirit, how could they abuse it? How could they fall away to such an extent? Duin speaks to David Wilkerson in New York, and asks him how he had managed to steer clear of sexual sin. ‘The only way to stay righteous,’ he says, one imagines with a touch of weariness, ‘is to expose your heart to God every day.’ But this is what all Christians have to do anyway. This is the normal, ongoing battle to be holy, to walk in sanctification, to discover what holiness means, which we all undergo, not just charismatics. The mistake the fallen charismatics seem to have made is that they assumed that peak experience would permanently change them, would remove the need for self-examination, would short-circuit the ordinary business of repentance and effort. Baptism in the Spirit is certainly there in the New Testament; it’s a real experience which the apostolic writers seem to think is important, but if it doesn’t actually change that, what’s the point of it? What does it do?

I think that in the same way that deliverance can be a sort of ‘catastrophic confession’, so Baptism in the Spirit can be a sudden experience of emotional realisation, a correlate of the acceptance of Christian faith but different from it. In some Christian traditions a deep and joyful relationship with God takes ages and ages to grow, and is the result of long training in prayer and living. In charismatic Christianity, it still requires all those, but has a sort of sacramental expression in a sudden event, in exactly the same way that water-baptism needs the individual to lay hold of it for themselves in the years afterwards. It’s the same relationship between the short- and the long-term, and, therefore, in fact nothing very special.

However, in terms of Christian community, it has another effect, ironically considering how far these various charismatic bodies went off the rails. It creates trust. Christians can see one another going through the same experience of vulnerability and emotion, and there is something about that which, I suspect, genuinely does release the energy of the Holy Spirit, especially when people are, perhaps, all too reticent about their inner lives.

I can’t say I haven’t learned anything from thinking about this basically sad story – another, if very minor, fruit of the Spirit, maybe.

Friday, 9 August 2019

For What We Are About To Receive

One of the legacies Ms Formerly Aldgate left with me has been at mealtimes. She had a fascination for Japanese culture and we ended up watching a variety of variously silly but in their different ways delightful TV shows on Netflix, hailing from the Land of the Rising Sun, which one way or another revolved around food. I noticed characters saying something before and after eating, usually with a little bow, and asked her what it was. ‘It’s itadaki masu,’ she explained, ‘it's a sort of grace. It roughly just means “thank you for the food”.’ So that has become my grace. It has no explicit religious content, but if you’re a Christian it inevitably makes you reflect who it is you are thanking.

When I and Ms Brightshades went to Brighton a little while ago, we ate in a vegan pizzeria (apart from the little greasy-spoon I ate in on my previous visit, I shouldn’t think there’s much else in Brighton). My pizza came with some vegan cheddar, a gloopy substance which was tasty enough in its own right but which clearly wasn’t cheese. Several of my friends are great foodies but also want to eschew meat and dairy, and so they swap reports of the latest available vegan cheeses (for instance) and how close they may be to milk-based Stilton, or Cheddar, or Brie, or Halloumi.

I am not sure that I see the point of trying to imitate animal-based produce. I have used meat substitutes in the past, mainly because I was too mentally lazy to rethink my repertoire and work out more vegetable-based meals, but to me they never seem to get that close to the experience of meat. The various plant-based milks I tried some time ago were nothing like cow juice, though I would very much have liked them to be.

Not that how food feels should be the final deciding matter. I have had some very agreeable meat meals, and occasionally when I get a steak from the butcher even I manage to cook it properly so eating it becomes delightful; but it’s a sensual pleasure I could easily live without. I continue to consume meat now and again, not particularly because I like it, but firstly as part of what I tell myself is ‘a balanced diet’, and perhaps even more importantly as a sort of ritualised symbol of my belief in sustainable farming. Far from what I think some non-meat-eaters imagine, I know exactly what that lamb chop, for instance, is. It’s a section from across the back of a lamb, chopped with a cleaver: it comprises skin, fat, muscle, nerve, and bone. My minute or two of consumption is also a time of meditation on where it’s come from and the processes that brought it to my plate. But perhaps I am wrong.

As far as dairy is concerned, it’s more a matter of what animal fat does in culinary terms: I could manage with my fridge empty of Stilton, or Cheddar, or Brie, or Halloumi, or my pint of milk or pat of butter, but cooking without them would require quite some reorganisation, and I’m not sure vegetable fat behaves in the same way. Again, perhaps I should work at it a bit more.

