Monday, 17 June 2019

It's All A Question of Choice

'You haven't been made to feel guilty by some of your friends, have you?' asked Ms Brightshades the other day as we discussed the likely demise of Western civilisation as a result of climate change and what if anything anyone might do about it. I'm not sure guilt is the right word as it seems, strangely for a priest, to be an emotion I am virtually free from. I do feel responsibility, though, and have begun reviewing some of my consumer habits, shifting to a green(er) energy supplier, cutting back on some of my most wasteful regular purchases, and trying to use the car less. Every time I climb behind the wheel now, I imagine Greta Thunberg scowling at me. Walking to the supermarket and back for my weekly shop is quite physically demanding but I will attempt to keep it up. I have also tried cutting back the amount of dairy produce in my diet.

I remain committed to the slightly romantic belief that a properly organised farming system is a holistic one, involving animals, crops and not very much in the way of chemical intervention. As an organic farmer pointed out on Farming Today the other morning, you can't have organically-grown crops without animal poo. I suppose you don't actually have to eat the animals, and it is indeed wasteful, for instance, to feed the pigs that go to make the sausages in the village butcher with grain instead of the scraps they are perfectly happy with, but still, my minimal amount of Sunday meat is almost a matter of principle. I have far more dairy produce, though, and I could easily reduce that. Or can I?

I've tried soy milk in my tea, and now oat milk, and both are pretty unpleasant to my palate. I tried particularly hard with the latter, hurrying to use up the carton I'd bought, but when I'd had a particularly tiring time, awarded myself a cup of recuperative tea, and went back to the cow juice, oh, it was so lovely. And, looking at the oat milk carton, I see that it was packaged in Germany and made by a Swedish company. There's no information where the oats and other ingredients come from: for all I know they may have been grown on some intensive monoculture farm, and the soya beans that made the milk I tried before almost certainly had, as well as being transported thousands of miles from Indonesia or somewhere. I am not convinced that its carbon footprint is any less than that of a pint of cow juice from an organic farm in Somerset. Plant-based products may as a rule be better for the Earth than animal-based ones, but that doesn't mean any particular one is. 

As with other sorts of altruistic decisions, as consumers, anything we can do is good, and nothing we can do is enough, so we should not berate each other, but avoid the temptation to castigate anyone for not doing what we are doing while ignoring the things we are not. And of course our consumer choices are a relatively small part of the picture: the bigger share belongs to the world of politics, and that may be easier or harder to tackle. It remains to be seen. 

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Those Who Have Ears to Hear

My initial thought about the recent Vatican document about the role of 'gender theory' in education was to be very critical of it. You will know, if you've been paying attention over the years, that I am not entirely on board with a notion of human identity that sweeps away the male-female polarity in favour of radical, down-to-the-atom individualism, and I note the confusion in modern culture between a voluntarism that declares 'you can choose whatever you want to be' and a determinism that insists 'be what you really are'. Nevertheless, while this lengthy document clearly feels the same way, talking a lot about 'confusion', it offers no understanding of where this confusion arises from, and consequently moves forward in no respect. And publishing it as Pride marches go on across the world was simply a deliberate insult.

That was what I was going to say, in brief. But then I discovered that the document is going too far for some Roman Catholics in evening mentioning the word: for them, homosexuals and transgender people should very much not be treated with 'respect' (although the Catechism of the Catholic Church para.2358 says explicitly that at least homosexual people must be respected - transgender identity doesn't get a mention there), and 'no one can dialogue with the Devil and come away the better for it'. So perhaps this text is more liberal than I realised.

