Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Venice Scene

I went to a local antiques warehouse to buy an appropriate housewarming gift for a friend from London Gothic who is setting up home. I accidentally ended up buying something for my own house - this engraving which caught my eye. Venetian carnival-goers, I thought, observed from a peculiarly high angle. So it turned out to be: the print is helpfully signed, and Wilfred Fairclough turns out to be quite well-known. This image was made in 1988. I like it for its oddness and the slight eerie quality that results from almost anything to do with the strange city in the lagoon, and masked figures.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Excursio Caledoniensis

My god-daughter and her family moved a couple of years ago and this week has been the first chance I've had to go and see them in their new surroundings - admittedly not very far from the previous ones, just a bit along the coast westwards from their previous home in the East Lothian town of North Berwick. Their new residence is one of an estate of houses built in the former park of a big house. As a result they now have their very own folly just round the corner:
Deliriously, it even has a pineapple on the top, that most Rococo and follisome of fruits. 

I managed to encounter a couple of less private ruinous pleasures on the trip, such as Prestonpans Tower, which is nice:
A longish walk to Aberlady took me past what is allegedly a ruined chapel on the coast path. I strongly suspect it isn't a chapel at all, but a tiny one-room cottage or shed, optimistically identified as ecclesiastical when the Ordnance Survey was first compiled and remaining that way ever since. It's square, for a start, and built onto a wall. However the remains frame a nice view across the Firth.
Wartime defences form their own subcategory of ruinous places, and the walk revealed a lookout post and row upon row of anti-tank concrete cubes, though you can't really imagine the Nazis being foolhardy enough to try and bring tanks across the sands and marshes of Gullane Head. Like many WWII defences, they may well have been put there just to give people the sense of doing something worthwhile for the war effort:
Although Kilspindie Castle at Aberlady is decidedly underwhelming - I could see it wasn't worth crossing the field to inspect the bits of two-foot-high wall which constituted the remains - the village does boast the ruins of a medieval friary in the woods, minimal but spooky:
And finally, in the grounds of the old Glebe House at Aberlady, and visible over the churchyard wall, is a Gothick gazebo decorated with flints and seashells. There's a pile of tufa by the garden wall, and that didn't get there by accident either. Whoever is responsible for this deserves undying admiration. Although the mighty Headley & Meulenkamp note the follies of Gosford House a mile or so away, this structure has escaped their observation; and it justified my long walk that day, and almost my entire trip to Scotland ...

Saturday, 27 June 2015

News from the Churchyard

Gentleman Joe and Candlestub Clem were on the churchyard bench this sunny afternoon as I was leaving the church after today's wedding. They told me Irish Alan had died. 

Irish Alan was the first of Swanvale Halt's alcoholics and vulnerable people I got to know when I arrived here six years ago. I actually didn't know a great deal about him apart from what came out of our direct dealings: his unkempt state sometimes made his presence a bit hard to cope with, which I know is wrong, and one should probably steel oneself in the knowledge that, one's impressions to the contrary aside, this person won't be around forever and you should do your best to engage with them. Sometimes I would meet him and he would drop his voice and tell me how he was a bit short this week and could I help with a fiver or a tenner. He always returned it, when he remembered. He would always, in so far as he could, help similarly vulnerable people, such as Micky the tramp who he took to buy clothes. He should have a requiem, but I will try to get some details from whichever local funeral director is dealing with the arrangements. 

Thursday, 25 June 2015

An Uncommon Lectionary

Image result for uncommon lectionaryI was inspired to buy The Uncommon Lectionary by a brief excerpt I came across on Google Books while searching for something else. The extract was one of the bits where the author describes the experience of a long-established urban US Episcopal church, ‘Old Trinity’, which adopts the book's recommendations and is transformed as a result. I felt more than a little swindled by discovering, once I had the book, that Old Trinity doesn't exist, but is Thomas Bandy’s imagining of what might happen to a church of its type going through this transformative process. What looked at first glance like a case study is actually a fantasy; in fact I can’t find any evidence that a single church, whether in the US or anywhere else, has actually adopted this strategy, although a pastor or two has used Mr Bandy’s lectionary as a basis for planning their own sermons – not the root-and-branch reform he intended at all.