Thinking about this, I realised that the pleasure I derive from food is in fact a variety of different pleasures. I like cake and ice cream, but they are both a long way removed from their constituent materials, and the delight I draw from them is mainly sensual. They are nice to eat, and something that’s plant-based but trying to behave like cheese as a result of a lot of technical ingenuity might fall into the same sort of category. If I make a cake, or someone I know makes one for me, the pleasure that comes from eating it is mixed with satisfaction at what I’ve done or gratitude for someone else’s kindness. But when I sit and dip a piece of bread in a bowl of olive oil, and cut apart an apple, the simplicity and relative proximity to the natural products generates a sort of spiritual pleasure, a thankfulness and receptivity. It takes me away from myself, and into a world I have not made. There is a glory in a plate of roasted vegetables, for the same reason: they have not had that much done to them that removes them from their natural state, so they remind me of my own nature, my own limitation. And I think that’s there, albeit with some ambiguity, even in the bloodiness of a lamb chop and the miraculous quality of an egg. Itadaki masu.

(The UN IPCC's report on food and land use is here). 

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Wilding

As some of my friends lament the demise of nature, my garden seems to be a bit of a haven. I wasn't expecting the 'wild flower patch' to provide much in the way of colour yet, though there have been some dramatic ragwort plants to feed a crop of fat cinnabar moth caterpillars, and some lovely wild poppies, which I've never had before. 



My decision not to clip back the masses of oregano on the banks - there is no need, as I wouldn't use that much of it so it can happily flower and run to seed! - has delighted the bees of every variety, honey, bumble, and other, and the butterflies too. Back around Easter I spotted a little Blue and a Cabbage White and then they disappeared, to the extent that I wondered whether they'd ever re-emerge. But since the start of July, the Cabbage Whites and Small Whites have been in evidence again, joined abundantly by Peacocks, Red Admirals, Small Heaths, and the unutterably beautiful Painted Ladies, which I gather fly all the way from Africa and which are on the crest of a ten-year wave this year. The Painted Ladies are jealous of their lovely colouring and won't pose for photographs - as soon as I so much as motion towards my camera they set off again - but these do, which I originally thought were Small Heaths but which in fact I think are Gatekeepers. Such wonder in little space.



PS. We can add to the roll of butterflies a Comma and a Speckled Wood, both of which I saw this afternoon!

Monday, 5 August 2019

All That Glitters

Carys and Dan originally approached us asking about having their daughter christened (their son was baptised at Swanvale Halt eleven years ago, and the daughter was new). Then Dan called me to ask whether it would be possible for them to 'do their marriage vows' at the same time, as he wanted it 'to be a surprise' for Carys. I persuaded him that you can't really marry someone as a surprise, as that's not how it works, but once he actually broached the subject with Carys they decided that yes, they would like to get married at the same time as Ruby was christened. That was OK, although unusual - I'd never done such a service before (though there is provision for it in the Anglican liturgy), and it would be on a Sunday. In the end it was all very informal and relaxed and went fine.

Carys said they were going to have bubbles rather than confetti, which I thought was fun. However, it soon became clear that some of the guests had their own ideas and had come armed with sachets of confetti containing not just bits of white paper but also gold, silver, and transparent plastic discs. As they all dispersed, I and verger Rick watched the plastic bits blowing about outside the church. A young family came past. 'Look, there's been a wedding,' mum said to the little boy; Dad was trailing behind with a daughter in hand. 'Yes, it's terrible', he tutted. And it was. With heavy hearts, Rick and I went to get the vacuum cleaners and extension leads and, as the sun beat down on us, we began clearing up the confetti. It took longer than the wedding had: by the time we were done I was so exhausted I could barely speak, and I have seldom felt so much of an idiot as when I was hoovering the grass. But at least David Attenborough wasn't going to come and haunt me in visionary form that night. 'We're going to keep finding bits of it for months', said Rick ruefully.

'I didn't know you could marry people on Sundays', a churchwarden from another church mused today when I told him the story. I suddenly realised I'd never had a conversation with anyone about that particular matter. My heart was pounding as I leafed through my folder containing the Canon Laws of the Church of England, but thankfully it's only the time of day which is restricted!