Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Mixed Bag

Of course despite my earlier post Easter was fine. Attendance at the Triduum services was pretty much the same as last year, except for the 8am Prayer Book Communion on Easter Day which was well down, and the 10am which was noticeably up. I felt much less under strain this year. One thing I did was to adapt the old gold altar frontal so I could hang it properly on the high altar on a rod, rather than struggle trying to fix it with drawing pins. As I sat at home with it doing the sewing I actually said to myself, 'This will immeasurably improve the quality of my life', before realising what a thoroughly sad statement this was.

The only new thing we did this year was a children's service on Good Friday, the sort of thing which has been done in previous years but not for some considerable time. I've increasingly thought it's vital for there to be some family-friendly way of marking the Passion as otherwise families go straight to Easter morning and bypass the Cross; it isn't really the children I'm thinking of, it's their parents. We didn't get a high turnout but it proved the service can work and I can polish it for next year. I adapted the pattern of the Tenebrae, reading the Passion story and extinguishing candles one after another, and having the children bring up objects relating to the story culminating in the slamming-shut of a Bible, just as would have been done at a 'proper' Tenebrae. It amuses me to take a service which is a touchstone of liturgical conservatism and do it for children.

The high point of this year was perhaps when a well-known retired bishop of a Charismatic bent and who now usually attends a big Evangelical church not far away came on our ecumenical Good Friday Walk of Witness and had a conversation with our curate. 'Have you come across a service called Tenebrae?' he asked. 'We've just done it at Emmanuel and it was very good indeed'. 'Funny you should say that,', she replied.

The low point was the pall cast, at least for me, by the fact that a homeless gentleman who had been sleeping round the back of the church has disappeared and none of his family and friends have heard from him for a week now. Some of our local youngsters thoughtfully gave him a kicking last Monday night and apparently he said he was going to go and sleep in the woods at the top of the hill, but I couldn't see any obvious sign of him there. I know, from having tried, that I can't function with problem people in or around my house, but if something bad has happened to him I'm still involved in that.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Right Let's Do This

I am fed up with the number of people telling me they're away over Easter. The way the day falls this year seems to be playing havoc as the entire parish goes on holiday, and who will be left to keep the Sacred Triduum I don't know. I suppose it's better than last year when Easter Day coincided with the clocks going forward, and getting up for the Dawn Mass was positively painful.

I shared my concerns with the local Methodist minister at our Wednesday morning shared Morning Prayer. 'It always feels like that', he said comfortingly, 'But it turns out all right.' I am not at all convinced.

I am trying to remember (among other things) that I, our curate and God will be there and anything else is a bonus, but I'm not sure I really believe that. Il Rettore used to call the reprehensible habit of looking back through your registers to see how attendance at a service compares with what you got last year as 'the sin of multitudinism', but one does like to feel one isn't entirely wasting one's time.

It did occur to me that the holy Sisters at West Malling begin every Office with the words from Psalm 34: the cantor sings 'O magnify the Lord with me', whereupon the other Sisters reply with 'Let us praise his name together'. I like this as it creates the impression that one person is inviting the others to take part in their act of devotion. I may even introduce it as part of our vestry prayers. Very comforting!

Friday, 11 April 2014

Different Gods

My nieces have been visiting with their parents and so we took them out to Guildford Castle to occupy a few minutes. I've been there before, but somehow never really paid attention to the chapel which squeezes onto one side of the Great Chamber. It's tiny, as none of the castle is big; and this photograph doesn't properly convey the dark, almost covert quality of the graffiti-ridden little closet.

This is religion as an adjunct to power. Here the king, when staying in the castle, would have knelt and watched a priest wedged into the far end of the room with an acolyte on the step, making the miracle of Christ's presence, and thought - what? Attempting to bring his own life of violent politics and brutal justice in front of a God who pointed in a different direction entirely.

And yet this place has a different view of God even from the Gothic ages that followed. Here God is mediated through heavy Romanesque arches, darkness, a weight and a power beyond the powers of the world, yet inevitably seen through them and their habits of thought. God is ever the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow, but the way we apprehend him varies. Does God when met in the private chapel of a Norman royal castle have much in common with God met in a modern communal church? This is a God who understands violent politics and brutal justice, and absorbs them, drowns them in the upraised chalice. What sins do our own less confrontational sacred spaces offer up to him by their very shape and nature?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Old Words Made New

Normally the main service on the first Sunday in each month at Swanvale Halt is a non-eucharistic Family Service with a sung eucharist in the evening, but this year of course Mothering Sunday fell on March 30th, so duties were moved around and this week we had a eucharist in the morning instead. That left a 'blank' Sunday evening when there would normally be a service, so I offered Evensong and Benediction, partly as a way of keeping my hand in regarding that form of service, so I remember how to do it!