But I come back to the general approach of the document. Rather like Pope Benedict considering the causes of clerical sexual abuse, and as all intellectuals have a habit of doing, it sees human beings as first and foremost representatives of ideologies. The great forces of thought and philosophy, right and wrong, flow through human societies and produce these people behaving in this way. So although it has a section headed 'Listening' ('it is necessary, above all, to listen carefully to and understand cultural events of recent decades'), what it means by 'listening' is in fact reading the past and therefore the present in a particularly ideologically-charged way (and telling the present that it is wrong). It very much doesn't mean listening to anyone in particular. Listen to people's actual experiences and you run the risk of sympathising with them; far easier to think, These people are simply deluded and we must explain to them why. Yet even were we to accept that an element of confusion and misconception affects people's experience of their own sexual identity; even we were to admit that some of that confusion, to put it picturesquely, might be sown in the world by the demons; that would not explain why human souls experience their sexual identity in a particular way, what deep springs of hurt contribute to the process, and would not even help us understand why God has 'made them male and female'. It is simply to take refuge in the certainties of war: it is to conceive, heretically, of God's world as not His at all, but as a battlefield in which the struggle might yet be lost. Society is right to turn aside from this stuff, and Anglicans are right not to ape it.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

A Church Crawl from West Byfleet Station

Determined not to use the car on my last day off, I caught the train to West Byfleet and made it to the churches there, and at Woodham, a longer walk than I anticipated along the canal! I am often finding churches which didn't get very far along the Catholic spectrum beyond an initial High-Victorian heave, or which have retreated from a high-water point. No issue of that sort at All Saints', Woodham, which was an Anglo-Catholic foundation and has never deviated. It is, its incumbent tells me, 'the perfect parish church'. It's not quite frozen in its Victorian splendour, but despite embellishments here and there has never undergone any very radical changes. The high altar has been brought forward from the east end, but not very far, and for special occasions the chairs can be moved around the nave and a portable altar brought in. 

Across the rood beam are carved the words SIC DEUS DILEXIT MUNDUM - 'So God loved the world' - so only the priest can see it, as they turn west to face the people. It's a triumphant insistence on the Incarnation which is at the heart of the Catholic experience of the Gospel. 

One of the cutest touches at Woodham is the confessional. Except it isn't: it's a 'library' with a 'reading seat' installed at the west end of the south aisle in about 1930. At least, that's what the faculty was for, but, as the incumbent points out, there is a decorative grille carved at ear level in the seat, 'so if somebody happened to be kneeling beside you as you were there and told you about their sins, you'd be able to hear them'!

Woodham has a peculiar history: its founder, Robert Norton Stevens, owner of Woodham Hall, was a regular at All Saints' Margaret Street in London, but felt that it was unfair to expect his servants to travel that far, and set up his own church on the same liturgical and theological lines. 

St John the Baptist's West Byfleet is not a church of the Woodham stamp (few are). It is a monumental early-1900s building by Caroe which Pevsner found worth insulting in no uncertain terms. It's impressive, but a bit cold and empty. The chancel's wood fittings (including a very English-Use triptych reredos, which has never been painted) reminded me of some public school chapel rather than a parish church. They do still reserve the sacrament, though, behind a massive oak door in the sanctuary which even the most determined witch would find it hard to break open. The church had a nave altar in the 1990s, put in a dais for it to stand on in 2001, and had some very nice oak furniture installed in 2012, some of the best modern fittings I can remember seeing. When I visited, they were setting the church up ready for a parish fair, so I could witness the altar being moved. Two long poles are inserted into the holes you can see in the picture, so the churchwardens can pick it up and carry it like the Ark of the Covenant.

Owing nothing to any Anglican tradition, but worth noting, the choir stalls have a Green Man. We have one at Swanvale Halt, of exactly the same sort of vintage.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

The Dangers of an Open Mind

... include time-wasting, I suspect among others. Every now and again I get seduced into worrying, in the sense that a terrier worries a toy, over something I have long since concluded an opinion about - shaking it about, chewing it and throwing it up and down and finishing with something more ragged but no more productive than it was before I started. This happens every time there is a ludicrous news report about the discovery of some ancient manuscript that proves Jesus was a mushroom, or something of the sort, and yesterday I used up far too much time chasing down pointless climate-change hares. Is what I think really the case? Does what this sceptic say have any validity to it? And unsurprisingly, hours later, I conclude it doesn't and that, in this as in other areas of human thought which are amenable to evidence, there is a reason why there is a consensus. 