The book’s contention is this: that the Revised Common Lectionary, as used by Anglican, Roman Catholic, and a variety of other Churches, is intended to develop Christians as disciples through its three-year cycle of Bible readings organised around the Christian year. It fails, because its assumptions are outdated. There is no longer enough background knowledge of the Biblical narrative for people to contextualise the extracts; the Christian year no longer patterns secular life and so makes no sense to most people; and people do not worship often enough or consistently enough to be effectively discipled in this way. It is also not missionary, and so is of limited use in a secularizing society in which Christians are increasingly a minority. Instead, churches wanting to grow and deepen should develop two parallel worship cycles which are designed to introduce non-Christians to the faith via ‘the 52 Bible passages which everyone should know’ (the ‘Seeker Cycle’) and to strengthen the faith of existing Christians (the ‘Disciple Cycle’). A church might decide to carry on with a traditional Common Lectionary-based cycle as well for those that want it. Both Seeker and Disciple Cycles should reflect the secular year which actually conditions the lives of worshippers, not a liturgical-mystical year disconnected from it. Worship in both Cycles is designed by small teams to use a variety of stimuli and media to communicate the message of each service.

I was enthused by the idea of The Uncommon Lectionary as its theme tied in exactly with some of the thoughts I was having about our own services: how the late-1960s model Parish Eucharist is intended to teach and equip the Body of Christ for its work by means of the liturgical year and the cycle of associated readings, and how this both no longer worked in its own terms, nor was actually adapted to the needs of people exploring the Christian faith. That aspect of what the book had to say did not disappoint, notwithstanding the fantasy story of Old Trinity that runs through it. However I had serious misgivings about other elements.

For a start, The Uncommon Lectionary puts all its emphasis on worship. It envisages the two Cycles being at the heart of worship events which each include teaching, discussion, and music. The trouble is that this still locks together all forms of Christian ‘development’ in one event, just like more traditional forms. It ignores the need for people to develop relationships of trust with one another before they become open to the kind of sharing and discipleship the scheme envisages, which commonly happens in small groups not driven by ‘worship’ except in the very broadest sense. Although it recognises that different groups of people need different things according to which stage in their spiritual development they may have reached, it still envisages those things being provided by worship events.

Although it stresses the nature of ‘great worship’ (as opposed to professionalised ‘good worship) as an encounter with the divine, The Uncommon Lectionary’s actual instances of worship are jejune, contrived, and weak. On p.83 the fantasy worship design team discusses an event intended as part of a community carnival:

as the drum rolls, the diver slowly climbs to the top. A big sign on the ladder says This is you! A big sign on the pool of water says This is grace! We lead the whole crowd to say the Lord’s Prayer. The diver plummets 50 feet; the splash gets everybody wet … the organist and choir plunge into the Hallelujah Chorus … we could pour kerosene on the water and light it … it would dramatize even more the extinguishing of sin and the hope of salvation.

It doesn’t seem to strike the imaginary team that nothing symbolises baptism as effectively as … baptism. The Christian tradition already has a battery of ways of expressing the process of salvation which work precisely because they are not just symbols, made up by people, but sacraments devised by God that map out the sites of his promises and ours - as opposed to, clod-hopping, cloth-eared, ham-fisted attempts at symbolism and allegory which come out of a committee; some examples of which many of us have experienced.

The Uncommon Lectionary overplays its rhetoric of de-professionalisation. Although it talks about worship emerging from the Christian community, designed and adapted for its own needs, the worship events are still being devised and designed by a group of people for other people, notwithstanding the rhetoric of consultation and evaluation; and the evaluation criteria are hopelessly unquantifiable (‘have people had an experience of grace?’). One of the great virtues of liturgical worship is that it is owned by the Church as a whole and not controlled by small groups; worship leaders and musicians do not decide what happens or how many times a chorus is repeated. Everyone serves the liturgy, and no one is its master.

