Saturday, 23 June 2018

Two Views

It was a reference in the old Dorset magazine in 1989 that alerted me to the existence of the 'Silver Spring' at East Orchard near Shaftesbury. The name it bore in the Fontmell Magna charter of 932, in which it featured as a bound-mark, almost certainly didn't mean that, but it was a significant site of some kind, with a medieval chapel (long since gone) occupying the field adjoining. In that article, Peter Irvine described the 'stone alcove surrounded by harts-tongue fern' in a way which implied that he'd stumbled across it accidentally, which he clearly hadn't. Even I didn't, the following year when I went to look for it, though my memory is that we found the right site all but miraculously, driving along the road; it was set into a bank at the edge of a muddy, stone-strewn farmyard, an alcove not of stone, I thought, but concrete, with a battered wooden door. This is what it looked like then.

Last year I went looking for it again, after the better part of thirty years. The whole topography of the area looked different from my memory of it; it was tidier and more enclosed. I couldn't work out where the farmyard had been, and went to the bottom of the lane where I was sure we'd been before, into the bleak and functional yard there. There was a massive pile of manure stacked against the bank and I assumed the well was probably behind it, and decided to return when it might have been cleared.

But I was wrong. Last week the weather forecast was good enough to justify scooting Dorsetwards to take some photographs of wells, and comparing the old Ordnance Survey maps and the aerial surveys of Google Earth I worked out that the well must have been in the garden of a big house just to the east of the lane. 

So last Thursday I pressed a button on a gatepost and the gate I had not dared to enter a few months before, or had not thought it worth entering, swung open. A couple of small and loud dogs bounded up to me, yapped about a bit, and eventually lost interest. A knock on the door of the house aroused no response at all. The neat garden was where the muddy yard had been in 1990. Just beyond it was a small wire-fenced enclosure which looked at though it normally housed birds but now stood open, and from which a pigeon wandered out and looked at me. That was where I found the well, doorless and down-at-heel but still there. Had I been able to get closer I would have tidied it up a bit.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Poste Restante

This may just look to you like a book of second-class stamps, and so it is; but it is more. It is the first purchase I've been able to make from our local Post Office since last October when it was suspended over allegations of fraud. It is not as though our sub-postmaster has been legally exonerated; the situation remains as it was. But Post Office Limited has allowed him to run the business again provided his brother-in-law becomes the licensee; which tells you everything you need to know about the perspicacity of the process. Nevertheless, the Swanvale Halt Post Office is again open, serving my twelve thousand parishioners as it did until nine months ago, and Chandra the subpostmaster and his wife are beaming in a way they have not done for a long time. And I could not be more delighted.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018


The monthly communion service at Widelake House had a great sense of peace about it today. A gentleman I'd never seen before was there, taking a very full part in proceedings and even crossing himself at proper points.

That doesn't mean it was entirely without its slips. When Arthur, who plays the piano, returned the hymn sheets to me, there were the pulpy remains of two hosts, rejected by their recipients, adhering to the paper. I popped them in my pocket for later ...

Consecrated elements can only be disposed of in certain ways. Bread, now the Body of Christ, has to be eaten, burned or buried. Most of the soil in my garden is dry and hard at the moment, but the recent works have exposed a little bare patch to the east of the house and that was where the Lord, on this occasion, was put to rest. 

Monday, 18 June 2018


At the 8am mass this Sunday morning, something happened that had never occurred before, to my memory, in my whole churchgoing experience of twenty-seven years: everyone in the church, apart from the unseen souls of course, was male. It is true that there were only seven of us, but even so; we always talk about the feminine bias of the church experience, so suddenly having a congregation which is entirely composed of individuals in possession of a Y chromosome is remarkable (it's only ever likely to happen at the 8am, though, a service attended at the moment by people on their own).

How I felt that morning was unconnected with the sexual balance of the congregation. After the dislocations of the last week I have never felt so strongly that I was offering the holy sacrifice of the mass for my sins, my particular and identifiable sins, as well as for those of the people gathered with me, and that, unbeknownst to them, they were helping me do so.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Following the Script

My time at Swanvale Halt has been punctuated by a series of bungled pastoral encounters. There was Problem Lady who I let stay in my house and who had to be extracted with the aid of a friend. There was Micky who slept in the rhododendron bush and who had to be expelled after I found him weeing up the front of Boots' one Sunday morning, and Rick the ex-convict (and future convict, as it turned out), who formed a black hole of disruption that affected the church for a while four years ago. There was Karly; I remember the tearful meeting I had with her in church a couple of Christmases ago when she explained she was dying of leukaemia and the equally tearful goodbye she made to her god-daughter a couple of weeks later. She turned out not to be ill at all. With all of these people there has come a crisis point when my patience has come to an end and when I've finally concluded that my interactions with them have been causing more harm than good. 

That happened with Julie this week, as the previous post suggested. It would be tedious to get into all the he-said-she-said details, but suffice it to say that I told her there was going to be no more money coming from me, and help, if help was accepted, would come from the church pastoral team and be to do practical things such as sorting out a birth certificate and a bank account, things she will need to escape her current circumstances, whatever direction she goes in. 