Not for the first time, I wonder about the nature of contrarian thought - as someone who is something of a contrarian myself. I am a natural sceptic, but not what I would term an irrational sceptic - that is, I'm not inclined to dismiss the good faith of the source of the evidence unless there's a good reason to do so. The climate-change sceptics I've read certainly seem convinced, and often angrily convinced, that those who they disagree with have an investment in the 'hoax', although they're often unable to define what that interest is. Of course as contentious issues progress it becomes more likely that such interests will have an impact: companies providing renewable energy, or manufacturing wind turbines, for instance, have a stake in the debate. That's what capitalism is like; it shouldn't be a surprise, and doesn't affect the validity of data, only the balance of power and publicity within actual circumstances of a controversy. It is also likely that scientists or commentators who have a particular viewpoint will find themselves targeted by those who do have a pecuniary interest in their arguments; but it is not usually the money that makes the case in the first place. Still, if you adopt a contrarian standpoint, you have to account for the fact that most reputable commentators disagree with you, and alleging contamination by self-interest means you don't have to grapple with evidence which may be rather better than yours. 

Instead I become more and more convinced that psychology plays the major role in this, though it would take more knowledgeable souls than me to lay the process out. If I am a sceptic it's probably due to a sense of difference and separation from the mainstream that goes back to my childhood; but if my scepticism operates within certain boundaries it's probably because my life has generally treated me rather well and given me little reason to take the view that other people are generally motivated by venal considerations to the extent that it affects arguments about matters of fact (as opposed, for instance, to personal relationships). It makes you wonder what kind of lives contrarians have led.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Storm in a Teacup

The Bishop has said more than once that he would like to see every church in the diocese abandoning the practice of putting out a plate for donations at refreshment time after services. He's adamant that it gives the wrong impression. 'You don't charge your family for coffee at home, do you?' he asks. I see the point, but I have never come across any church that charges. I've never heard a newcomer or non-churchgoer say anything about the custom and, though I have no strong feelings in its favour (some do - I have known people actively seek out a way to pay for their tea when no plate has been offered), I do think there are bigger fish to fry, like the quality of the refreshments themselves. I still find it a battle to get people to make filter coffee rather than instant (and some eccentric souls prefer instant, though I can't imagine why). 

After the celebration of the great and holy feast of Pentecost today I found this on the counter in the hall, made by Jim who has turned out a variety of pleasing wooden goods over the years. I think that's rather fun. I suppose, though, that the bishop could have more damaging bees buzzing around his mitre: this one is fairly harmless.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Mutual Recognition

Having visited the office of the local undertakers who I have less to do with, I was convinced the young woman funeral arranger there had some alternative vibe about her, even if she was wearing grey rather than black. I called back and told her the story of the Goth lady at the burial of ashes last year and discovered that, as I suspected, she's a Goth too, toning it down so as not to discomfit the clientele too much. 

We have already mentioned the disparate associations people make with my headgear. For this acquaintance they were different: 'Your hat always reminds me of the priest in The Exorcist. I find it quite comforting, to think there's somebody going out to tackle the demons.'

(I will not discuss this with Trevor.)

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

In Financial News

My annual leaflet from the Church Commissioners shows that they haven't done hugely well over the last year. The 30-year growth trend is down half a per cent and the yearly return dropped from 7% to under 2.

How that relates to the Commissioners' attempts at ethical investment I'm not sure. All the stuff about disinvesting from companies that don't take their carbon-reduction responsibilities seriously is all well and good, but the Commissioners still have plenty invested in fossil-fuel extraction firms. They quote examples where 'active engagement' has helped encourage ExxonMobil and Shell to put concrete carbon reduction targets in place. They argue this provides 'greater leverage and influence than by acting alone or by forced divestment', in line with a decision in General Synod two years ago that they should be threatening complete disinvestment by 2023 unless the fuel companies complied. 

I'm sure it does, but that doesn't change the fundamental truth that we need these industries to cease. Basically, they can't be 'fixed'. The Commissioners probably said the same sorts of things about cigarettes and arms manufacturing, but they eventually got out of them, albeit kicking and screaming.