The Uncommon Lectionary doesn’t grasp the Christian virtue of obedience. The Christian spiritual tradition places such a heavy emphasis on obedience because this is how we learn to step outside our own wills and to discover the will of God. Nothing else is more important. The great worth of having a lectionary of any sort is that it takes control out of the hands of the preacher and subjects them to a discipline beyond themselves. An Uncommon Lectionary still does this, even when it’s devised by a church community together and its origins are visible, but the effect is hopelessly vitiated when the process is surrounded by the rhetoric of choice, artistry, and self-determination. This is entirely the wrong direction in which to point our wills.

I can see the suggestions of this book being very applicable to house groups and perhaps even adapted to worship. But any such process would need to take place within a church context which takes far more seriously the rest of the Christian tradition and its insights. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Mixed Messages

Image result for question markI came away from my meeting with the vicar of Northam Mead thoroughly confused. The Parish Development Department of the diocese had pointed me towards the parish as an example of one they'd worked with which was working through the business of re-energising a church in the Catholic ambit and finding out, with some success, what that meant. Now, in my thinking and debate with others I have imbibed, and repeated, the following principles among others:

- that it's not primarily about 'getting people in' and thus just institutional maintenance
- that worship events are not the drivers of evangelism
- that Messy Church, specifically, is 'Church' in its own right and not a feeder for 'proper' church

At Northam Mead, however, they've operated on what seem to be the exact opposite of all these assumptions. The key of their strategy is that the easiest way to grow a church, and thus ensure its institutional survival, is via 4-7 year-old children and their parents, and they have used their Messy Church precisely as the feeder for Sunday worship, by encouraging attenders to have their children baptised, to be confirmed themselves (using those confirmation groups first as a version of Alpha and then as the basis for home groups) and to come to the Mass on Sundays.

I am going to have to ask about this, if only to clarify what I think. 

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Self Expression

At the crematorium you can look on the display screen in the vestry and see what music has been played or is about to be played at the services either side of the one you're conducting. Yesterday the preceding one to mine, clearly a civil service, included three items: Queen's 'Another One Bites the Dust', 'Bittersweet Symphony' by The Verve, and Talking Heads' 'Road to Nowhere'. It was only a step away from Joy Division. 'He had a few demons', commented the chapel attendant. I'd've found it hard to deal with, but then I get a bit touchy and have to grit my teeth through 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Betchworth Castle

Last week the afternoon of my day off was so pleasant it would have been a shame to waste it, so I went for a walk to look at Betchworth Castle. The way I intended to go, from a glance at the map, turned out to have a large sign at the entrance reading 'Castle Gardens: No Access To Castle' and so I went walking along a bridleway through the golf course adjoining to see whether I could at least get a glimpse of the ruins. No ruins; only views of middle-aged gentleman ambling from tee to tee. I had abandoned the idea and was going to follow a different looped path around the hill to the south when I met another man, not visibly involved in golf, who told me there was in fact another access path opened up too recently to appear on the OS map when conservation work had begun on the Castle remains.

There's not a lot left of what was once a very dramatic building, perched on the top of a bluff overlooking the River Mole and its valley stretching up to the feet of the North Downs. Medieval, Tudor, and 18th-century owners all changed the shape of the Castle, and the final, Classical, additions were made by Sir John Soane in 1799. Now you follow a path around the fenced perimeter, at one point rather excitingly having to step across a gap between outcrops of stone, and gaze alternately up at the ruins and down at the lake. The conservation group looking after the site has a dream of building a house in the curtilage of the ruins, and using the revenue to fund their maintenance: a long-term aim, one feels.

The ruinous state of the Castle is essentially if improbably due to Mr Hope of Deepdene Hall, who on buying the estate in 1835 decided to take the roof off Betchworth and charge people to come and look at it: before that it had been in good order. Within a few years it was a heap.