This news was not well-received. I remember the day I refused to give Rick any more money, and he stood outside the Co-Op screaming at me, 'What the fuck am I supposed to do now?' Karly did the same, though via text; I don't think the message I got from her phone in which the only distinguishable words were 'Go fuck yourself! You can just fuck off!' were actually directed at me. Instead she informed me how evil I was, how I shouldn't call myself a Christian, how I was a fake priest, and how I would be exposed. Julie said all of these things, too; I could almost predict her lines. Like Karly before her, she threatened suicide: 'My death will be on your conscience and I will haunt you forever'. This is the last resort of someone who knows they have no other leverage left. A sinful part of me wanted to tell Julie how closely she was repeating Karly's complaints, given how much she hates her. 

They are right. I should never have got into the position of supporting them in this way and would not do so now. These pastoral collapses represent the last results of my early naivety in parish ministry and the seductive delusion of the image of the old-time parish priest dishing out largesse to the poor which, however much I consciously reject it, is still there in the back of my mind. They are finally working their way out of the system. If there's anyone I really need to apologise to, it's the community at large for facilitating the lifestyles of disruptive people and helping them to avoid facing the truth. 

The surprise is that I don't recall anything ever being said about this sort of thing at my theological college, during my curacy (really) or in the training the diocese offers (though such situations feature in honest representations of Church life such as Rev). Perhaps everyone feels equally uncomfortable about it. 

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Cyclonic Motion

We have had an instance of pastoral success lately, the ‘Team’ having supported Carly on her journey of rehabilitation and into Council supported housing a few miles away. Of course it may all go awry but she’s made a remarkable change (which was partly enabled by me stopping interacting with her!).

I wish the same could be said of Julie. Although her car was removed from my drive before Easter, she is still enmeshed in the same set of toxic relationships with an abusive partner and her family. When she told me earlier in the week that the Council had agreed to fund a tenancy for her if she could find a place, I boggled as this was the opposite the housing officer had told me a few weeks before. Oh well, it was her best chance of escape, I thought. She’d got a flat not far away to look at, and I agreed to take her. Having heard nothing five minutes before we were supposed to be there, I phoned and discovered she’d had another titanic row with her father. I refused to let this chance of change slip away, went round to the house, calmed her down, and took her for a rearranged appointment. The pretty young woman from the estate agents who seemed apprised of Julie’s situation smiled and gave her a hug as we left (I think estate agents all have stocks of young people to do viewings who are attractive enough for you to be well-disposed towards them no matter what your own sex or tastes, but not so stunning that ordinary folk might resent them). The following day it all fell apart. The Council denied it ever was the case that they’d agreed to support a tenancy for Julie in this area as that would not remove her from her existing relationships: her explanation that she didn’t know the flat was in Hornington was not exactly convincing, as it’s barely a quarter of a mile from her parents’ house.

I began reassessing many of the things Julie had told me over the years. One of the things I’ve had to get used to is that there are people, often the most vulnerable and difficult ones, whose cognitive processes are significantly different from mine. There are lots of individuals who don’t have the kind of filter I regard as normal, and just say the first thing they think of; it has an emotional truth, but that’s all. They don’t interrogate what they’re about to say before speaking. Then again, the most generous interpretation to put on some of the things that Julie has said is that she knows what she would like to happen, and believes, somehow, that if she behaves as if it was going to happen, magically it will, and everyone will fall in line with it.

Over the last couple of days I have, finally, been able to speak at length to the housing department and the local domestic abuse support charity. Everyone is in agreement that Julie needs to be removed from the area and the cycle she’s in, for her own good. I’m no longer going to do anything that enables her to maintain that cycle.

This seems to have been yet another instance in which my generous instincts – in terms of accepting what people tell me as well as dishing out money – have turned out actually to have effects which are detrimental to the recipients and the community more broadly. It’s happened repeatedly, though I am much more cautious now about being inwardly duped by the model of the parish priest sorting out people’s problems. You would have thought that clergy being sent out into the world would have some grounding in this kind of thing; I wasn’t a callow youth when I came to Swanvale Halt and emerged from the somewhat protected environment of a curacy, but nevertheless I’d come across little of this directly and hadn’t learned how to protect myself. I still don’t know quite why I get so angry and disorientated by the disorientation around me, when I need to be a sign of calm and order. Something to discuss with S.D., when I finally get round to visiting him again.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Passing Music

Following on from my discussion of weddings last time, most clergy are finding that they do far fewer funerals these days, too. It's now quite a rare occurrence for me whereas when I arrived in Swanvale Halt I was conducting probably two services every three weeks, and I get a little bit edgy each time now, like I did when I was first ordained. It was like that at the service I led last week, though in fact there was little that could go wrong. The deceased lady had chosen her own hymns and one of her daughters had written a eulogy which I read out. We had a poem by John Masefield, and the Bible reading was Psalm 121, so I was able to bind both those together with the lady's clear and expressed love of nature with how the natural world mediates the presence of God. Several people said afterwards how good they thought it was, whereas for me it was a bit of an open goal: it's not always as easy to come up with something convincing to say.

The last piece of music, played as the chapel emptied, was 'The Heart Asks Pleasure First' from Michael Nyman's soundtrack for The Piano. The last time I heard this haunting song played in a public space was when I lived in Chatham more than twenty years ago; it was regularly played over the sound system in the shopping centre I used to cross through on my way home from work at the Royal Engineers Museum up the top of the hill. It often made me feel like waltzing (in a naturally melancholy way) across the polished floor. I didn't do that last week, nor did I remind anyone that the title comes from one of Emily Dickinson's bleakest poems -  which, equally naturally, I know off by heart.