At the last minute, and mainly because I didn't feel any of the people who turned up would be comfortable reading the lections without preparing them, I read myself, and decided to read from the Authorised Version of the Bible so that the texts were in keeping with the rest of the Prayer Book service. The extract from the Gospel of St Matthew felt curiously fresh and immediate expressed as it was in 17th-century English. This is almost certainly because we are so used to hearing the text read in modern idiom, so the antique version seems a welcome change. The companion reading from the Lamentations of Jeremiah had not the same sense to it, and I can imagine that some of the more convoluted offerings from the mind of St Paul would not have an equivalent effect, but here - once the texts are read with a natural rhythm of speech and not exaggerated churchiness - was a sort of vigour and energy that made an impression.

Monday, 7 April 2014

A Conservative Habit of Mind

Some years ago I came up with what I called the Law of the Conservation of Church Fittings which stated that there was a hierarchy of change, or lack of change, in ecclesiastical settings. Liturgical words can be shifted with reasonable ease, at least once you get past a 'block' such as the Book of Common Prayer which very largely determined the form of Anglican liturgy for about 300 years, and before long everyone forgets that it was any different. Liturgical forms and practices take a bit more to move. Hardest to change of all are the bits and pieces that hang around a church. This is partly because they tend to be introduced by clergy who leave them behind when they move on without really having explained them to the laypeople, who then don't like to take it into their own hands to do anything about them, just in case they're important. They become part of the furniture, even when they no longer actually perform any useful function.

This little glass pot has sat on a windowsill in Swanvale Halt church next to the aumbry where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved ever since I arrived. It rests on a linen purificator. Neither are ever changed, moved, or used for anything. I had no idea what the pot was for although had I thought about it I might have been able to guess by virtue of the limescale marks that you can see running round the inside of the glass.

When she was alive, I asked our ex-nun sacristan about the pot, and she didn't know what it was for either. I asked the master server and one of our longest-serving altar servers and they had no idea. It had just 'always been there' and they'd never thought about it. Finally I mentioned it to the former PCC secretary who didn't know either, but said she would ask our revered former incumbent from the late '60s and early '70s who is now a Roman Catholic priest.

The pot is, apparently, supposed to contain water so that when someone needs to handle the Blessed Sacrament they can cleanse their fingers before doing so. However, our former incumbent admitted that he'd never actually used it himself; it was left over from the days of his predecessor, and he'd just never bothered to move it. That means that this particular bit of liturgical impedimenta has sat on its windowsill unused for forty-seven years.

There is, as people have pointed out to me, a sermon in that. Or several.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Blossoming

On my way around the Labyrinth at Malling Abbey I noticed the blossom just emerging on the apple trees. In my garden is an aging damson tree which has looked increasingly poorly over the last couple of years, weeping resin and sprouting bracket fungi on the branches. In the autumn I cut off a couple of the dead branches and found them partly soft and papery inside. A horticultural friend suggests the tree may be reaching the end of its life; certainly there are two smaller trees in the garden which are probably daughters of this one, so it's been around a while. But this year it's decided to blossom again, for at least one more go. I look out of the window of the small bedroom while saying my prayers in the morning, and see it, a slightly ghostly presence against the dark of the big trees beyond. It has a sort of bravery and persistence.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Back to the Abbey

As in previous years I spent a couple of days on a Lenten retreat at Malling Abbey. The Holy Sisters are planning building work to turn part of the premises into a proper retreat house for the Canterbury Diocese. Even more excitingly, they've bought two new toasters for the dining room which actually toast bread rather than just warm it up a bit.

I walked the turf labyrinth in the grounds. Usually I don't go in for labyrinths and what my friend Adam from St Stephen's House would have described as 'Celtic nonsense', but I rather like the one at Malling. There are gnarled old apple trees, and a couple of others, in the grounds which the grass paths must wind their way around on their journey to the centre, meaning that as you wend your way around the labyrinth you are not simply treading a featureless path but continually approaching and retreating from these trees and seeing them from different angles. It adds a depth to walking the labyrinth you might not otherwise get.

As I was there, slowly treading the turf and trying not to get too muddy, I saw one of the Sisters driving a small tractor around the grounds, circling the trees. The tractor had nothing attached to it, no mower, harrow or roller. She went round and round for about ten minutes and then drove off into the Enclosure and by the sound of it drove around in there for a while. I couldn't work out what the purpose of this was, and wondered whether it was a penance, or a reward ...